I just got back from the gulf coast of Florida where I crossed off something that has always been on my bucket list! For those who don’t know you can swim with the Crystal River manatees each winter and I finally experienced this myself. It was an amazing adventure and I think that both Floridians and tourists should try it at least once in their life!
We took a manatee tour with Crystal River Watersports in February 2022 and they provided us with a wealth of information. This part of Florida is the only place in the country where it is safe and legal to swim with manatees, but you will still need to take precautions. In this post, I will explain everything to know about how to take a snorkel tour and swim with the Crystal River manatees.
Full Disclosure: We received a free tour from Crystal River Watersports in exchange for promotion. However, all opinions expressed here are my own.
Where is Crystal River?
Crystal River is located in the central west part of Florida. It is about an hour north of Tampa and almost two hours west of Orlando. You can do a day trip from either, but you will have to wake up early if you want to get the most out of your manatee swim tour!
We stayed the night so that we could make it to the 7 AM Crystal River manatee swim tour. The town of Crystal River is easy to navigate and most hotels are only a few minutes away from the water. Surprisingly, the Crystal River itself is actually a very short river that connects multiple springs to the Gulf of Mexico. Our tour took us through Crystal River, Kings Bay and Three Sister Springs. The manatees are frequently found in all three bodies of water.
When is Crystal River Manatee season?
Manatee season is technically November through March, but it varies with the weather. You can frequently see manatees year-round, but they flock here in large numbers from December through February. The Crystal River manatees come from the gulf to warm up in the shallow, spring water when the ocean is too cold for them.
Once a cold snap hits in November, the manatees will start to slowly migrate to Crystal River. By the end of December, hundreds are usually swimming around here and by January it is extremely rare not to see dozens of manatees on a tour. As the temperature climbs back up into the 80s, many Crystal River manatees head back to the gulf.
One thing to know is that the colder the weather is, the better chance you have of seeing manatees. With Florida’s always-changing weather, it can be hard to plan in advance. January is by far the best time for a Crystal River manatee swim, but there is a good chance you will find some in December and February too.
How can you swim with the Crystal River Manatees?
Crystal River is the only wildlife refuge dedicated to protecting the West Indian Manatee and obviously, their safety comes first. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Service blocks off seven sanctuary zones during this half of the year where human activity is off limits and they are safe from boats.
However, the Crystal River manatees are curious creatures and frequently wander outside of the sanctuaries. People found that manatees were coming up to humans on their own and there were many to see. Because of this, going on a manatee swim in Crystal River is legal, but you will need to follow rules to respect them.
I recommend taking a tour with Crystal River Watersports for the best manatee swim experience. They know all the places where the most manatees go and can help you find them when there are not many around. They also provide flotation and snorkel gear that helps make the manatee swim more enjoyable. Though you can swim with manatees without a tour, it is not recommended. You can find a variety of tour options for any time, group size or specifications for your need with Crystal River Watersports.
How does taking a manatee tour with Crystal River Watersports work?
We went on the most popular manatee swim Crystal River Watersports has. The Deluxe Manatee Swim is three hours long and can include up to 10 people. They take you for a swim in both the Crystal River and Three Sisters Springs, as well as share information about the manatees and their habitat.
Since the water will most likely be cold, wetsuits are provided, as well as snorkels, masks, and float vests. They even provide warm jackets to put on after the swim! But best of all is that your guide takes pictures of you during the swim and these are included for free with your manatee snorkel tour.
We arrived at 7 AM so there was plenty of time to get on our wetsuits. The tour left promptly at 7:30 AM and we were treated to sunrise views of the river. It was a pretty warm day for February so when we got to the usual manatee spot, there were none to be found. Our guide took us for a swim in the clear Three Sisters Springs to look for manatees, fish and take some pictures.
Upon getting back in the boat, we headed to the main part of Crystal River where a few manatees had been spotted. Once we saw one poke its snout up, we were back in the water! Here we got the chance to float around and look at the manatees underwater or above when they popped their heads out. I even came face to face with one manatee! If you get a colder day to see them, you will likely be surrounded by manatees, but rest assured, even on a warm day like ours, Crystal River Watersports does a great job finding the manatees for you.
At 10 AM, we got back in the boat and could take off our wetsuits as we headed back to the shop. The captain treated us to hot chocolate and muffins as we heard all sorts of fun manatee stories on the ride back! We also spotted some turtles, fish and birds during the journey.
Our tour ended right at 10:30, and then the afternoon tour starts at 11:30 AM. The Crystal River manatees are more active in the morning, so most guides recommend an early tour. After you change, you are given an adorable manatee flash drive with your photos and can find other manatee souvenirs at the gift shop to remember your experience!
What are other ways to see the Crystal River Manatees?
There are many other manatee experiences to try whether you want to go swimming or not! Crystal River watersports offers a private manatee tour if you prefer a more intimate experience, or a river sightseeing cruise if you prefer not to get wet. They also offer scuba diving lessons, including a manatee awareness specialty.
Paddling is also a popular way to see the Crystal River manatees. Many companies offer glass bottom kayaks so you can see the manatees in the water without getting wet. And of course, if you prefer to stay on land, multiple springs have viewing areas. The best places to look for them are Homosassa Springs and Three Sisters Springs.
What else is there to do in Crystal River?
Though most people visit Crystal River for a manatee swim, there are plenty of fun things to do while you are here! The area is full of small-town charm with a deep appreciation for nature. It’s the perfect place to experience Florida in its natural state!
I recommend walking around Downtown Crystal River after your manatee tour and getting coffee and lunch. We loved the pour over selection at Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters. There are also lots of restaurant options, including St. John’s Tavern, Amy’s on the Avenue and Tea House 650.
There are plenty of other nature experiences to enjoy too. Visiting the springs is a must, even just for walking around. Both Three Sisters Spring and Homosassa Springs are nearby and have trails to check out. We also went to Rainbow Springs about a half hour away and found the trails and swimming to be beautiful there.
If you visit in the summer, scalloping is a popular activity! Crystal River scallop season goes from July through September. Many boats, including Crystal River Watersports offer tours where you can harvest your own scallops! And then there are plenty of restaurants that will cook them for your dinner as well. If you like being on the water, Crystal River is the place to be, with so many opportunities for paddling, swimming, boating and fishing year-round.
Know Before You Go: Taking a Crystal River Manatee Tour
Every Floridian knows how magical it is seeing a manatee emerge from the water. When I found out I could be swimming next to them and see them up close, I had to try it! Taking a Crystal River Manatee swim tour is unlike anything else you can experience and it is so worth taking the trek to Crystal River for. Before you do, here are some more tips to get the most out of your experience:
- Crystal River Manatee swim tours are offered daily at 7:30 AM and 11:30 AM
- You can also take private manatee tours, river boat tours and scalloping tours with Crystal River Watersports as well
- Tours start at $75 per person depending on the experience. Tips are not included, but appreciated.
- You can book tours with Crystal River Watersports through the website here.
- Crystal River manatee season is November through March, but the best month to see them is January.
- If you do not see a manatee on your tour, Crystal River Watersports will allow you to reschedule and try again at no cost.
- Wetsuits, snorkels, masks, and flotation vests are included in the cost or you can bring your own.
- It is recommended to arrive wearing a bathing suit and you put the provided wetsuit over it.
Have you swam with the Crystal River manatees? Let me know how many you saw if you did! For more unique things to do in Florida, check out my guide to the best Central Florida attractions here!