Swim with Manatees in Crystal River: Everything You Need to Know

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Florida has a stunning variety of biodiversity, but it’s particularly famous for one of its residents—the West Indian manatee. These adorable creatures, which weigh, on average, 1,000 pounds, are found throughout Florida’s coastal waters and, come wintertime, in its beautiful, crystal clear springs. 

Arguably, the best place to see these goofy creatures are the springs in Crystal River, a city in Central Florida—and, in fact, it’s the only place in the United States where you can legally snorkel with them! Here’s everything you need to know if you want to swim with manatees in Crystal River, from the best time of the year to come here to what to expect. 

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Groups of manatees with snorkelers in Crystal River, Florida
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Before we dive in (snorkeling pun!), let’s back up for a second. 

What is a manatee?

West Indian manatees are a marine mammal, found in the shallow, coastal waters on the eastern coastline of the Americas, from Florida to Brazil. 

Manatees are MASSIVE—they can actually weigh up to 3,500 pounds!—with their closest living relative being an elephant. Despite their intimidating size, they’re completely herbivorous and are the epitome of a gentle giant. 

Manatee seen while snorkeling in Crystal River, Florida

Why are there so many manatees in Crystal River? 

Given manatee’s potato-y looking body, it’s easy to assume that they’re blubbery—but in fact, they only have about 3-5% body fat. Manatees consume absurd amounts of underwater vegetation every day—up to 15% of their body weight!—so most of their roly-poly bodies are actually composed of their digestive tract. 

Due to their low body fat percentage, manatees have a low metabolic rate and can’t tolerate water temperatures colder than 68 degrees. Otherwise, they suffer from cold stress syndrome (similar to hypothermia for humans) and can actually die. 

Manatee while seen snorkeling in Crystal River, Florida

While the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean regularly dip into the low 60s in the wintertime, Florida’s natural springs, including the ones found in Crystal River, stay a consistent 72 degrees year round. 

Accordingly, every winter in Florida, up to one thousand manatees will migrate from the state’s coastal waters into the warm(ish) springs, to escape the winter chill. I guess manatees are kind of like Florida’s OG snowbird!   

What to Expect When You Swim With Manatees in Crystal River

When visiting Crystal River to swim with manatees, most people, including my husband, Justin, and I, join an organized tour. For example, River Ventures is an awesome company that promotes sustainability the conservation and the passive observation of these gentle giants.

Regardless of which tour company you go with, they basically all follow a similar format.  You’ll meet at the operator’s shop, receive a briefing on how to act around the manatees (more on that later!), and get outfitted with a wetsuit. 

Man smiling in a wetsuit in Crystal River, Florida

I’ve heard that many people push back on wearing wetsuits, but trust me—you’re going to want to wear one, even if you’re visiting in the summertime! Seventy two degree water may not sound THAT cold, but if you want to enjoy as much time in the water as you can with these creatures, you’re going to need something to keep you nice and toasty! 

From here, you’ll head to a nearby marina and take a pontoon boat out into one of the nearby springs, like Three Sisters Springs, Homosassa Springs, or any of the 70 springs in King’s Bay. Once the crew on your boat spots a manatee, your guide will give you a snorkeling set and a pool noodle to wrap around your belly, which helps you float on top of the surface of the water (and not kick or disturb the manatees), and you’ll climb down into the water. 

Woman climbing into the water of King's Bay in Crystal River, Florida

To be honest, the water temperature is tolerable, but can feel pretty chilly, especially after you’ve been in it for a while. Steel yourself—the manatees will be worth it! 

Once you’re in the water, you’ll simply doggie paddle out to where the manatees are and stick your face into the water to observe these goofy-looking creatures! 

Swimmers with manatees with Crystal River, Florida

To be honest, it can be a little scary, at first, to be close to the manatees—even for adults! They’re HUGE and, during our visit to Crystal River, I was SO scared that I was accidentally going to hit or somehow hurt one in the water. Don’t panic, though—focus on not flailing your arms and legs around (which can stress them out!) and you’ll eventually get used to having creatures the size of refrigerators in the water with you! 

While you’re in the water, it’s important to just passively observe the manatees from the top of the water—do not touch, ride, kick, feed, step on, or otherwise harass the manatees, including swimming after them in the water. Remember that, if you’re visiting them during the wintertime, they’re in Crystal River as a means of survival—so chasing them around, when they have nowhere to escape to, is a real jerk move. 

Snorkeling man looking at manatee in Crystal River, Florida

Plus, in our experience, manatees are quite curious and oftentimes, will swim right up and interact with you on their own terms!

Depending on the time of year you visit Crystal River and how long it took you to find a good spot in the water, you can swim with manatees for up to an hour and a half—I could have honestly spent all day there! Eventually, though, your guide will coral you back to the boat, where there’s usually a hot beverage, like tea or cocoa, waiting to warm you up, as you cruise back to the marina. 

Best Crystal River Manatee Tours

Crystal River is one of the best places to snorkel in Florida. Accordingly, there’s plenty of Crystal River manatees tours to choose from.

I would recommend prioritizing finding a company that takes out small groups—both for you (so that you can have a better chance of getting time with the manatees and your knowledgeable guides) and for the manatees! 

Check out:

1. River Ventures

With this company, who purports to be the “OG” operator of Crystal River manatee tours, you’ll be taken out with a small group of no more than 10 other guests—or you can even opt for a private tour

Smiling man wearing a snorkeling mask on a pontoon boat in Crystal River, Florida

The guides with this company are incredibly friendly, knowledgeable, and encouraging if you’re nervous about the experience. Plus, their boat offers a full isinglass enclosure in the wintertime, which will help warm you up a bit after you get out of the water. 

2. Waterfront Adventures

This company’s commitment ensuring their guests have an unforgettable time, while protecting the manatees, is incredibly obvious—each of their staff is trained by the Manatee Eco Tourism Association in coordination with United States Fish and Wildlife Service and they make sure that all guests are following appropriate “manatee etiquette.” 

Mother and baby manatee underwater

They offer a small tour option of less than 12 travelers or, if you’re looking for something a bit more personal, a private tour as well. 

3. Plantation Adventure Center

The guides with this company are incredibly knowledgeable about manatees and local conservation efforts to save these gentle giants.

Snorkeling guide talking to group on a pontoon boat in Crystal River, Florida

They’re also particularly adept at helping young or newbie snorkelers who may need a bit of extra help in the water—and with a maximum of just 11 travelers per group, you’ll get as much interaction as you want with your guide.

Do you have to go with a tour group to swim with manatees in Crystal River? 

If you’re on a tight budget or looking for a bit more of an adventure, you could consider renting a wetsuit, snorkel gear, and a paddleboard or kayak from one of the outfitters in Crystal River, like this one or this one, and try to paddle out and find manatees on your own. 

Aerial view of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida

The best place to swim with manatees in Crystal River on your own is at Three Sisters Springs.

However, you cannot access the water directly from the park and rather, would have to paddle your way there from the nearby Hunter Springs Park (about two miles away). The park is closed to paddle craft during manatee season, so you’ll also have to figure out a spot where you can legally tie up your boat and swim your way into the park.

If you’ve been in a kayak or on a paddleboard before, it should be a pretty easy ride for you, but, to be honest, unless you already have a lot of the gear, I’m not convinced it would be significantly cheaper than just going on a tour, when you account for the costs of the various rentals and launch fees. 

Multiple manatees from the surface of the water at Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida

Alternatively, if you’re okay skipping actually getting in the water with them, King’s Bay has pretty gentle waters and is definitely one of the best places for kayaking with manatees in Florida and would likely be fairly easy to do without a tour.

When can you swim with manatees in Crystal River? 

There are tour operators who will take you out to swim with manatees in Crystal River year round, but your experience will vary wildly, depending on what season you go in. 

For the best chance of swimming with manatees, you should head to Crystal River from November through mid-March, when they hang out in its springs to escape the cold waters of the Atlantic. The absolute best time to see them is from January through February—my husband, Justin, and I visited Crystal River in early January and literally were surrounded by HUNDREDS of manatees during our tour. 

Pontoon boat in King's Bay in Crystal River, Florida

Outside of this window, you’ll be lucky to find a manatee or two in Crystal River—most of your time will be spent on a boat, puttering around trying to find any of these creatures. 

Tips for Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River

Don’t harass the manatees. 

Due to human-related threats, like boat strikes, the population of manatees has previously shrunk dangerously low—in fact, in the 1970s, there were only a couple hundred manatees left on the entire planet. However, due to advocacy groups, these gentle giants were placed on the endangered species list. Over the years, their population has thankfully bounced back, with over six thousand manatees found in Florida today.

Manatee breathing out of water in Crystal River, Florida

That being said, manatees are still a protected species and Crystal River is the only place in the United States where you can legally swim with them. Still, you need to follow guidelines while you’re with them—not just to be a good person, but also, because it’s the law! In fact, it’s illegal under the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act to annoy, harass, or otherwise disturb these creatures, with fines ranging up to $500 and even jail time. 

So, as mentioned above, be sure that you’re passively observing the manatees from the top of the water and not touching or doing literally anything else to them (I just read an article about a man who was fined and faced imprisonment for letting his child ride a manatee). We’re so lucky to have these unique creatures on the planet—let’s be respectful of them! 

Remember to bring a towel and warm, dry clothes for when you get out of the water. 

The most popular time to swim with manatees in Crystal River is in the wintertime, where there’s a decent chance that the water temperature will actually be warmer than the air.

This was the case during our tour in January and we were absolutely FREEZING once when we got out of the water. And, even in the summertime, we’ve been told that, given the water temperature can be up to 30 degrees colder than the air temperature, you can still feel quite cold both in and when you get out of the water. 

Man on a swimming with manatee tour climbing out of the water in Crystal River, Florida

So be sure that you bring a travel towel to dry off with and a dry set of warm clothes to change into once you get out of the water. I’d recommend carrying these items around in a drybag (we’ve used this one for years and love it) that will prevent it from getting wet from the dripping wetsuits and snorkeling gear that’s on board. 

Bring your own GoPro. 

If you ever do any kind of water activities (like swimming with manatees!), it’s totally worth getting a GoPro (and a floating handle to actually hold it), in my opinion. We got so many cool shots and videos of ourselves in the water with these goofy creatures that we can look back on for years and years to come.

Woman holding GoPro

In fact, we made a whole video about our tour experience that you can see below.

Most guides take GoPro footage during your tour, which you can usually buy for around $40-60—but the footage will, of course, include other random tour participants. I’m sure they’re lovely people, but perhaps, not exactly what you’ll want to remember from your time in Florida. 

The water can be murky.

We had been to a variety of STUNNING natural springs in Florida, with crystal clear water and had assumed that Crystal River’s springs would be no different. 

However, the water was quite murky when we went swimming with the manatees. Our guides mentioned that the murkiness was caused by a recent storm system. Plus there were HUNDREDS of manatees around us in shallow water with a muddy bottom—I suspect their flukes stirring up the water didn’t help! After reading the reviews of other snorkelers, this doesn’t seem like an isolated situation—it sounds like lack of visibility in the water is a somewhat regular occurrence.

Manatee underwater in Crystal River, Florida

We were able to see the manatees just fine—it just wasn’t exactly what we pictured as compared to the clarity of other Florida springs and, to be honest, it took a little bit longer to get used to seeing these massive creatures in the water, given you could only be a couple of feet away from them to see them. So temper your expectations and give yourself time to adjust to the very strange experience of swimming with an animal that’s significantly larger than most residential refrigerators! 

There you have it—everything you need to know to swim with manatees in Crystal River!  Do you have any questions about this bucket list experience? Let us know in the comments below! 

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