The sparkling warm springs at Crystal River make it the best place to swim with Manatees in Florida, especially with kids.
Crystal River is not only the best place to swim with manatees in Florida it is the only place in the continental United States that allows visitors to swim with these magical creatures. During the winter months, the west indian manatees flock to the warm temperatures of the springs found at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
Swimming with manatees in their natural habitat is remarkable. Guests can sign up to take a guided tour during manatee season to have the opportunity to get up close and personal with these gentle giants. A tour guide is recommended, as many visitors get severely fined or imprisoned each year for not following the manatee protocols set in place to protect the manatees.
Swimming with the manatees is a Florida bucket list experience that even smaller children can enjoy. In this article, we share everything you need to know about swimming with manatees and tips for taking children on this incredible adventure.
Where Is Crystal River, Florida
Crystal River is located about 90 minutes north of Tampa, on the west coast of Florida. The Crystal River area is known for its warm water and freshwater springs but mainly for the migration of Florida manatees. The headwaters of Crystal River are known as Kings Bay, where the water temperature is a consistent 72 degrees year-round.
We made a day trip to Crystal River from the Clearwater/ Indian Rocks Beach area, and it was worth it!
When Can You Swim With Manatees
Manatees flock to warm springs during winter as they can’t survive in water under 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Vast herds of Manatees make their way into Crystal River, Three Sisters Springs, and other natural springs to escape the dropping water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.
The best months for swimming with manatees in Florida are mid-November to late March when they gather in large numbers at the Springs. Many manatees gather in protected areas called sanctuaries, where visitors are not allowed to enter.
Very few manatees are seen in the summer months as they have gone out to the oceans. Manatees still live in the area; however, the best time of year to see them is over the winter.
Tips On When To See The Most Manatees
Manatees are wild animals and will do their own thing regardless if you are coming to see them or not. They are not there for your viewing pleasure, and it is always a possibility that your tour will not be able to get you up close to a manatee. However, a little understanding of manatees will help you book a tour time that could yield the best experience.
- The manatees tend to leave their sanctuaries and the springs on warmer days. That makes getting up close to one more difficult.
- Many manatees tours offer early morning options. On these tours, you will have the best chance of seeing manatees as the sun hasn’t yet warmed the water.
- During high tide, the manatees can be found at Three Sisters Springs, then during low tide, they make their way into the channel at Idiots Delight I and II.
- Manatees will start migrating back to the ocean once the weather warms up. This typically is in March but can be as early as mid-February. Booking a tour in December, January or early February will give you the best chances of getting up close with a manatee.
What To Expect On A Tour To Swim With Manatees
Many tour operators offer tours that allow guests to swim with the manatees. One of the easiest ways to have a sustainable manatee tour in Crystal River, Florida, is to go with a tour registered by the Environmental Agency.
Use a reputable tour company with captains and crew trained, skilled, and experienced in swimming with manatees. The crew and captain will enforce the manatee rules, instruct you to correctly enter and exit the water, and pass their knowledge and experience with manatees to you.
Often the tour captain will act as your in-water guide, ensuring guests use passive observation during your swim. During our tour, a guide in the water would help direct us on where we needed to go and ensure everyone followed the rules.
Tour guides can also take photos that you can purchase later. We opted for this option so I could enjoy the experience without trying to capture that perfect photo. In hindsight, I wish I had brought my underwater camera because the photos they took were disappointing.
Booking A Tour
Tours can be booked online and should be booked in advance as many dates and times sell out. Limited tours take place to ensure the safety and well-being of the manatees. We enjoyed our tour with Bird’s Underwater Dive Center and felt that they were incredibly mindful of the manatees and ensured guests followed proper protocol.
Other Great Manatee Tour Operators Include:
- Plantation on Crystal River Adventure Center
- Homosassa Manatee Snorkeling Center
- Crystal River Watersports
- Manatee Tour and Dive
- Crystal River Manatee Tours
What To Expect Before The Manatee Swim
Before the tour, guests must watch a safety video reviewing manatee manners and the policies in place to protect the gentle sea cows. You put your wetsuit on over your swimsuit. Wet suits and snorkel masks are handed out before boarding the boat.
A fun tip is don’t wear a bathing suit that has ties. Trying to stuff them into the wetsuit is no fun, and they tend to come untied, making it an exciting endeavor when you have to take your wetsuit off on the boat.
Wet suits are necessary because 72 degrees water sounds warm, but you will get cold. They also aid in buoyancy since you can only float on the water’s surface.
Pro Tip: Bring a pair of water shoes. Your feet will be freezing once you get out of the water.
Mind Your Manatee Manners and Manatee Regulations
If you read anything, read this section. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has established laws to protect the West Indian manatee in these parts. West Indian Manatees have just made it off the endangered species list and are now considered threatened. The biggest threat to manatees today is humans. Pollutants are killing off seagrass leaving many manatees to starve while others perish in boating accidents.
Whether it is your first time swimming with manatees or your tenth, remember that these docile creatures don’t need you acting like a fool. Respect them, be in awe of them, and then make efforts to help conserve and protect them.
One of the most important manatee rules being YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TOUCH a manatee.
Before venturing onto your tour boat, all guests must watch a video or listen to a brief course reviewing the guidelines for swimming with manatees.
Here is a list of laws that you will need to follow while swimming with manatees from the FWC:
- Look, but don’t touch manatees. Also, don’t feed manatees or give them water. Suppose manatees become accustomed to being around people. In that case, they can alter their behavior in the wild, perhaps causing them to lose their natural fear of boats and humans, which may make them more susceptible to harm.
- Do not pursue or chase a manatee if you see one while swimming, snorkeling, diving, paddling, or operating a boat.
- Never poke, prod, or stab a manatee with your hands, feet, or any object.
- If a manatee avoids you, do not chase the animal for a closer view.
- Do not enter designated manatee sanctuaries for any reason.
- Give manatees space to move. Avoid isolating or singling out an individual manatee from its group, and do not separate a cow and her calf.
- Keep hands and objects to yourself. Don’t attempt to snag, hook, hold, grab, pinch, hit, or ride a manatee.
- Avoid excessive noise and splashing if a manatee appears nearby. The manatee may be resting at the surface without being aware of your presence. Noise and activity may startle the animal awake, which may put it in harm’s way if it is frightened and leaves the area.
- If the site you visit allows in-water activities near manatees, use snorkel gear and float at the water’s surface to passively observe manatees. The sound of bubbles from SCUBA gear or other devices may cause manatees to leave the area.
Can we get a ticket for Manatee Harassment?
ABSOLUTELY. The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as well as many volunteers, are watching the waterways and behavior. It is your responsibility to read and follow the rules. Guided tours ensure all guests have the regulations and will help enforce them. The guides do not tolerate people who break the rules or pursue manatees, especially overzealous photographers.
I can attest that they do not tolerate overzealous photographers. We had a couple trying to get footage on our tour, and it was pretty annoying as they tried to push the boundaries at every stop. Don’t be these people.
Tour guides work under a permitted process, so expect them to revoke your swim privileges or penalize you for breaking these rules. Proper respect for the manatees is our lifeline to the continued privilege of swimming with the manatees
Tips For Taking Kids To Swim With Manatees
While there is no age limit, it is recommended that kids be over two years old and be comfortable in the water. Parents are always advised to stay close to their children to ensure safety. An adult must accompany all kids under 18 years old.
Here are a few tips for bringing the kids to swim with the manatees:
- Ensure that smaller children have a wetsuit. Many tour companies have a minimal selection of wetsuits for kids, especially those under four. Putting them in a suit too big will not be effective.
- Prepare your child for the manatees to be massive. Ensure them that they are gentle giants that will not harm them.
- Before your manatee swim, educate your child about manatees and remind them to mind their manatee manners.
- Have your child test a snorkel in the bathtub or pool to show them how it works. It will make them comfortable using one, so parents are not trying to teach them on the excursion day.
- When the air temperature is cooler than the water temperature, kids will get cold quickly once they get out of the water. Bring extra towels or a warm drink. Our boat had hot chocolate for their guests.
- Bring something for the kids to do if they end up not participating. Swimming with manatees is not for everyone. Many kids get spooked by the size of the manatees or simply by being in the water. My daughter decided not to get in at one stop because she was too cold. That meant one parent had to stay behind on the boat to supervise.
- My number one tip for going anywhere with kids; bring snacks.
- Per Coast Guard regulations, children must wear a life jacket onboard the boat. The captain will provide those to you if needed.
How To Swim With Manatees In Crystal River, Florida
Once onboard your boat, your captain will take you to a designated area where manatees frequent. They are often near the manatee sanctuaries. Remember that no one is allowed to cross the sanctuary buoys or rope. After another review of manatee policies, guests are given a pool noodle and asked to slide into the water gently.
You are not given flippers since kicking with your feet disrupts the manatees. To view manatees, guests can float using their pool noodles over the area to see if any manatees want to come and say hello. Passive viewing is recommended, with guests watching manatees from above and at a distance.
Avoid touching the bottom of the river or springs, as it can kick up sediment and reduce visibility. You could also accidentally kick or poke a manatee.
Manatees are curious creatures who can interact with guests by bumping into them, giving a hug or kiss, or just coming in for a closer look at us humans. As difficult as it can be, remember your manatee manners and don’t touch them.
Remember three basic rules when swimming with a manatee – move slowly, reduce splash noise, and don’t touch a manatee.
What To Pack To Swim With Manatees
Your packing list will be relatively small when planning an adventure to swim with manatees. Here is what we recommend bringing:
- Your swimsuit (one that you don’t mind wearing with a wetsuit).
- Water Shoes
- Two towels per person
- A wetsuit for smaller children or a personal wetsuit if you have one. (Call the tour company to ensure they provide wetsuits and if they have the size your child needs.)
- Personal snorkel gear if you prefer your own.
- A plastic bag to place wet clothing and swimsuits in.
- A change of clothes to change into after the swim.
- Snacks and a bottle of water.
- Hairbrush and hair tie
- Underwater Camera
- Underwater Phone Protective Case
- Entertainment for kids if they choose not to get into the water.
- Extra pair of contacts in case one pops out in the water.
- Deodorant, make-up, and any personal hygiene items needed after the swim.
Other Ways To See Manatees In Florida
If getting in the water with these majestic creatures is not at the top of your bucket list, you can still experience manatees in other ways.
Kayaking With Manatees
The clear water in the springs makes kayaking a wonderful manatee experience. Many places rent kayaks, even glass-bottom ones, and offer kayak tours to see the manatees.
The best locations to kayak with manatees:
- Crystal River
- Homosassa Springs
- Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.
- Manatee Park In Fort Myers
- Blue Springs in Orlando
- Silver Springs
- Manatee Springs State Park
- Lover’s Key Fort Myers Beach
- Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
- Tarpon Springs
View The Manatees
Viewing the manatees can be just as exciting as swimming with them. Various places throughout Florida offer visitors a safe way to view the manatees in their natural habitat. These gorgeous preserves offer nature trails, kayaking, and educational opportunities.
The best locations to view manatees:
- Three Sisters Springs – Catch the trolley that will shuttle you to the entrance of the Three Sisters Springs.
- The Manatee Viewing Center
- Blue Spring State Park
- Homosassa Springs Wildlife
- Lee County Manatee Park
- Manatee Lagoon
Things To Do In Crystal River After Your Manatee Swim
After you have hung up your wetsuit, plan to explore the Crystal River Area. It is in a delightful part of Florida with a charming downtown, great restaurants, and fabulous outdoor activities.
After seeing the manatees from under the water, try viewing them from above with a visit to Three Sisters Springs. A trolley will take you to the entrance, where guests can hike and view the manatees from above. Note that there is a fee to enter.
Downtown Crystal River is in a quaint historic district full of specialty shops, festive bars, and local restaurants. Historians will want to check out the Coastal Heritage Museum and the Crystal River Archeological site.
Nature enthusiasts will love birding, hiking, kayaking, scalloping, and fishing tours.
Where To Stay In Crystal River, Florida
We hope that you enjoyed our article on swimming with manatees. Check out our other great Florida articles for more travel inspiration.
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