Manatee Spring

The Manatee Spring cave system is not among the most popular cave diving sites in north-central Florida. Strong currents tend to make penetrating difficult and reduce visibility. Nevertheless, it can be an interesting dive when you are looking for something different — or when flooding makes other sites inaccessible.

In fact, Manatee is at its best when conditions are at their worst elsewhere. When the Suwannee River is up, the flow in Manatee diminishes and visibility actually improves.

By the way, while you can sometimes see manatees at the main spring, you are not allowed to be in the water with them. For this, go to Crystal River.

Getting there

The cave is located in Manatee Spring State Park, ten minutes west of Chiefland on County Road 320. As with Jug Hole, there is no self-service kiosk at the entrance. Let the rangers at the gate know you will be diving. They will have you park and come inside to register.

Admission fees and certification requirements are the same as those at Peacock; however, there is a limit on the number of cave diving teams allowed in the system at one time. Arrive early on weekends or you may be shut out.

Diving Manatee Spring

Unlike other systems, you do not enter the cave at its main entrance. The opening is simply too restricted and the flow too high. Instead, you get in at Catfish Hotel, a slightly offset sinkhole that gives you a huge window into the side of the cave. And, as at Orange Grove Sink, there is duckweed.

From Catfish Hotel, you turn right and head upstream along the main line. How far you get depends on factors such as flow, your breathing rate and how much gas you are carrying. When conditions are favorable, you may pass below Sue and Friedman’s Sinks.

Do not turn left and head toward the main spring. The current it too strong to make getting back anything but a struggle. The traverse to the main spring used to be a fun ride. Now a blockage at the entrance makes it extremely hazardous to attempt exiting there. Certified cave divers have died doing this.

Depths throughout the cave vary widely, from 10 m/33 ft down to 27 m/90 ft. There is considerable up and down; don’t dive when you are having problems with equalizing or vertigo. The deepest depths are just upstream of Catfish, so remember that you will be getting deeper as you approach the exit (this may affect your deco).

Among the best ways to get to know Manatee is to dive under supervision of an experienced guide — someone who knows both the cave and your abilities and gas consumption. Armed with this information, a guide can set up traverse dives, such as Freidman’s to Catfish. In times of highest flow, by far the easiest way to dive the cave is to go downstream with the flow, while relaxing and enjoying the ride.

Also nearby

Manatee Spring really isn’t close to anything. The nearest popular cave sites are Devils Eye and Little River, both an hour or more away. The Cave at Blue Grotto is 45 minutes to the east. A guided dive there may be worthwhile if you will be heading toward Orlando, Tampa or the Keys afterward.

Nearby Chiefland has both motels and restaurants — although nothing of the caliber you will find in High Springs. During the winter, you can start the next morning by snorkeling with manatees in Crystal River. This is one hour to the south. We recommend Birds Underwater for this.

More sites to explore

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