Several years ago, I visited Crystal River, Florida and had the pleasure of canoeing with manatees as they flocked for warmth in Three Sisters Springs. I did not do a tour, so I have always wanted to return and swim with manatees Crystal River style. This summer, I finally had my chance.
Best time to book a swim with manatees Crystal River
The best time to book a tour in Crystal River for manatees is in the winter. When the temperature drops in northern Florida, as it sometimes does in December and January, the manatees seek refuge in the constant temperatures found in the springs. I went at the worst possible time, but we still enjoyed success.
Related: Canoeing with manatees in Crystal River
Plantation on Crystal River manatee tour
I went with Plantation on Crystal River for my manatee tour. The online booking option appealed to me, so that was why I chose them. I prefer bookings on the internet over a phone call. Others may feel differently and prefer to book with a human, but I enjoy the ease of doing everything on the internet. Click on this link if you are interested in making a booking. There are many options in town that offer the same tour.
Race against Hurricane Elsa
Hurricane Elsa was making its way towards Florida, so I was concerned if they would be open. I made the booking and headed for Crystal River. The forecast was for Elsa to hit the Keys the night after my booking and make its way up the Florida peninsula, so I felt secure making the booking. I turned out to be right on time as they did not offer tours the next day. Tours run almost every day year round.
Arriving in Crystal River
I arrived in Crystal River the next morning about an hour before the tour was scheduled to begin. The girls at the register confirmed my booking and told me to return in an hour to watch the required video. I returned and watched the video with the other tour goers on safety and proper swimming with manatees etiquette.
Related: Snorkeling West Bali National Park
We were not allowed to chase the manatees or touch them. If they approached us, we could stand our ground and enjoy the moment. If they swam underneath us, we could stay, but we could not swim purposefully on top of them. This was basically the extent of the manatee house rules.
Gearing up for a swim with manatees Crystal River
We were provided insulated wet suits, mask, and snorkel. They did not provide fins, but you could bring your own. They even had prescription masks for half blind adventurers like myself, which I greatly appreciated. Another participant also wore glasses, and they were able to accommodate him as well. If you wear glasses, you might want to come with contacts just in case they don’t have the prescription masks available.
We boarded the boat and in 15 minutes we were cruising up the Crystal River. Another boat was docked and had people out snorkeling around manatees. We waited a few minutes and then got in the water for our turn. There was a cow and calf in the spring, so we were in luck. During the hot summer, there is no guarantee that manatees will be present. In the winter, it is pretty much a guarantee that multiple manatees will be in the springs.
Entering the water and approaching the manatees
The first thing I saw when I entered the water was an enormous mullet. I followed it for a second with my GoPro and also spotted a school of fish. I turned around and then saw the manatee. This is what I came for, so I followed the eight or so other tourists and found a gap and began recording and taking pictures with my GoPro.
At first I did not know that a calf was in the area as well. It was off on its own, but then dutifully returned to its mother. I was delighted to see the calf moving towards mom. For the next 20-30 minutes, we soaked in the manatee views as they were munching on the green plants down below. Every once in awhile they would cease munching and poke their heads up to make sure we were no harm then return to being hungry hungry manatee.
Swim with manatees Crystal River, but not too close
I did not want to get too close, but they were completely in their own world eating plants and did not mind our presence at all. At one point, the mother swam below me munching on its lunch and then raised up to check me out for a second. The calf did the same thing. I refrained from touching them although their heads were feet away from mine.
They soon satiated their mild curiosity over me and returned to vacuuming the bottom. The depth of the water was probably around 3-4 feet at this location and the water clarity was pretty good. It was not crystal clear, but it was close enough. We were not in Three Sisters Spring, but we were close and perhaps just outside.
Exploring a second spring
After enjoying the manatees for a half hour, we got back to the boat and moved to another spring. This one did not have manatees, but it did have a soft-shell turtle and some more fish. An anhinga lurked at the water’s edge. I swam up close and got a good view as they were not expecting being approached by humans from below the water.
We then returned to the boat and then back to the dock. We were given the option of buying pictures as the guides had a GoPro taking pictures the whole time. I felt my pictures were sufficient, but it is kind of cool seeing the pictures.
Swim with manatees Crystal River is a top Florida attraction
When people think of Florida, there are two things that come to mind – Disney and beaches. A swim with manatees Crystal River should be right up there on this list. Every person I told about this experience was immediately interested. Crystal River is located in northern Florida and not really in the top tourist zone, but this makes the location and the experience even better.
Furthermore, this trip is ideal during the Covid Pandemic. The boats are open, so even though you are near people, the breeze and wind when the boat is moving guarantees that you will not be breathing in anyone’s droplets.
Post lunch and hunkering down for Tropical Storm Elsa
After the tour was over, I grabbed lunch and a few beers on a patio overlooking the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge. They were moving chairs and anything loose inside or locking them up outside. I booked a hotel room for the next two nights just outside of town. It was time to hunker down and wait out the storm, but that is adventure for another blog post.
Manatee swimming tours are vital to their protection
Some who see these pictures and watch the video might be appalled by how close we are to the manatees. If you feel this way, I get where you are coming from; however, I feel these tours are vital to the protection of the species. Manatees need all the friends they can get. Every person who comes on these tours gets a firsthand look how beautiful these creatures are and become a manatee advocate. We need more people to come on these tours and discover their awesomeness.