If you are looking for a great vacation that includes scuba diving and playing with manatees, then check out Homosassa, FL.
In January 2011 we took a trip there with some friends from a local dive shop in North Alabama called Dive Sports. It was not too cold there during winter, the area was not packed with tourist which was very nice because we never had to wait on anything. I really didn't know what to expect when I heard we would be scuba diving in a river.
I was thinking it would be zero to a couple of foot visibility which is what I'm use to in the Tennessee River. They also said we'd probably would encounter some manatee's, which I was very excited for.
Rainbow River, Florida
We finally made it down there after an 11 hour drive on the road, booked our hotel which was right next to Crystal River. There are a good bit of hotels you can rent along the river, which the one we stayed at had a restaurant located next to it. The hotels along the river all have docks, and boat rentals which you use to go up Crystal River to the Manatee sanctuary.
It took about fifteen minutes for us to make it up river to the sanctuary. On the way there, we saw manatees going up and down the river. There were so many baby ones too! When we finally made it there, the first thing we hear is someone shouting out:
"MAKE SURE YOU READ THE RULES BEFORE HOPPING INTO THE WATER WITH THE MANATEES!"
I looked over and saw a bunch of people on kayaks. They were all in tye-dye kayaks with huge hemp necklaces on. One of them came up to our boat and handed us a pamphlet that had all the rules. It stated everything that is not allowed at the sanctuary like "No Feeding the Manatees" "No following the Manatees" "No fishing allowed" "No diving allowed" "No loud noises".
Well we set the anchor and hopped into the water, which was like only four feet deep. I had my mask and fins on, and the next thing I hear is
"TAKE THOSE FINS OFF RIGHT NOW!! YOU AREN'T GIVING THE MANATEES A CHANCE WITH THOSE ON!!"
I was very confused by this, so I took them off and set them back on the boat. I saw nearby a manatee laying on the bottom. I went over to rub its belly but it was just out of reach. I stuck my body under water to rub its belly, and when I popped back up I was being splashed by one of the people on the kayaks slamming their oar on the water.
She was shouting "DONT HURT THE MANATEES!!!! THEY'VE NEVER DONE ANYTHING TO YOU!!!"
This went on with everyone there, but I still managed to have a good time. I had a manatee following me around trying to get me to rub its belly some more
The next day we set out to Rainbow River, which is about a twenty-minute drive from Homosassa. It is a park where you pay a fee to scuba dive, and buy tickets for a boat ride up river where they drop you off at. The river was very cold since it was fed by a natural spring, but the water was crystal clear.
Scuba Diving Rainbow River
I believe it was over 100ft visibility!! So we get all of our scuba gear on, hop on the boat and take a ride up river. The boat captain told us the history of the area, and pointed out all the exotic birds or plants along the riverside. It took about ten minutes to get to our drop off point.
The river stays a constant 68-70 degrees so make sure you wear a wetsuit!! The bottom is sandy, with a lot of rocks and plant life. If you see the bottom bubbling, it's because there is water being pumped into the river by the spring underground.
We saw a lot of giant bass, bluegill, turtles, and other little creatures. One of the coolest places we found underwater was a little cave, it didn't go far back at all but it was really interesting to check out. I had a little turtle following me around trying to snap at me, so I grabbed him to set aside so he'd drift down the river.
You don't even really have to kick to go down river because of the current, you can just let it drift you down river. The entire scuba dive lasted about an hour before reaching back to the park area.
They have picnic tables, grills, shower house, and a little shop on site. We cooked lunch, hung out for a bit and was back at diving again.
I would recommend this scuba dive trip to anyone that is looking for something different other than scuba diving in the ocean. Just remember to bring bug spray and your cameras!