Things To Do in Crystal River, Florida: Swim and Paddle with Manatees
February 19, 2022
Did you know there is only one place in North America where you can legally swim with manatees? People come from all over to swim with the manatees in Crystal River, a central Florida town located about an hour and a half from Orlando.
In the winter months, 100’s of manatees swim from the Gulf of Mexico into the Crystal River seeking warmer water. Kings Bay, where Crystal River begins, is fed by numerous springs that maintain a consistent 72 degree water temperature. There are also multiple power plants in the area that provide additional warmth for the manatees.
After visiting Crystal River in February 2022, I’m sharing everything you need to know before visiting this special place.
If you want to see the manatees in Crystal River, you’ll need to visit in the colder months, typically between November and March. The colder the better, because the colder weather is what sends the manatees into the bay. Our guide said that temperatures in the 50’s °F were best.
There are several rules and guidelines that you’ll need to follow if you swim with the manatees. A few of the main rules are:
- Do not touch, chase, grab or crowd the manatees.
- Practice passive observation when visiting the manatees. You should hang out on the surface and stay mostly still while observing the animals.
- Wear a wetsuit, it provides more buoyancy.
There are several more specific guidelines to follow and you will learn them when you watch the training video required before swimming with the animals.
Several companies offer snorkeling tours for swimming with the manatees. I went with Bird’s Underwater, but I recommend comparing Tripadvisor reviews to find the best company for you.
No matter who you go with, it is best to go as early as possible for your best chance to see the manatees. My tour started at 6:00 AM. Starting early will mean there are less crowds (although it was still very crowded during my trip) and colder air temperatures, so more manatees will be present.
The tours may take you anywhere in the Crystal River area in the search of manatees. However, the vast majority of the manatees were in Three Sisters Springs. This is a protected area that cannot be reached by the tour boats, so you will swim up a short channel. Within the spring, some areas are roped off and off limits to people. These areas are reserved for the manatees to rest.
Yes, you can swim with the manatees without going on a tour but you still must follow the strict guidelines. You will need a wetsuit and will have to have an idea of where to go. If it’s your first time visiting, I would recommend going with a tour to ensure you’re properly prepared and following proper guidelines.
- You can learn about the manatees from your guide.
- Your guide will know the best places to find manatees.
- They provide all of the gear you need.
My tour with Bird’s Underwater in February 2022 started at 6:00AM. We arrived at the shop on time and watched the mandatory video from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Our boat left around 6:30 AM and the company sent out three boats for the morning. My boat had about 12 guests on it.
The boats spread out to different areas of the bay in search of manatees, using radios to communicate. The first couple manatees we spotted were on the move. Eventually, we spotted a manatee that didn’t seem to be on its way out of the area. We hopped in the water to swim closer and it approached our group in a playful manner. It was flipping all around and coming right up to the group. It was a really special experience.
After it swam away, our boat went to Three Sisters Spring, where we saw many more manatees. There were likely at least 10 other boat tours docked in the area when we arrived. We swam back into the spring among the crowd of other people. Most manatees stayed in their own roped off area, but we did get to see a mother and two babies swim past us.
After we got back on the boat, they provided donuts and hot chocolate. There was also a changing area on the boat for those who wanted to quickly get out of their wetsuit. (It was very cold after we were wet!)
Overall, it was a wonderful experience to get to see the manatees. However, there were so many tour groups that the crowd of swimmers felt overwhelming and made me a bit concerned for the manatees. I would recommend going on a weekday if possible.
- A bathing suit and towel. It is also nice to have a change of clothes.
- An underwater camera if you have one.
- Snorkeling gear.
- A wetsuit.
- A pool noodle.
If swimming isn’t your thing, you can still get out on the water with a kayak or paddle board and see them in the water. I both swam and paddled in one day!
My partner and I rented a kayak and a paddle board from Paddles Outdoor Rentals Kayak Rentals of Crystal River. We signed in at their shop and watched an informative video outlining the rules for paddling in Crystal River with manatees present. Just like when swimming, you cannot chase, touch, crowd or poke any manatees that you see.
We launched at Kings Bay and were provided a waterproof map to explore the water. We started down the channels to Jurassic Spring, where we saw several manatees. Then, we headed back over toward Three Sisters Spring, where most of the manatees were located.
I recommend a paddle board instead of a kayak so that you have a higher viewpoint for looking for the animals. It is also very helpful to have polarized sunglasses so you can better see them in the water.
So far I have discussed water activities, but you can also visit Three Sisters Spring by land and admire the manatees from the shore. Admission to the park is $20/ per adult in the winter months and $7.50/ per child. In the summer, the prices are lower (because spotting manatees is unlikely).
You get a $5 discount to Three Sisters Springs if you have an America the Beautiful National Park Pass!
Know that Three Sisters Spring offers parking to handicap pass holders only. You should either walk from nearby or take the Crystal River Trolley, which is included in your admission price. The trolley leaves from the Three Sisters Springs Center and was operating every 30-40 minutes when I was there.
When you reach the park, there are some hiking trails and a boardwalk trail around the spring. The color of the water is a brilliant aqua blue and it’s beautiful to see from above.
There is no swimming access from the park into the Three Sisters Springs. If you go on your own to swim in the spring, you can launch your kayak at either Hunter Springs Park or King’s Bay Park.
Hunter Spring is a great place to enjoy a beach in Crystal River. There is a beach area and a short boardwalk over the water. You can also launch a kayak from this park.
I spent one night and one day in Crystal River and thought that was plenty of time to see everything. If you prefer to travel at a slower pace, you could easily spend longer. I think it’s a great place to combine with other destinations (like Orlando or other natural springs in central Florida) for a Florida road trip.
If you’re taking one of the early morning tours, you’ll want to stay overnight nearby.
I stayed at the Retreat at Crystal Manatee and enjoyed the room. The hotel has a lot of greenery outside and the rooms are spacious. I was really especially impressed with the luxurious shower with multiple water pressure options.
They have a room with breakfast and deliver croissants in the evening for the following morning. The hotel is family owned and within walking distance of Hunter Springs Park.
Another place worth visiting near Crystal River is Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. This Florida state park cares for animals that are sick or injured and cannot survive on their own in the wild. There are manatees, pelicans, bald eagles, bears, otters, wolves and more.
There are two parking lots for Homosassa Springs. If available, I recommend parking at the West Entrance instead of the Main Entrance. If you park at the Main Entrance, you’ll need to wait for a shuttle to take you to the main area of the park.
When you reach the park and pay admission, there is a loop trail that will lead you past all of the animal exhibits. My favorite animals at the park were the manatees. There were three gigantic manatees eating lettuce when I visited. As a result of being in captivity, they were much larger than the manatees at Crystal River.
If you have ever dreamed of seeing manatees, Crystal River is definitely a place to add to your Florida bucket list. As long as you are respectful of the rules to keep the animals safe, this is an experience that you’ll remember for many years to come.
For more Florida travel guides, check out these blogs:
- How to Visit Biscayne National Park
- How to Spend 3 Days in the Everglades and Big Cypress
- An Epic Miami to Key West Road Trip
- 5 Things To Do in Titusville, Florida
- Things To Do in Orlando Besides Disney
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