The pristine waters and unspoiled forests of Crystal River in Florida are one of the most remarkable sights you can see here. However, it is not just the beautiful surroundings that make people want to visit—it’s also the Crystal River manatees!
The river is home to one of the largest groups of manatees in the world, which come in droves during the winter season for its warm waters. Of course, this opens up the chance to see and interact with them.
Of course, this opens up the chance for some epic bucket list experiences, like kayaking and swimming with manatees.
Top Manatee Encounters + Tips for Swimming With the Cute Manatees in Florida’s Crystal River
What are Manatees?
Manatees are a sea creature that has once been the stuff of legends, with even famed explorer Christopher Columbus mistaking them for mermaids, the cute manatees are truly a sight to behold. Also known as ‘sea cows,’ these aquatic herbivores are known for their stubby noses, large bulk, and gentle (and often curious) nature.
They can grow up to 4 meters (13 ft 1 in) in length and can weigh as much as 590 kg (1300 lbs). Although they might look similar to seals or walruses, they are, in fact, more closely related to the elephant. They feed on freshwater and saltwater plants like water lettuce and sea grasses. However, they do occasionally eat small fish and clams.
Sadly, due to habitat loss and hunters, the manatee population are at a state of decline. Fortunately, ongoing conservation efforts and strict rules and guidelines are being implemented to ensure that these beautiful sea cows are protected and be seen by generations to come.
Where to See Manatees in Florida
Most of the state parks and waterways around Florida are pretty much wildlife sanctuaries for manatees, especially at Crystal River (which has also been dubbed the ‘Home of the Manatee’). Some of the best spots include Three Sisters Spring (at Crystal River), Blue Spring State Park, Ellie Schiller Homosassa Wildlife Refuge and the Manatee Observation and Education Center.
You can also check out a list of these state parks and centers at the Florida FWC website.
The Best Manatee Experiences in (or near) Crystal River
Seeing Manatees from the Three Sisters Spring Boardwalk
The Three Sisters Springs is a 57-acre wildlife refuge in Crystal River, Florida. It got its name from the three spring areas, which contain vents and sand boils that feed the waters of Kings Bay and other nearby canals.
The refuge has a scenic boardwalk that offers plenty of opportunities to snap a photo (or fifty) of manatees as they slowly cruise the waters, especially during winter. You can also explore one of the nature trails and see the three springs in all their natural beauty.
While the manatees are the stars of the place, don’t miss out on seeing different native and migratory birds (and other wildlife) that paint the waters and treetops during your wildlife viewing.
P.S. Selfie sticks and drones are not allowed in the area. Also observe ‘Leave No Trace Behind.’
Kayaking with Crystal River Manatees
Interactions with Florida manatees might seem limited for some, but that doesn’t mean that water activities are totally out of the picture. It just has to be safe for both you and the manatees, which is why boarding a kayak on a manatee tour is a perfect way to do so.
Can you imagine gliding on the water side-by-side with a manatee?
You can find plenty of outfitters like Paddle Outdoor Rentals who provide kayak tours for visitors.
See them (and lots of other animals) at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
There are lots of places where we can see manatees here in Florida, and even some where we can see more than just manatees! Just a few miles south of Crystal River in Homosassa, Florida, is a state park called the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The park is home to a variety of animals, including manatees, alligators, black bears, many species of birds, a 62-year-old hippo named Lu, and many more.
You can take a boat or tram tour through the park to see the animals in their natural habitats, with several educational exhibits and shows that highlight the park’s inhabitants. Another highlight is the Fish Bowl Underwater Observatory, where you can see the aquatic animals up close in their natural habitat. There’s also a few trails in the park, like the 0.75-mile Pepper Creek Birding Trail, which takes you from the visitor center to the park’s west entrance while seeing flora and fauna along the way.
Swimming with the Manatees in Crystal River
Now comes one of the most exciting ways you can experience the Crystal River ‘sea cows’: getting to swim with manatees! The river is actually one of the few places where you can legally do this, so it’s no wonder many people come here from different places just for this special chance.
I did my swim with Hunter Springs Kayaks & Tours, where I was accompanied by an in-water guide the entire time to ensure that the rules are observed so that you (and the manatees) will have a great time.
This is a surreal experience, where manatees will be swimming right by you. Though you’re not supposed to touch them, one came right next to me and wrapped his flipper around my waist! Another was curious about my GoPro camera which gave me an epic closeup video of his cute face.
Best Tips for Swimming with Crystal River Manatees
Wait! Before you jump right in, you will first need to learn a set of ‘manatee manners’ which should be followed at all times. Whether it be kayaking, paddleboarding, or swimming, there are a couple of ‘manatee manners‘ that everyone should learn and observe. While it may seem overwhelming at first, once you get to know them by heart, you’re on your way to getting the most out of this wonderful experience.
Some of the best tips when swimming with manatees include:
- Keep your distance and never touch or initiate contact unless the manatees come to you first (which these curious creatures often do, especially if you’re floating gently). If they do so, you may gently touch them with one hand at the back or stomach. Some might even ask for belly rubs!
- Be aware of your surroundings – avoid getting close to off-limit areas (marked with floating warning signs) or from resting/feeding manatees.
- Keep calm – don’t make any loud noises or big/sudden movements, as it will scare the manatees away.
- Wear appropriate swimwear (e.g. a wetsuit and snorkel)
What is the The Best Time to See Manatees at Crystal River
While there’s always the chance to see a manatee or two any day of the year, the best time to meet them would be between November 15th to March 31st.
During this period, large manatee groups come together at Crystal River and Kings Bay to warm themselves up for the winter season because their water temperature remains at a constant warm 72 degrees.
Of course, this annual migration also draws in lots of people who want to see these creatures in their natural habitat, so expect there to be quite a crowd during those times.
Where to Stay in Crystal River
Meeting manatees is truly a one-of-a-kind experience, and I can’t blame you if you feel like spending just one day with them is not enough (which is usually the case!). Good thing is that there are plenty of accommodations available in the area like where you can rest for the day or even enjoy some of their amenities.
One such lodging is at The Plantation on Crystal River. With over 196 classic rooms (which includes 11 Junior Suites and a dozen Golf Villas), an 18-hole golf course, bar & grill restaurants, and a beauty and wellness spa, you are sure to be left entertained, pampered, and energized for your next meeting with the manatees.
Whether you choose kayaking, swimming with Crystal River manatees or spotting them from a boardwalk, it might be one of the best wildlife experiences to check off your bucket list.
Whichever way you choose to interact with these gentle ‘sea cows,’ let the moment leave you even more curious and excited for future wildlife encounters.
Best Tips for Visiting Crystal River Florida
Getting There: Tampa International Airport is a major hub and most airlines will fly into it. You can easily check for the best fare deals at Skyscanner, which also has the option to choose ‘cheapest month’ as the departure to find the lowest priced dates to fly to your destination. From the airport to the city center, you can take shuttle service, bus service, taxi and ride-hailing services or rent a car.
Where to Stay in Crystal River Florida: It’s best to stay near the city center, public transportation or the area that you will be spending the most time in. Besides the The Plantation on Crystal River mentioned above there are plenty of other options for hotels. Holiday Inn Express Crystal River is a great choice in the Crystal River. For something on the less expensive side, try Nature Coast Inn & Cottages located in Inglis. For a hotel with a little more extravagance, book a room at the Hampton Inn Crystal River. Or search some great deals on hotels of your choice at Booking.com. If you’re looking for more of a home atmosphere (or are traveling with a group of people), head over to VRBO that has houses, apartments and even just a room for rent in every price range.
Getting Around: Driving in a new destination can be a bit of a challenge, but if you choose to rent a car, RentalCars.com has great deals. If you are not renting a car, there are plenty of other options. Taxis, Lyft and Uber are available all over the city. For a more budget friendly option, you can take the service bus.
Best Tours in Crystal River Florida: You can find some of the top tours at Get Your Guide or Viator, and here are some of the top ones. tours:
- Crystal River Small Group Swim with Manatee Tour
- Crystal River: Pontoon Boat Cruise and Swim with Manatees
Insurance: It’s always a good idea to travel fully insured so you are protected in case of trip cancellations or medical emergencies. You can check out pricing at Travelex Insurance.