There is a very special place along the Gulf Coast of Florida that has a unique activity for the whole family: swimming with manatees.
Swimming with the manatees is an amazing experience and should be on every Florida vacationer’s list of things to do. Crystal River is the only place in Florida where it is legal to swim with the manatees. Before you go, here is all that you need to know!
About the Crystal River Manatees
The Florida manatees are part of the larger sirenian species which include the Steller’s Sea Cow, West Indian Manatees, West African Manatees, the Amazonian manatees, and the Dugong found commonly in the waters of Busuanga (Palawan), Philippines.
Crystal River is known as the Manatee Capital of the World, drawing in between 500 to 1,000 manatees each winter. It is also one of the only places where you can see these gentle animals up close in their natural environment.
There are many ways to see the Florida manatees from swimming and kayaking to boat tours and paddle-boarding. There is even a fully accessible boardwalk for those who do not want to get into the water.
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Ways to see the Manatees in Florida
If you are hoping to swim with manatees in Crystal River, you have many options to choose from. You can certainly go on your own if you are familiar with the area, have your own equipment, and know what to do. Another option is to join an organized tour, most of which offer the option for you to get in the water and swim with manatees.
Whichever option you choose, make sure to exercise caution and respect. Give the manatees space and do not disturb them if they are resting.
If you have boating experience, try renting a small skiff or pontoon boat to see the waterway and the surrounding area. The springs and the river are busy during the winter months. Hundreds of kayaks, paddle boards, boats, swimmers, and snorkelers fill the water, making navigating the waterway rather tricky!
If you’re not comfortable or if you are inexperienced in handling a boat, there are many Crystal River tours to choose from.
River Ventures USA offers a 3-hour Manatee tour on board a pontoon boat. A Coast Guard certified captain and in-water educator take you through King’s Bay Wildlife Refuge before giving you the opportunity to hop in the water and swim with the manatees.
The best part of this particular tour is the in-water photographer. You will definitely want to capture these incredible memories.
By Kayak, Canoe, and Paddleboard
You can launch your own kayak, canoe, or paddleboard at King’s Bay Park at the end of NW 3rd Street. In addition to the launch area, this city park offers restroom facilities, a playground, picnic shelters, and a fishing pier. A nominal parking fee plus a per-vehicle launch fee is collected at a pay station. From King’s Bay Park, you can paddle over to Three Sister Springs and to Hunter Springs, just around the corner.
If you do not have your own, you can rent a paddleboard at nearby Paddles Outdoor Rentals. The outfitter also provides a free map to help you navigate through the waterways that lead to King’s Bay and Crystal River.
Paddles Outdoor also offers an eco-friendly clear kayak tour of the manatee habitat. Exploring the area in a clear kayak gives you the best views of the Florida manatees without getting wet.
Three Sister Springs is the world-famous sanctuary for the West Indian Manatee and the boardwalk will give you the best viewing of this sanctuary in the springs. If you’re not into the cold water swimming experience, take a stroll along the boardwalk, in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, to view the manatees.
To visit, you will park at the Three Sister Springs Center and ride the trolly to the Wildlife Refuge, as there is no parking on site. The trolly also makes a couple of stops along the way at USFWS Visitor Center & Gift Store, Hunter Springs Park, and Heritage Village.
Packing List: What To Bring to Swim With The Manatees
Whether you are renting a kayak, bringing your own, or using a boat charter, being prepared for your adventure will make or break your experience. Here are a few essentials for your manatee adventure.
- SPF Shirts and pants – snorkeling face down in the water will expose your behind to the harsh Florida sun. Cover up the tender parts with a protective rashguard.
- Sunscreen – even with SPF clothing, it’s still a great idea to lather up with your favorite sunscreen, especially your ears!
- Snorkel Gear – your charter boat or rental outfit may include snorkel gear, however, some may not. Be sure to add this to your rental or bring your own. Aqualung sells a great quality snorkel set at a decent price.
- Drinks and Snacks – again, your charter boat may include beverages, but from experience, I always get hungry after being in the chilly spring water and appreciate my cooler with snacks and drinks.
- Waterproof Camera – often, the charter boat will include a photo shoot, which is nice, but I love to capture my own shots. If you intend on taking more picture-worthy adventures in the future, I recommend investing in a waterproof camera that is higher quality than your typical disposable camera. The Insta360 is a 360-degree camera designed for outdoor adventures. It is waterproof up to 33 feet.
- Sweatshirt – the spring water is 72 degrees, year-round and during the winter months, the air temperature can be chilly, too. Bring a cozy sweatshirt to put on after your swim.
- Tip Money – The folks that run the charters and rental outfits depend on the income that they make during the short, peak season. Please tip generously to show your appreciation for their services.
Other Things to do in Crystal River, Florida
Crystal River is a charming, coastal town with all of the amenities you could need and a vast amount of outdoor recreational areas.
This area of the Gulf Coast is not really known for its beaches, unlike the beaches in St. Petersburg, however, the Fort Island Gulf Beach is a special place to enjoy the day or a sunset. Located at the end of Fort Island Trail, this park and beach has a pier for wildlife viewing and fishing, restrooms, kayak launches, and a boat ramp.
Downtown Crystal River has a variety of quaint, kitschy shops to purchase gifts for yourself or your friends back home. The Shoppes of Heritage Village is a cluster of refurbished cracker-style homes that are now shops and pubs. Dating back to the early 1800s, the Heritage House is the welcome center. Stop here, first, to grab an area map and talk to the friendly staff about the village.
There are plenty of choices for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Crystal River. If you’re looking for fresh, delicious seafood, be sure to check out Cracker’s Bar & Grill. This large waterfront restaurant has great views of King’s Bay, cold drinks in the tiki bar, and patio seating.
Another great seafood stop is Dan’s Clam Stand, on the outskirts of town. They serve heaping fresh seafood in baskets at picnic table seating. I love this place!
Crystal River Preserve State Park has nearly 27,000 acres of untouched land giving visitors a glimpse of what Florida looked like centuries ago. Take a long hike, jog, or bike ride along the unpaved 7 Mile Loop Trail. The trail meanders through several different ecosystems and plays an important role in refreshing Florida’s aquifer.
Within the park, you can also enjoy eco boat tours, fishing areas, 2 canoe/kayak launches, restroom facilities, and other, shorter, hiking options.
Best Hotels in Crystal River
The Retreat at Crystal Manatee is one of the most popular places to stay in Crystal River, Florida. This small, family-owned hotel offers modern rooms and a complimentary continental breakfast every morning. With its central location, guests are just a five-minute walk from King’s Bay Park and Hunter Springs, and a 10-minute walk from the manatees at Three Sisters Springs.
For a more unique experience, head 20 minutes away to Crystal River Lullaby B&B, located on its own 3.5-acre private island. Some of the amazing amenities at this bed and breakfast include complimentary bike and kayak rentals, a game room, and a large screened deck overlooking the St. Martins Marsg Aquatic preserve. A complimentary breakfast is included.
Swim with Manatees in Crystal River: Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Best Time to See Manatees in Crystal River?
When the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico gets colder in the winter months, the West Indian Manatees seek out the warmer waters of the natural springs. This typically happens between November and April, with its peak from December through February.
During this season, Crystal River, Florida, is host to hundreds of manatees.
Where is the best place to see manatees in Crystal River?
Three Sister Springs is by far the most popular place to view the manatees. If you are coming to the springs by water, you can expect to find a lot of other visitors swimming, viewing, and enjoying the manatees.
Can you see manatees at Crystal River without a tour?
Yes. If you are looking to swim with the manatees for free, it is possible to go without a tour, however, it does require planning. This includes knowing where you can legally swim with them. Should you violate local laws, you may face hefty fines, arrests, or other penalties.
The safest way to swim with manatees, both for yourself and for the animals, is to go through a guided tour.
How much does it cost to see the manatees in Crystal River?
Crystal River Manatee tours typically cost around $25 per person for manatee watching cruises (without the swimming). Tours that include swimming usually cost around $65.
Final Tips for planning your trip
- Prepare for cold water. The water is rather chilly. The spring water is a constant 72℉ / 22℃ and can be quite shocking to swim in, even on the hottest Florida day. Most charters include a wetsuit, however, if you are renting a kayak or bringing your own.
- Don’t forget to wear sunscreen. The Florida sun is hot and intense, even in the winter months. Avoid getting a sunburn so you’re not uncomfortable for the next couple of days.
- Use patience and try not to scream with excitement! I know it can be hard, these animals are huge, but they are gentle and will not hurt you. The neighborhood along the river is a “Quiet Zone”.
- Keep an eye out for park service volunteers. During peak manatee season, a volunteer or two, from the park service, will be in kayaks making sure visitors are respecting the rules for the springs. Stay outside of the roped areas, this is where the manatees rest. Do not touch the manatees. They may approach you, resist the urge to touch them.
- You may tie up your kayak or paddle board along the shore, there is a rope to do so. Do not tie up to the vegetation. I like to tie up to watch the visitors enjoying this amazing experience. It’s truly one of a kind!