Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida
By Helen Wright
Recently, we set off on an awesome road trip around Florida and visited some must-see destinations, all less than two hours from Orlando. Wild swimming with manatees in Florida has been top of my list for a while. The Crystal River manatees are known for being a friendly bunch of gentle giants, very accustomed to sharing the water with the odd swimmer and kayak.
Manatees are large, grey marine mammals with leathery looking skin, whiskered faces and paddle-shaped tails. Often referred to as ‘sea cows’ because of their slow-moving nature and grazing habits, these big guys are the largest ocean herbivore. More than happy to snack on sea grass and plants all day long, with no interest in eating humans, thankfully. Florida manatees can be found at various spots around the Florida peninsula, but tend to gravitate to Crystal River when the temperature drops (yes, it does get cold in Florida!). The water temperature at Crystal River stays around 72 degrees fahrenheit, which is fresh and cosy for them.
Cover image by Jim Reid, USFWS.
How easy is it to get from Orlando to Crystal River?
If you are visiting Orlando and looking to do something different, swimming with manatees in Crystal River is a really unique and incredible thing to do on your trip. It takes around 1hr 30 mins from Orlando to Crystal River along a very simple, straight route. We loved the city of Crystal River too, which has a charming neighbourhood, cute coffee shops and local businesses, as well as a number of natural, wildlife experiences in addition to the gorgeous manatees. Check out our full post on what to do in Crystal River, as you may want to stay for a few days and check out the area.
Where to go swimming with manatees in Crystal River, Florida
King’s Bay and Three Sisters Springs are two of the best places to go swimming with manatees in Crystal River. These are natural waterways and swimming in the water with manatees present is allowed, but Passive Observation is required by law. This means you shouldn’t touch the animals, reach out and stroke them, box them in or block the manatee’s path, especially if they have a calf with them. Breaking the rules could lead to a federal fine.
Floating or swimming gently in the water is the best way to spot manatees swimming nearby, as frantic movemet in the water can cause them to swim away. However, manatees are playful, so you may find they’ll curiously come up to you and sometimes try to interact. This is allowed (and amazing) but only if the manatee leads the way. Where possible, you should still try not to deliberately touch them. Just float peacefully and enjoy the moment.
Our experience of swimming with manatees in Crystal River, Florida
Even though you can go swimming independently, the best experience of swimming with manatees in Crystal River is always when you book to go with an experienced guide. These local guides know the area (and sometimes the manatees themselves) really well and will take you to multiple spots to enhance your experience. From the boat, an experienced captain or guide can spot ‘manatee ripples’ from far away and then head to the exact spot where the docile creatures are grazing. This means more time with the manatees and less time and energy swimming around trying to find them – or being stuck with a big group, all jostling for position.
Kayak manatee florida
The Manatee Tour and Dive with Hunter Springs Kayaks
We joined Hunter Springs Kayaks for a manatee tour and dive. The friendly, local company offer manatee snorkelling, manatee kayak and stand-up paddle tours, boat trips and sunset cruises in Kings Bay. Group manatee snorkelling tours are $55 (£47) per person, or you can book a private boat from $450 (£382)
When you arrive and sign in for your tour, all guests are required to watch a safety video on how to behave in the water and what to expect. Then, we were kitted up with wet suits, life jackets for the kids and noodles to help us float when snorkelling. The water is just a short walk from the Hunter Springs Kayak HQ. We met our guide, Amanda, a young mum who considered a career in marine biology before starting a family and now loves her job swimming with manatees in Crystal River – and who wouldn’t?
How well do you need to be able to swim for the Crystal River manatee tour?
The tour states that it is suitable for any age, but in my opinion, those booked in should have some water confidence and be able to swim*. You are given a noodle to help you float while snorkeling but participants do need to be able to get themselves from the boat to the area where the manatee are.
*Isobel (age 3) has swimming lessons but I wouldn’t describe her as a strong swimmer yet. She was given a float life jacket along with her noodle, which was enough for her to participate. However, for adults who cannot swim, I can’t image this tour would be enjoyable and perhaps a manatee kayak tour or a walk on the Three Sisters Boardwalk would be better suited.
What happens during a Crystal River manatee tour?
Our captain, Brian, has excellent knowledge of the area and he took us first to a cove known for its warm water and therefore a popular manatee zone. Our tour was at 8am and it was a beautiful morning on the river, which is fed by warm springs that keep the temperature at a pleasant 72F for most of the year. The route to Kings Bay takes us through lush greenery and past some fancy Florida homes, while Amanda shared interesting information about manatees and the history of Crystal River – keeping the kids engaged with stories of mermaids and pirates too.
Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be any wildlife in the first spot. However, Brian had some more ideas and we changed direction and headed along the river to a different area. We slowed down near a shallow opening and Brian turned off the engine. With polarised glasses, his visibility of the water was much clearer than ours and he spotted a manatee with a calf swimming in the seagrass. Snorkels at the ready, we climbed into the water with our noodles, following Amanda’s lead.
Hanging out with the Crystal River Manatees
Holding on to Finn’s hand, we drifted over to what looked like some floating weeds and a large rock. Up close we dunked our heads under and saw the mama manatee and her calf floating just beneath the surface. They didn’t seem phased by us hovering nearby and the baby swam really close to us, which was adorable. It was incredible to me that we were in the company of a species that is 60 million years old! It was the closest my dinosaur-loving five-year-old was ever going to get to a prehistoric creature and he was awestruck. Despite the dominant size and uncontrolled enviroment, the experience was so chilled out and relaxed. Unbelievable really.
The baby manatee soon realised we were quite boring and disappeared into the seagrass, at the same time my children decided they’d had enough too and we swam them back to the boat where they could warm up wrapped in a beach towel and eat some snacks. Brian offered to watch them so we could go back into the water for another glimpse.
It was much easier to float without holding on to the kids and we were able to swim across a larger area. On the other side of the boat, two manatees were playing and they came over and swam almost face to face with us. Afterwards they turned around and were brushing noses with each other, it was absolutely adorable.
One thing to remember when you swim with the Crystal River manatees
The best advice I can give you is to truly enjoy the experience. Don’t expect to get an amazing selfie with a manatee – that is near on impossible! As well as trying to keep afloat, hold the camera and breathe through the snorkel, your new manatee friend isn’t interested on being on Instagram so he is unlikely to pose for the perfect pic. It’s such a wonderful, serene and unique experience, just enjoy it and buy official photos from Hunter Springs Kayaks if you want a keepsake. They’ll likely be better anyway!
Is swimming with the crystal river manatees suitable for kids?
Like any immersive experience, it really does depend on the activity, the individual child’s ability and their personality-type. To get the best experience of swimming with manatees in Crystal River, you need to swim gently and remain calm in the water (not too much splashing; none, ideally). Too much movement not only scares them away but can also make the water murky, reducing visibility under the water.
Before our trip, we had spent lots of time with Finn (age 5) watching YouTube videos of the Crystal River manatees and the experience of swimming with them. We read up on the animals and I was able to convince Finn they were vegetarian and wouldn’t eat him! By the time we got to Florida, we were so excited to meet them in person. As for Isobel, she is a pretty ballsy three-year-old, but I had no idea if she would be up for it on the day. Turns out she was!
One big problem for younger children is that the company only supplied regular snorkels (where you have to use a mouthpiece to breathe). The kids really struggled to use them and it made them a bit stressed in the water. Finn said later he was finding the snorkel difficult (even though I told him to ignore the mouth piece and just hold his breathe to look under the water). He said he found it quite tough as he didn’t want to panic and splash around as Amanda had told us not to. Unfortunately, in the end, this made him get out sooner than I hoped.
If I had known only traditional snorkels were available, I would have picked up some of these full-face masks before the trip. I think this would have made the experience easier and more enjoyable for them. I would recommend these for any children under 7 or those not used to snorkels, so you can concentrate wholly on the manatee swim.
How old do you have to be to go swimming with manatees in Crystal River?
The tours are available for any age but I personally do not recommend the trip for children younger than four. Having said that, Isobel (3) wasn’t fazed by the animals or the water, she just couldn’t get to grips with the mask. In the winter months, the water is colder (but the compromise is that it’s also much clearer). That might make it more difficult for younger children. There are plenty of other fun things to do in Crystal River, including air boat tours, so take a look at our post on things to do in Crystal River. Hopefully, I will get another time to enjoy swimming with manatees in Crystal River with Isobel when she is a bit older. We loved the trip and would definitely do it again.
For more on swimming with manatees in Crystal River, visit discovercrystalriverfl.com
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