swimming with the manatees in crystal river, florida
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Swimming With The Manatees In Crystal River Florida In April (2024)

Last Updated on May 6, 2024 by Nicole

Swimming with the manatees has been on my bucket list for years. Recently, we went to Florida and I managed to set aside a couple of days to go to Crystal River, the home of the National Wildlife Refuge for manatees. Over three hours, we explored the manatees natural habitat, swam with two manatees, and then snorkeled in the beautiful natural springs at Three Sisters Springs. It was a wonderful experience and one that I would encourage you to have if you ever end up in that part of the world. In this blog, I set out our experience so that you come ready for your own bucket list day!

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swimming with the manatees in crystal river, florida

Background To Our Trip To Crystal River

My husband, 19 year old daughter, and I spent a few days at Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando before booking a rental car and driving around 100 miles or 2 hours to Crystal River. It was a very easy drive, especially once we left the traffic of Orlando.

We arrived around 1:00 pm and checked into the Plantation on Crystal River for one night. The setting for this hotel is beautiful. It sits right on Crystal River, with a large pool, restaurant and bar overlooking the river. We spent a wonderful afternoon at the pool enjoying the sun and the views.

swimming in manatees in florida in spring
View from Plantation hotel to Crystal River.

The hotel itself is a little outdated and the rooms need some work done. However, the food was delicious and the staff were very friendly and welcoming.

Crystal River And The Manatees

Crystal River is the “Manatee Capital of the World” and is home to the only National Wildlife Refuge in the United States specifically created to protect habitats for Florida’s beloved official marine animal.

Nowhere else will you find more manatees than in Crystal River, Homosassa, and the waters of Florida’s Citrus County. Each winter between 500 and 1000 manatees are drawn here by natural spring systems, each with a constant temperature of 72° to 74° F (23° C).

Notwithstanding their size, manatees are gentle creatures. They are not territorial or predatory animals. Instead, they tend to avoid confrontation and seek a tranquil existence in their underwater habitats

swimming with manatees in crystal river in florida in april
Views from inside Crystal River to natural grasses and land around Crystal River.

From mid-November to late March, manatees come in from the Gulf of Mexico’s cooler waters to King’s Bay, headwater of the Crystal River, making this the largest manatee wintering aggregation in the United States. Shallow springs here ensure the water remains around 72° year round, the temperature crucial to manatees’ survival.

There are still manatees in Crystal River after March, but far fewer. These are the ones that do not return to the Gulf of Mexico and consider these Florida waters their full time home.

We visited in late April and we were told that there were between 20 – 40 manatees that remained behind.

manatee taking a breath in Crystal River
One of the manatees that considers Crystal River its’ full time home.

Preparation For Swimming With The Manatees

We booked a 3 hour tour that included an in water guide and photographer and it was a fantastic experience.

Technically, you do not need to book a tour to swim with the manatees. However, I would recommend doing so for a few reasons:

  • There are lots of rules and regulations to follow;
  • It is important to protect the manatees and taking a tour with experts is one of the best ways to do that; and
  • You will find them much quicker.

Our tour started at 7:30 am. There were several other times that the same tour was offered throughout the day, but we were told that the earlier start the better for several reasons.

First, the manatees would be more easily found and observed. In addition, there would be less people vying to see the same manatees. Finally, there would be less overall activity on the river so the water would remain clearer and the manatees would be less likely disturbed by others.

boating in florida to see manatees
We had lots of space to explore and swim with the manatees at 7:30 am.
tour group swimming with manatees
Our tour group in the water.

The tour began on land. There was 7 of us on the tour and each of us were given a wetsuit to wear. The water itself is not cold. As I said earlier, it sits at a constant 72° to 74° F. However, you spend most of your time floating and watching the manatees versus swimming so it is hard to maintain your body temperature. The wet suit helps keep you warm and also gives you some buoyancy in the water.

After we changed into the wetsuit, we watched a 10 minute video setting out the rules and restrictions about interacting with the manatees. Most of them were straightforward and expected for encounters with marine wildlife. For example, do not touch the manatees, block them from swimming, or get between a mother and calf.

However, others were more specific to this experience. For example, you should keep still once you are near a manatee, including keeping your arms tucked into your body, so you don’t scare them away.

Next, we headed to the boat.

boating to see the manatees on crystal river
Preparing to get in the water from our boat.

Boating To The Manatees

The boat was large and flat bottomed as the river is very shallow. There were two long benches on either side for sitting and lots of room to spread out.

We were each given a snorkel set and the option to take a styrofoam noodle to help stay afloat without swimming. Coffee, tea, hot chocolate and bottled water were also available at anytime.

snorkeling gear for swimming with manatees in florida
Mike and Juliet in their snorkel gear.

It took only a few minutes from our hotel to reach the spot where manatees were hanging out. There were already a few boats around, so we spent around 15 minutes looking for manatees in an area a bit away from the rest. Since there are only a handful of manatees in the river at this time of year, the goal is for every boat to find one or two of its’ own so there is lots of space for everyone.

Manatees need to come up for air every few minutes. Accordingly, you can spot them by simply scanning the water in an area known for them. They also leave little swirls of water on the surface as they swim underwater.

This is what our guide and captain did. They eventually spotted swirls on the water and found a mother and calf.

Swimming With The Manatees

First, our guide got into the water to find the manatees that they had spotted from the boat. She quickly did so, at which point, she invited us all in the water.

Unlike a lot of the photos that you see online, the water was very murky. It was difficult to see beyond your own body. Apparently, during a storm, lots of salt water from the Gulf of Mexico found its’ way into the River and damaged the grasses that normally help keep the waters clean.

manatee underwater in Florida in crystal river
A view of a manatee within a few feet of me.

This meant that you had to be a bit of a detective in terms of finding the manatees. I quickly learnt to spot a general outline of one that I only knew was a manatee because it cast a slightly different colour to the water around it. When I followed that outline, I could see it moving and eventually coming to the surface to take a breath.

This is when I had the most amazing encounters with two manatees on 4 different occasions – when they took a breath of air. A couple of times, I found myself floating directly above a manatee when I could see that it was starting to head to the surface and I was right in its path. There was no way I could get out of the way fast enough. But, the manatee would quickly sneak past me and come up for breath, usually mere inches from my face.

watching a manatee take a breath while swimming in kings bay, florida
A manatee coming up for a breath while I watched.

On one occassion, I was floating, talking to the guide, and not paying attention when a manatee came up for a breath between us. It was so quiet and stealthy that I didn’t feel it coming or even see it until its head popped out and we came face to face. I won’t lie – it scared me to death, but it was also really cool.

close encounter with a manatee
A manatee popped up and scared me on our snorkeling trip.

Adult manatees are typically 9-10 feet long from snout to tail and weigh around 1,000 pounds. However, they could grow to over 13 feet long and weigh more than 3,500 pounds. Accordingly, it is quite extraordinary that any creature that size could be that close to me and I would be oblivious, but that is exactly what happened.

I am very passionate about ethical and authentic wild life experiences and have had many all over the world. If you share that passion, please see these articles:

Snorkeling In Three Sisters Springs

We snorkeled with the manatees for about 45 minutes and then, our guide asked us if we wanted to snorkel Three Sisters Springs. We all agreed.

Three Sisters Springs was about a 15 minute boat ride from where we were. Motorized boats are not permitted inside the Springs so it dropped us off at the water entry to the springs and we all snorkeled inside.

three sisters springs in florida
Rules for entry to Three Sisters Springs.

Three Sisters Springs is a breathtaking natural wonder with crystal-clear waters and serene atmosphere. The main attraction is the three natural springs that give the area its name. These springs flow from deep underground, producing a constant supply of crystal-clear water with a vivid turquoise hue.

crystal clear waters of three sisters springs
Crystal clear waters of three sisters springs.

Visitors can explore the springs in several ways. One popular way is by embarking on a leisurely kayak or canoe trip, allowing you to soak in the tranquility and observe the incredible marine life that inhabits the area. Manatees, in particular, are a beloved sight.

For those who prefer to remain on land, elevated boardwalks surround the springs, offering panoramic views and excellent vantage points for observing the wildlife.

For around 20 minutes, we snorkeled to each of the three springs, all the while observing beautiful fish and underwater fauna. At this time of year, there normally aren’t any manatees but it was stunningly calm and beautiful.

snorkeling three sisters springs
Juliet and I having some fun.

It was fascinating to see the springs up close. Unlike snorkeling around the manatees, we were able to swim and dive as much as we wanted, including diving down to see each of the springs. We really loved spending time there.

snorkeling in three sisters springs in florida
Having fun in Three Sisters Springs.
swimming in three sisters springs for manatees
Juliet trying to reach bottom to touch one of the springs.

Last Word

If you have ever dreamed of swimming with the manatees, head to Crystal River Florida. It is best to come in the winter for the chance to see dozens and dozens of them, but there are some to see all year round. Enjoy the beautiful scenery and these lovely gentle creatures. It is a wonderful experience.

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