10 Awesome Crystal River Manatee Tours

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While Florida is known for its stunning biodiversity, there’s one of its residents that is, perhaps, most famous of them all—the adorably goofy-looking manatee. While you can find these gentle giants throughout the state, one of the best places to see them is in Crystal River, a town in Central Florida that has several natural springs. So if you want to see these sweet sea potatoes up close and personal, here’s 10 of the best Crystal River manatee tours to add to your Florida bucket list. 

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Manatee swimming through a spring in Florida
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Before we talk tours, let’s back up a bit.

What is a manatee?

Florida is home to approximately 6,000 West Indian manatees, a marine mammal that can be found along the eastern coastline of the Americas, from Florida, all the way down to Brazil. 

Manatee seen while snorkeling in Crystal River, Florida

Manatees are MASSIVE animals, weighing up to a whopping 3,500 pounds. But despite their intimidating size, they truly are gentle giants, being completely herbivorous and are not a threat to humans in any way. 

Why do manatees go to Crystal River?

Manatees primarily hang out in marshy coastal areas, where their main food source, seagrass, thrives and the water is warm and toasty.

However, come winter, the water temperature in the Atlantic Ocean drops significantly to decidedly not toasty temperatures, which manatees aren’t big fans of. 

Snorkeling tour with hundreds of manatees in Crystal River, Florida

While manatees may look rather blubbery, they’re actually quite lean, with less than 5% body fat, and thus, are rather susceptible to the cold. In fact, manatees can develop cold stress syndrome (which is similar to hypothermia for humans) and die if they’re exposed to water that’s under 68 degrees.

So, every winter in Florida, manatees head inland to the famous natural springs in Florida, including the ones in Crystal River, which generally stay a consistent 72 degrees year round. You can definitely see manatees swimming in the springs of Crystal River outside of winter, but if you want to see manatees by the hundreds, your best bet will be to come here from November through mid-March. 

Best Crystal River Manatee Tours

There are a variety of different tours that you can take in Crystal River, depending on your appetite for adventure—swimming, where you actually get into the water with the manatees; kayaking tours, where you can observe them whilst sitting right on top of the water; or a regular ol’ boat tour, where you head out on a pontoon boat and see these sweet creatures from above. 

Let’s dive into the most adventurous option! 

Crystal River Swimming With Manatees Tours

Crystal River is one of the best places to snorkel in Florida—and is, in fact, the only place that you can legally swim with them in the state. Accordingly, you’ll find plenty of manatee snorkeling tour operators here. 

Man looking at a manatee while snorkeling in Crystal River, Florida

If you want to learn more about what these tours are like, we actually wrote an entire blog post about what to expect when you swim with manatees in Crystal River. But, in a nutshell, during this experience, you can expect to meet at your operator’s office, get outfitted with a wetsuit and briefed on how to passively observe the manatees, and taken out into the springs around Crystal River to snorkel alongside the manatees. 

1. All-Inclusive Small Group Swim with Manatees Tour

  • Duration: 3 hours
  • Includes: Wetsuit and snorkeling rental, bottled water, photos and videos of the tour

If you’re looking for an intimate experience, choose this snorkeling with manatee tour, with a maximum of just 6 guests. When my husband, Justin, and I, went to Crystal River, our group only had 3 other guests and it was awesome to get so much one-on-one time with the guide.

Manatee underwater in Crystal River, Florida

I LOVE the transparency of this company—if the visibility will be less than ideal or only a few manatees in the area, they’ll tell you upfront, oftentimes days before the tour, so that you can plan accordingly. Plus, the guides really strike the perfect mix of ensuring that guests have an awesome time, while providing tons of education about the manatees and ensuring these gentle giants are respected in their home.

Finally, the fact that you’ll get photos and videos of the tour is definitely a unique (and awesome!) feature as compared to most Crystal River manatee tours, which typically charge at least $40 for you to take mementos of this once-in-a-lifetime experience home.

2. Manatee Snorkel Tour with In-Water Divemaster/Photographer

  • Duration: 3 hours
  • Includes: Wetsuit and snorkeling gear rental, towel service, hot tea or cocoa

This small group tour—with no less than 11 travelers—has seriously thought of EVERYTHING—with thick 5 mm wetsuits to keep you warm while you’re snorkeling, towel service (which I’ve never seen offered from another Crystal River dive operator), and warm drinks and even hot showers once you get back to their office!

Manatee while snorkeling in Crystal River, Florida

The staff with this company are also awesome. It’s incredibly obvious how knowledgeable they are, both about manatees and the surrounding area, and they’re patient, even with guests who might need a little bit more attention. They also advocate for the importance of ecotourism in Crystal River and ensure that all guests are simply passively observing the manatees—while simultaneously making sure you’re having an awesome time! 

3. ‘OG’ Manatee Snorkel Tour

  • Duration: 3 hours
  • Includes: Wetsuit and snorkeling gear rental, bottled water, hot tea or cocoa

This company purports to be the “OG” operator of manatee snorkeling tours in Crystal River. 

I’m not sure whether or not that’s true, but this operator definitely has providing awesome manatee tours down to a science—from knowing the best spots to find the manatees and helping you feel confident and safe in the water to having hot water to splash onto your wetsuit and an enclosed boat to warm you up after you get out of the springs. Plus, you’re guaranteed to be in a small group of no more than ten travelers!

Snorkeling guide talking to a tour group in Crystal River, Florida

They also do an excellent job of highlighting the importance of respecting the manatees and other wildlife and advocating for the preservation of this area’s beautiful natural habitat. They even have helped in a number of manatee rescues, when these gentle creatures get stuck in areas like culverts or ditches during flooding or unusually high tides. 

4. Private Manatee Tour

  • Duration: 3 hours
  • Includes: Wetsuit and snorkeling gear rental, bottled water

If the tour company above sounds like your jam (I mean, how can you argue with the OG?!), but you’re looking for something a bit more intimate, this tour operator also just so happens to offer this totally private tour! 

Mother and baby manatee in Florida

You can expect all of the benefits of the tour above, just with your own private group of up to ten people. This is a great option if you’re visiting with a large group, with a traveler who might need special attention, like a young kiddo or someone with mobility challenges, or just want a bit more of a bougie experience.

5. Manatee Swim Tour

  • Duration: 3 hours
  • Includes: Wetsuit and snorkeling gear rental

This locally owned and operated company has an impressive history in the area and has offered Crystal River manatee tours for over 20 years! Unsurprisingly, there’s some really impressive aspects of this option, including small groups of less than ten guests and enclosed boats to help you stay warm after you get out of the water. 

Manatee coming up for air in Crystal River, Florida

Their respect for these gentle creatures is also quite obvious, with guides ensuring that guests simply passively observe the manatees, while still having a great time in the water. This company goes beyond that, though—the staff regularly monitors Crystal River’s manatee population and acts as first responders when one of these creatures is in crisis.

6. Guided Small Group Manatee Snorkeling Tour

  • Duration: 3 hours
  • Includes: Wetsuit and snorkeling gear rental, hot tea or cocoa

If you’re looking for an intimate tour, this is an excellent option, with just six guests per tour! 

Beyond the small group setting, this company offers excellent service—so much so that it was actually voted as the “Best of Florida” in 2022, by guidetoflorida.com (amongst other impressive winners, like the Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort).  

Snorkeling group with hundreds of manatees in Crystal River, Florida

Their crew is patient and accommodating, especially for snorkelers who might need a bit of extra encouragement or support, and really know Crystal River—and where the manatees like to hang out here—like the back of their hand! 

Kayaking with Manatees Tours

Crystal River is one of the best places for kayaking with manatees in Florida. And honestly, going this route definitely has its benefits- you don’t have to get into the chilly spring water and you can enjoy the scenery and wildlife above the water as well!

7. Clear Kayak Tour of Crystal River

  • Duration: 2 hours
  • Includes: Kayak rental

With this small group tour of no more than 10 travelers, you’ll get to glide through the water of King’s Bay in clear kayaks, so you can see everything that’s happening under you. 

Woman looking at two manatees from a kayak in Florida

 The guides are also incredibly knowledgeable about Crystal River’s ecology and wildlife and definitely put this knowledge to work to make sure you have the best time possible. They HUSTLE to make sure that you see some manatees in the water, even during the off-season, as well as plenty of birds, turtles, and if you’re lucky, even dolphins.

8. Private Manatee Encounter Kayaking Tour

  • Duration: 3 hours
  • Includes: Kayak rental

Alternatively, you can opt for a private encounter with this company to kayak down the Chassahowitzka River, where you have a good chance of alligators, otters, and, of course, plenty of manatees. 

Woman sitting in a kayak and looking at a manatee in the water

If you’re looking to learn about Crystal River’s ecosystem, this is one of your best options, as the tour guides with this company are SO knowledgeable and definitely focus on sharing tons of information about the flora and fauna of this area, affectionately known as the Nature Coast. It definitely feels like you’re just kayaking around a stunning river with an old friend, who just so happens to know the name and backstory behind every fish and animal you come across. 

Crystal River Boat Tours

If you’re looking for a more chill activity where you can spot manatees without too much physical exercise or exertion, going with a boat tour may just be the perfect option. 

9. Manatee Viewing Cruise

  • Duration: 1 hour and 30 minutes
  • Includes: Bottled water

With this tour, you’ll board a pontoon with a small group of no more than 12 travelers, which allows you to move around the boat comfortably to spot wildlife in the water. The boats have features that help you stay comfortable regardless of the weather, such as plastic windows that can keep the rain or cold out during the wintertime or open to let in the breeze during the sticky summers. 

Pontoon boat tour on Crystal River, Florida

During your cruise, the captain will take you to manatee hotspots and share knowledge about the wildlife you pass, the springs, and other natural features about this area, and is always happy to answer any of your questions. Besides manatees, you’ll likely see birds, turtles, and, if you’re lucky, even birds and gators.

10. Sunset River Cruise

  • Duration: 1 hour and 30 minutes
  • Includes: None

For a romantic option, this boat will take you out on the water to watch the stunning sunset over the water in King’s Bay. Along the way, the captain will be on the lookout for manatees and other marine life, like birds, fish, turtles, otters, and even dolphins and share information about the wildlife you see. 

Two manatees coming up for air in Florida spring

One of the most fun aspects of this tour is that you can bring whatever snacks and beverages you’d like aboard—so this would be the perfect date night activity. 

There you have it—10 of the best Crystal River manatee tours so that you can see these incredible creatures for yourself! Do you have any questions about these tours? Let us know in the comments below!

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