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Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida – Wild Junket Adventure Travel Blog

Last Updated on September 19, 2023 by Nellie Huang

One of the coolest things to do in Florida is swimming with manatees. Here’s my guide on how and where to swim with manatees!

“There’s one right there!” Our captain points to a grey mass close to the water surface. I drop my snorkeling mask and poke my head out of the boat’s bow. There it is, in the clear spring waters, a gentle giant munching on seagrass, gliding gently beneath our boat. My daughter stares in awe, and I cannot stop smiling.

We’re cruising along Crystal River, on the Gulf Coast of Central Florida. Just five minutes after leaving the pier, we’ve already found our first manatee. Crystal River is known as the “Manatee Capital of the World” for good reason — it is home to the largest population of wild manatees in North America.

My Guide to Swimming with Manatees 

Fresh off our Florida road trip, I can safely say swimming with manatees is one of the coolest wildlife experiences I’ve had in my travels. It’s incredible getting up close to these gentle giants, who are actually not afraid of us human beings.

An experience like this when done right can have a positive impact and definitely provide an educational experience for us. But it does require lots of planning and research; I’m here to share my experience and tips on swimming with manatees in Florida.

Is it Ethical to Swim with Manatees?

Swimming with manatees is an absolutely amazing experience – and an educational one for kids – but it’s important to make sure you do it in a responsible and ethical way that keeps the manatees and their habitat safe.

The wildlife services strongly advise passive observation, which means not initiating contact with manatees and calmly observing at the surface. Manatees are protected, so it’s illegal to harass or touch them, and manatee tours are regulated to make sure they follow strict guidelines.

Manatees are also social creatures and they’re actually quite curious of human beings. They use their ‘whiskers’, known as vibrissae, as sensory organs — and they can sense you from as far as 10 feet away. So if you stay quiet and calm, they’ll often come up to sniff you out! All in all, you can swim with manatees in an ethical way if you’re careful and respectful. Just remember that the manatees are the stars of the show and we’re just visiting their home.

Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida


Best Place to Swim with Manatees in Florida

The best place to swim with wild manatees in Florida is in Crystal River, where the most manatees congregate. The manatees are drawn to the warm, spring-fed waters of Crystal River during the winter months, when the Gulf of Mexico cools down. Most Florida Springs remain a constant 72 degrees all year long.

The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1983 to protect the manatees. The US wildlife services are constantly undertaking projects to plant seagrass here and restore the manatees’ habitat. The 80-acre (32 ha) refuge is only accessible by boat, and consists of 20 islands and several springs including:

  • Three Sisters Springs— the last unspoiled and undeveloped spring habitat in Kings Bay.
  • King Spring— one of seven federal manatee sanctuaries set up from November to March, provides critical habitat for the over 600 manatees that migrate to Kings Bay each winter.
  • Buzzard, Parker, and Banana islands — provide habitat for bald eagles, osprey, wood storks, and many other shore birds

manatees tours crystal river


How to Get to Crystal River, Florida

Crystal River is located on the Gulf Coast of Florida, about 80 miles (129km) north of Tampa and 86.5 miles (139km) from Orlando. You can easily add it to your Florida itinerary if you’re already planning to go to Orlando.

By Plane

The nearest major airports to Crystal River is Tampa International Airport (TPA) and Orlando International Airport (MCO). You can usually get cheaper flights to Orlando than Tampa. Domestic flights from New York cost around $120 each way; while flights from London to Orlando start from $700 round-trip.

By Car

Renting a car is the easiest way to get to Crystal River. There are so many car rental agencies at Orlando and Tampa Airport. Just make sure you get an international drivers license if you’re coming from outside the US (the police stopped us but made an exception for us!)

The average price for car rental in Florida ranges from US$50-80 per day. I always use DiscoverCars.com to for car rentals worldwide. The search engine compares rental-prices from all the major companies and has consistently given me the cheaper rates and best services. Search for car rentals in Orlando!

Here are the driving distances:

      • From Tampa — 1h15mins
      • From Orlando — 1.5 hours
      • From Jacksonville — 2.5hours
      • From Miami — 5 hours

crystal river florida manatees


Best Time to Swim with Manatees

Everyone says that the best time to swim with manatees in Florida is in the winter months, from mid-November to April. During this time, the Gulf of Mexico cools down, and the manatees migrate to the warmer, spring-fed waters of Crystal River.

However, there are resident manatees in Crystal River who stay here all year. We swam with the manatees in early May and actually saw over 20 manatees in Kings Bay throughout our 3-hour snorkeling tour. (I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but we were swimming with one right after another and it was amazing!)

Our guide said that May/June is in fact the best time of the year in her opinion as manatees are more active and out grazing. You also get a better experience without the crowd. In winter, there are hundreds of them in Kings Bay but they’re usually huddled together and the area they’re in is cordoned off by US wildlife services to protect them.

manatees swim tours - crystal river florida


When NOT to Go Swimming with Manatees

I would avoid the peak season, which runs from December and January, as it can get busy/crowded. Our guide said during this time, there can be a lot of boats in the bay and you’ll see a lot of snorkelers hovering over one manatee. She said the craziest day is on Christmas Eve.

When we visited in May, it was always just our group with the manatees (4 of us!). We did see other boats but our boat captain made sure to avoid them and seek out manatees on our own. It didn’t feel the least bit crowded and the manatees were definitely not stressed out by us.

Plus, the weather can be unpredictable in winter, with occasional cold fronts, high winds, and rough seas. Even during our visit in May, it was chilly in the morning and the water can feel cold (even with the wetsuit). My daughter was shaking on the boat after swimming. If you’re traveling with kids, take that into consideration.

explorida florida crystal river


Best Crystal River Manatee Tours

The guided manatee tours typically take you out on pontoon boats to the areas where the manatees congregate. You can then swim and snorkel with the manatees in their natural habitat. It’s important to choose a reputable tour operator that follows responsible wildlife viewing practices and doesn’t disturb the manatees.

We booked our manatee tour with Explorida, voted #1 operator on Trip Advisor, and had a fantastic experience. I’d talked to a few operators and all morning tours were actually fully booked that day, but Explorida opened up a new 7am tour for us. We ended up with just 4 of us on the tour, like a private tour! [I paid for the tour — it was NOT sponsored.]

Our guide Maddie was funny, energetic and knowledgable. She spotted one manatee after another, made sure we could all see clearly, all whilst answering questions about manatees and taking incredible underwater photos for us. When my daughter struggled with the cold, dark water, she was so kind and patient with her. I cannot recommend her enough!

TIP: Book an early morning tour as manatees are most active then and it’s less crowded. Make sure to book your tour in advance as morning tours get fully booked fast. It’s the same price to book online vs in store.

snorkeling with manatees - crystal river


What It’s Like to Swim with Manatees

Be aware that you won’t necessarily swim in crystal clear blue waters like you see in the pictures. Some of the springs we went, like Rainbow Springs, definitely have beautiful spearmint water, but it all depends on where you find the manatees.

On our tour, we mostly swam in shallow but slightly murky water with lots of seagrass at the bottom. It was overwhelming to get into the dark, brackish water at first. In most parts, the water was clear enough to see the manatees, though visibility wasn’t great.

The average manatee is around 11 feet (3.5m) long and weigh up to 990 pounds (450kg), so yes it is a big animal. However, manatees usually move slowly and can sense you before you even get into the water. There’s nothing to be scared of — manatees are herbivores, they don’t bite. There has never been a case of manatees attacking humans here.

NOTE: That said, there are alligators in the water — but they usually stay in the more swampy, much less traveled areas.

 


What Do Manatee Tours Include?

Regardless of which manatee tour operator you book with, you’ll first be given a safety briefing and asked to watch a video with the rules explained to you (Scroll below to see the rules).

You’ll then put on your wetsuit and get on a van to reach the pier where the boat is waiting. Wetsuits don’t only keep you warm in the cold water, but they also help keep you afloat. If that’s not enough, the noodles will definitely make sure you’re floating on the water surface at all times.

Most tours include the following:

      • a wetsuit
      • snorkeling gear
      • float noodle
      • hot chocolate on cold days

manatee tour crystal river


Cost of Swimming with Manatees

Joining a group manatee tour costs US$65 per snorkeler (with max 12 people), while a semi-private tour can cost US$99 per person (with max 6 people). We were very lucky to pay for a normal tour and ended up with only 4 of us in the tour. You can also join a tour as a rider (no snorkeling) for US$50.

The photos taken by your guide during the tour are available for purchase. Explorida charges US$30 for the whole set (of 167 photos and videos). I bought the photos even though I had my own GoPro as their photos were a lot better than mine.

manatee snorkel tour


Rules for Swimming with Manatees

There are strict rules in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to safeguard the manatees. Whether you’re swimming on your own or joining a manatee tour, you need to abide by these rules.

  • Always float on the surface when observing a manatee
  • Do not dive from the surface onto a resting or feeding manatee
  • Do not chase or pursue a manatee
  • Do not feed a manatee
  • Do not corner or surround a manatee
  • Do not stand on a manatee
  • Do not separating a mother and calf or separating a group of manatees
  • Do not actively initiating contact with manatee

swimming with manatees - crystal river florida


Is it Possible to See Manatees without Going on a Tour?

Yes, it is possible — but only if you are a local who knows where to go, what to do, and how to conduct yourself properly in their habitat. There are very few spots in Crystal River town where you are legally allowed to swim in or kayak.

Joining a guided manatee tour is the most responsible way to swim with manatees. The tours follow strict guidelines and they’re designed to give you a chance to observe the manatees from a respectful distance while minimizing any interference.

You’ll be going with a guide who’s trained to spot manatees so your chances of seeing manatees are high! Many tours also include educational components to help you learn more about manatees, their habitat, and the importance of conservation efforts.

manatee tour crystal river florida


Where to See Manatees WITHOUT a Tour

As most of the water around Crystal River is part of the wildlife refuge, there are very few spots where you can legally swim in the Crystal River. Here are the only official areas where you can swim in:

  • Hunter Springs Park —  This pretty park (pictured) has a small beach where swimming is allowed (and free). We spotted manatees swimming both times we were here!
  • Kings Bay Park — Nearby is another park with a playground and kayak launch pad where you can also swim in.
  • Three Sisters Springs — You can technically rent a kayak or SUP from the shops nearby and paddle into these springs (currently closed).

hunter springs park - crystal river florida


Doing a Manatee Tour with Kids

A manatee swim tour can be a fun and educational activity for kids, but it’s important to consider your child’s comfort level, age, and maturity. If you want to swim with manatees but can’t leave your kids alone, they can join the tour as riders (for $50) instead of the full price.

The minimum age on most manatee tours is 3 years old. Make sure that your child is comfortable and confident in the water. Manatee swim tours typically require you to swim or float quietly in the water to observe the manatees. If your kid splashes or kicks alot, then it’s wise not to bring them.

My daughter is 8 years old and she’s a great swimmer and is usually confident snorkeling (even in deep water) — but this time, she did not like the dark, brackish water and only stayed with the manatees for around 10 minutes.

swimming with manatees - kids on manatee snorkel tour


Manatee Fun Facts

We learned so many interesting facts about Florida’s most loved animal on the manatee tour. In fact, there are many signposts all around Crystal River sharing nuggets of info on their beloved mascot.

  • There are three species of manatees — the West Indian manatee, the Amazonian manatee, and the African manatee. The ones found in Florida are the West Indian manatee.
  • Manatees are often called “sea cows” because they are slow-moving herbivores that graze on seagrass and other aquatic plants.
  • Manatees can live up to 60 years in the wild and can grow up to 10 feet (3m) weigh up to 1,300 pounds (590kg).
  • Manatees are excellent swimmers and can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes, although they usually come up for air every few minutes.
  • Manatees are social animals and are often seen in groups, known as “herds” or “aggregations.”
  • Despite their large size, manatees have small brains relative to their body size, weighing only about 8 ounces.
  • Manatees have no natural predators, but they are threatened by human activities such as boat collisions, habitat loss, and pollution.
  • Manatees are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and it is illegal to harass, harm, or disturb them in any way.

manatees fun facts - swimming with manatees


Things to Do in Crystal River Florida

It comes as a surprise to many that there are actually tons of things to do in Crystal River, besides joining a manatee tour. Hundreds of natural springs and state parks dot the Citrus County area, and there’s no shortage of outdoor activities on offer.

Wander the Historic Downtown

Crystal River may be a small town but its historic downtown is  pretty cute. Stretching across just a few blocks around Kings Bay, the downtown area has several historic buildings, including a church, shops and general store.

Be sure to duck into the old City Hall that now houses the Coastal Heritage Museum. On display are a 1929 diorama of downtown Citrus Avenue and an original jail cell. Admission is free. There are also lots of beautiful mural art around town — my favorite is on the main square.

mural art crystal river fl

Chill at Hunter Springs Park

About 100 feet offshore from the beautiful Hunter Springs, this park has a small beach with crystal clear, shallow waters leading to a roped-off swimming area. We saw manatees swimming in the water both times we were here! Get here in the morning, when the chances to seeing manatees are higher.

There’s also a kayak/canoe launch area, a playground, and a boardwalk along the waterway where you can spot waterbirds. Admission is free. Bring your beach mat, and hang out the whole day here.

hunter springs park - crystal river manatees

Paddle into Three Sisters Springs

The Three Sisters Springs is the last unspoiled and undeveloped spring habitat in Kings Bay. Sadly we didn’t get to visit as it was closed (more below). I’ve heard that in winter there can be hundreds of manatees in this spring at a time. The boardwalk has viewing platforms to observe the springs and native wildlife.

You can also hire a kayak from the many shops nearby and paddle into the springs. (Swimming from the boardwalk is not allowed.) The Crystal River Kayak Company is the closest outfitter to the spring entrance. Very short paddle away.

three sisters springs - florida manatees tours

Three Sisters Springs Canal Stabilization Project

The Three Sisters Springs is currently closed for restoration work. This project will restore habitat, including critical manatee habitat, and prevent erosion of sediment into the spring.

Construction is said to be complete by November 15, 2023. Swimming, paddling or land-based visits are all suspended.

Try Scalloping

If you’ve never scalloped before (but love eating them), think of an Easter egg hunt while swimming above shallow saltwater grass flats. Scallops are not too hard to find on the sandy bottom of Crystal River. The water is shallow enough that even kids can dive down to the grass flats to pick up the scallops.

Scalloping season runs from the beginning of July to early September every year. You can usually harvest scallops about 2-3 miles from shore, and can be found almost anywhere eelgrass is located. Explorida runs scallop charters and also scalloping-manatee combo tours.

scalloping florida

Explore Homosassa Wildlife State Park

A 15-minute drive away is the Homosassa Springs, home to a large wildlife park that feels like a zoo — but it’s not. The native wildlife that live here each have a unique life story, and they are all here because they are unable to survive in the wild on their own.

An astounding number of fresh and saltwater fish congregate in the natural spring bowl — large jacks, snapper, snook and others. We particularly like the Underwater Observatory, with a clear-glass deck that allows you to see the fish and manatees swimming about. There’s a manatee rehabilitation facility here, with resident manatees.

The park also features a variety of captive animals such as alligators, black bears, red wolf, and the oldest hippopotamus in captivity. Admission is $13 for adults, $5 for kids 6-12.

homossassa springs - swim with manatees

homossassa wildlife park - manatees springs florida

Splash around Rainbow Springs

Just a 30-minute drive from downtown, the Rainbow Springs State Park is one of the most picturesque spots to swim in the area. We absolutely loved spending the morning here, snorkeling with freshwater fish in the crystal clear cerulean waters.

The Rainbow Springs are named for the colorful rainbow-like appearance of the water, which is caused by the reflection of sunlight off the riverbed. You can rent kayaks, canoes or SUP (prices start from US$17/hour) to explore the 6-mile-long river. Entrance is only US$2.

swimming with manatees florida - rainbow springs

See “Mermaids” at Weeki Wachee Springs

A 1.5-hour drive south of Crystal River, Weeki Wachee is another state park where you can swim in the spearmint water and catch a real-life mermaid show! This just may be Florida’s roadside attractions at their finest. 

This park is home to the deepest freshwater cave system in the United States. You can easily spend a whole day here, swooshing down the waterslides, going on a river boat cruise, or kayaking the waterways. Entry is $13 for adults, $8 for kids 6-12.

weeki wachee


Where to Eat at Crystal River Florida

The Crab Plant — The town’s most popular seafood seller has a simple shack that serves freshly steamed stone crabs, scallops and shrimps with side-dishes like potato salad and hush puppies.

Cajun Jimmy’s — A huge hit with locals, this Louisiana-style joint has outstanding seafood-centric dishes like gumbo, jambalaya and crawfish etouffee.

Vintage on 5th — This restaurant offers an elegant atmosphere with a modern twist on classic American cuisine. The menu features dishes made with locally-sourced ingredients, including fresh seafood and meats, and an extensive wine list.

Cracker’s Bar & Grill — This casual restaurant serves up classic Florida fare, including seafood, burgers, and sandwiches. The menu features both indoor and outdoor dining options and a lively atmosphere with live music on weekends.

Grannie’s Restaurant — This family-owned and operated restaurant has been serving home-cooked meals for over 30 years. The menu features Southern comfort food, including breakfast dishes.

stone crabs - florida crystal river


Where to Stay in Crystal River Florida

Luxury: Plantation on Crystal River

We stayed at this lakeside resort (pictured), and really loved the historical vibes and landscaped gardens. The hotel has an awesome outdoor pool, hot tub, lake views, and spacious rooms. It also has an attached adventure center that offers manatee tours (but at a higher price than others). Check rates here.

Midrange: Lakefront Crystal River Home

This waterfront 3-bedroom house offers lots of space for families, including outdoor hammocks, campfire area, and a private dock. It’s huge and accommodates up to 10 people, complete with a fully equipped kitchen. Check rates here.

Budget: The Crystal Manatee

This affordable hotel offers clean and comfortable rooms with basic amenities, including free Wi-Fi and continental breakfast. The hotel also offers a convenient location, just a short drive from local attractions such as the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and Three Sisters Springs. Check rates here.

plantation on crystal river - where to stay crystal river florida


Swimming with Manatees: What to Pack

At Crystal River, you’ll be spending lots of time in the water, so definitely get lots of water gear. Even though you’ll be provided with wetsuits on your tour, I recommend bringing sun-proof rashguards (for other water activities).  KEEN footwear or normal sandals are really useful for water activities. 

what to wear in crystal river florida


Final Tips for Swimming with Manatees

  • You can see manatees in Crystal River year round — don’t wait to visit during the peak season; it’s can get crowded and overwhelming for the manatees. I highly recommend visiting off-season like we did (in early May), we had the manatees to ourselves and no crowds!
  • Always go early! As with any wildlife watching experience, animals are most active in the early morning. Book a tour for 6am or 7am — not only will you see more manatees, it’s significantly less crowded.
  • Book your manatee tour in advance as morning tours fill up early. This is especially important if you’re traveling in a group. Don’t wait till you get there, like we did!
  • Try to give yourself more time and don’t plan a tight itinerary, in case your manatee tour needs to be rescheduled.
  • Bring a GoPro to take underwater photos! You’ll want to take videos/photos not just on the manatee tour itself.

 

swimming with manatees - baby manatee


Enjoy Swimming with the Manatees!

Thank you for reading this far. If you have any questions on swimming with manatees or about Crystal River Florida in general, please leave them in the comments below and I will be happy to reply to any questions you have.

Read my articles on Florida and the rest of the US below:

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links i.e. if you book a stay through one of my links, I get a small commission at NO EXTRA COST to you. Thank you for your support!


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