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Canoeing with manatees on the Crystal River

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was the site for canoeing with manatees

When I heard the news that authorities closed Three Sisters Springs in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, I thought, here we go again. I have had bad luck trying to see these gentle giants, and I thought once again I would be thwarted from canoeing with manatees.

Many years ago, canoeing in the Everglades, one surfaced near my dad’s canoe, but I could not see in the brackish water from over 20 feet away. I had the pleasure of seeing manatees in the sloughs surrounding the Georgetown zoo and botanical gardens in Guyana, but these creatures are semi-wild and do not count as they do not have ocean access.

Manatee feeding Georgetown Guyana

What an adorable face – Manatee feeding at the Georgetown Botanical Gardens in Guyana

I have also had some bad luck lately with coming to places on the day they are closed. In Singapore, I suffered a case of the Mondays when I found that the tree top canopy walk in MacRitchie Park was closed on Monday: the day I happened to be there. I am sure many people felt this frustration when the national parks closed during the government shut down.

IPA beer

Having an IPA beer with the old man before setting off and paddling with manatees

The reason Three Sister Springs had closed down was due to too many manatees. That would be just my luck to have a record conglomeration of sea cows within two hours of me and then be denied the opportunity to see them.

Port Hotel

The crew at the Port Hotel Ale House after grouper sandwiches with pontoon boats full of manatee divers in the background

Three Sisters Springs has a constant temperature of 72 degrees. When a cold snap hits Florida, the manatees come into these springs like shoppers to Walmart on Black Friday. The day I arrived in northern Florida from exploring down south the temps were in the 30s. This is almost unheard of for Florida. The manatees were so packed into the springs that authorities decided to shut them down from kayakers and snorkelers as they feared they were stressed from the cold weather, so they did not want them bothered even more.

Canoeing with manatees

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and the start of the canoeing with manatees adventure

Fortunately, I had a couple of days left of my two week trip in Florida, and the future forecast looked encouraging. We called the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday to hear the good news: they had opened.

We drove the two hours down on Friday and the weather cooperated with the most beautiful day of my trip. We were treated to a near 80 degree day with beautiful sunshine. We had a couple of beers at the Ale House and had a grouper sandwich before cruising up the Crystal River.

Port Hotel grouper

Don’t forget to try a grouper sandwich at the Ale House at the Port Hotel – Delicious

We sat at the back porch of the Ale House attached to the Port hotel. We could see a pontoon boat with divers just off the point where we were eating checking out manatees. I felt great because I knew this would be a sure thing. We launched from the marina attached to the Port Hotel, and we immediately saw manatees off the point across from where we ate lunch. I felt relived to finally have the manatee monkey off my back. I finally had seen a wild one.

canoeing with manatees

Right away we were canoeing with manatees and these were the first spotted right across from our launch at the Port Hotel

We then took off for Three Sister Springs. We cruised around the corner to the mouth of the river. It was only about a 45 minute to an hour paddle. An extraordinary thing was happening as we paddled up the river. Thanks to the warm weather, the manatees were leaving the springs in the hundreds and heading out to the ocean.

This was amazing because we kept passing them on the way up to the springs. We would be paddling along the river and all of a sudden a whitish green torpedo would slide right next to our boats. It was the ghostly manatees heading out to sea. There were people lined over the bridge enjoying the spectacle.

Crystal River canoeing with manatees

People along the bridge enjoying the sight of hundreds of manatees moving back out to sea along the Crystal River

Three Sisters Springs canoeing with manatees

Entering Three Sisters Springs

Although they were leaving the springs, it did not mean that the springs were empty. When it is really cold there can be over one to two hundred manatees packed into this little pool not even as big as half a football field. When we arrived in our canoes, there were still about thirty in the springs.

The springs are crystal clear, so it makes viewing a cinch. When I arrived at the springs opening I was greeted by a ranger. I thought I was going to have to pay an entrance fee, but the price is free. I was momentarily distracted from his speech as a manatee cruised out of the spring under my boat.

Three Sisters Springs paddling with manatees

The platform where the rangers sit at the entrance of Three Sisters Springs

The rangers sit there and give you the manatee rules, which include no chasing or harassing the animals. You can touch them if they approach you. It is one of the only places in the U.S. let alone the world where you can interact with an endangered species in such a matter.

canoeing with manatees

Although seeing manatees was a sure thing, thanks to the clear water and sun glare, photography was not so easy

You also cannot dock your boat or get out of your boat once you are in the spring. You can swim with the animals, but you have to enter the spring swimming. On this trip I was content to float on top of them and just watch them from above water. I plan on returning eventually to swim.

I could see the sad reminders of meetings between manatee and motorboat as several had ghastly scars on their back and tail. I had to avoid giving them a canoe or paddle scar a couple of times as I was floating on top of them looking at one and I would drift into another one on the other side. Fortunately, I avoided any contact.

Crystal River is a town that thrives on manatee tourism. We had our own boats and it cost us $5.00 to launch from the hotel marina, but you can see the manatees in a variety of ways. You can rent canoes, kayaks, snorkel gear, diving gear, pay for a boat cruise, or stand on top of the bridge and see them from there. They do have a parking lot and a platform where people can drive into Three Sister Springs, but they have not opened it yet and it is unknown when this will happen. There are a variety of ways to experience this amazing phenomenon.

paddling with manatees

You do not have to look far on the internet or around town to find manatee tours

Many people come to Florida for the beaches and Disney, but in my opinion, paddling with the manatees is one of the greatest experiences you will ever have. A great adventure to bring the whole family to as well as manatees are harmless vegetarians. Because the manatees are more apt to be in the springs when the ocean is cold, the winter months are the best time to check this out.


The goal of Traveling Ted is to inspire people to outdoor adventure travel and then provide tips on where and how to go. If you liked this post then enter your email in the box to get email notifications for each new entry. Daily travel photos are excluded from your email in order to not flood you with posts. There is no spam and email information will not be shared. Other e-follow options include Facebook (click on the like box to the right) or twitter (click on the pretty bird on the rainbow above).

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16 Responses to Canoeing with manatees on the Crystal River

  1. @mrsoaroundworld February 11, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    You are a brave man 🙂 and that grouper sandwich looks interesting!
    @mrsoaroundworld recently posted..5 things that make travel easier

    • Ted Nelson February 12, 2014 at 7:41 pm #

      The grouper sandwich was delicious.

  2. Brad Bernard February 12, 2014 at 5:12 am #

    Great Article, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience! I have to do this. I’ve included it in my Best January Travel Experiences. Thanks for sharing!
    Brad Bernard recently posted..The myWanderlist Best January Travel Experiences

    • Ted Nelson February 12, 2014 at 7:43 pm #


      I hope you get a chance to visit soon. Thanks for the inclusion in the January write up.

  3. Mary Anne February 12, 2014 at 5:40 am #

    Thank you for sharing this. They are such sweet and gentle animals. So many people mistreat them and they are at risk of dying out. It’s important we take care of our animals for the sake of us all.

    • Ted Nelson February 15, 2014 at 5:15 pm #

      This is why I hope more people visit this sanctuary. Once you see them you cannot but help to fall in love, so the more people that visit this amazing place means more people will help with the conservation effort.

  4. Leigh February 12, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

    I would so like to see the manatees and think swimming with them would be a magnificent experience. I’m so glad it worked out for you this time Ted.
    You made me chuckle several times as I read through this blog with your description of a case of the Mondays “like shoppers to Walmart on Black Friday”. It’s interesting how luck and timing play such a role in our lives.

    There are few places in Florida that really call me to visit but this one is one my list.
    Leigh recently posted..The Top 5 Backpacking Trips in the Canadian Rockies

    • Ted Nelson February 12, 2014 at 7:44 pm #

      I definitely would love to return and swim with them this time. It would be great to get some underwater GoPro shots of these gentle beasts. I am glad to hear I amuse. I think a little humor always makes a post more readable.

  5. Trips By Lance February 12, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

    I’m definitely interested in doing this. We go to Florida so much but only ever visit the coast. I’d love to canoe in. Not really interested in swimming in. The grouper sandwich does look great. However, I give myself a food coma every time I’m in Florida by eating fried oysters.
    Trips By Lance recently posted..Weekend Review: Atlanta NBA Road Trip

    • Ted Nelson February 12, 2014 at 7:46 pm #

      I am ashamed that I did not eat one oyster the two weeks I was in Florida. I only had two seafood meals. I was driving a lot, so I ate a lot of fast food and pizza, which may explain why I have gained 20 pounds since the Chicago Marathon.

  6. Lola DiMarco February 13, 2014 at 1:42 am #

    It was meant to be! Seems like great timing!

    • Ted Nelson February 15, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

      It was great time actually. Having the cold snap right before ensured there would be a lot of manatees around yet it was a beautiful 80 degree day when we visited.

  7. Raul (@ilivetotravel) February 13, 2014 at 1:46 am #

    Wow, I am amazed they let people go in a swim with the ‘tees! The whole experience worked out really well for you – in spite of the initial closure – as you got to see that particular event.
    Raul (@ilivetotravel) recently posted..Photo of the Week: Tanyard Creek Reflection

    • Ted Nelson February 15, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

      It is even more amazing they allow people to touch them if a manatee approaches.

  8. Leah February 13, 2014 at 6:23 pm #

    I’ve never seen manatees in real life. NOR have I seen so much mayo on one sandwich. Ted, it’s a good thing you’re my outdoor hero because a normal person’s waistline couldn’t handle that much fat. Back to the manatees. I don’t think I’d want to swim with them, though they look cute from the boat.
    Leah recently posted..Making French Macarons in Paris

    • Ted Nelson February 15, 2014 at 5:18 pm #

      Perhaps that is why I have gained almost 20 pounds since the marathon, but it was worth it. Great sandwich. I hope you get a chance to see a manatee someday. Such beautiful creatures.

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