07 Feb Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River, FL
If you want to get up close and personal with a manatee, Crystal River is the place to do it. During the winter months, manatees flock to the springs along the Crystal River to find warmth when temperatures drop in the chilly bay waters. Temperatures in the Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs run a cool 72° year round, so you are sure to find manatees there after a cold winter snap in the Bay Area, which also means it’s prime time for snorkeling with the adorable manatees.
I have been trying to spot a wild manatee since moving to Florida 4 years ago, so when I happened across a Groupon for swimming with manatees, I jumped at the chance to buy tickets and scheduled a tour right away. When we arrived in Crystal River on Friday night and the temperatures were in the 50’s, I was a bit nervous about snorkeling in such cool weather. Thankfully, the next morning Mr. Sun came out to play, so the weather turned slightly in our favor. When we arrived at Crystal River Manatee Tour and Dive for our snorkeling journey, we first watched a video that details how you can and cannot interact with the manatees. The regulations are fairly strict and they ask you to practice passive observation; this basically means you can only touch and interact with a manatee if they approach you first. No approaching, harassing, touching resting manatees or disturbing them in any way is allowed.
After we were suited up in our wetsuits, we boarded the boat and were anxiously on our way down the river. Typically, the snorkeling starts in the springs and if you don’t have luck finding manatees there, they will head back down the river to search for more.
Our guide, Doreen, was great–she is one of the only guides there that actually gets into the water with you. She is so helpful and will take photos of you with the manatees if you so desire.
Once we made it to the edge of the spring, we anchored the boat and hopped in the water; I almost screamed as it was so cold! The water is very chilly and shocking at first, but thankfully, if you are wearing a wet suit you should get used to the temperature surprisingly fast. I am a wuss when it comes to cold temperatures, so I was amazed how warm I actually felt after a few minutes.
Also, there were noodles provided to help you stay afloat and the guides strongly recommended everyone take one with. I almost jumped in the water without one, but at the last second decided to grab a noodle just in case. Big mistake. I could barely swim with the thing! I felt like a blob caught in the current–I couldn’t swim in the directions I wanted, so I ended up pawning it off on Micah for the majority of the snorkel. Since Micah was taking photos and video, the noodle actually helped him so he could focus on his camera and the manatees. If you want to relax or you aren’t a strong swimmer, it would be a great idea to bring it along, but the noodle just didn’t work well for me.
Now for the fun part–the manatees! Right away when we submerged our masks into the water, we saw a few manatees. We spent a little bit of time playing with them before heading back into the spring. Once we made it to the spring, we were shocked at how lucky we were–we kept seeing manatee after manatee, and a few of them were so friendly and playful! One manatee came right up to my face, so I was able to pet him while laughing with glee. In addition to the active and playful manatees, we saw a baby manatee nursing from its mother and an entire cluster of manatees resting in the corner of the spring. The cool thing about this activity is that you are interacting with these animals in the wild–it’s not a forced interaction and they have the choice to approach you or not! The water in the spring is pretty clear and clean (minus the leaves) as it is 99.8% pure. Every day, approximately 9 tons of water spews out of the spring from a hole that is over 500 feet deep.
Here is a short video of the funny manatees in action:
We had an amazing time on the tour and I was so happy to finally see manatees in the wild–it was such a unique and special activity! You can take tours year round, but we would recommend going in the winter as you have the best chance of manatee sightings when the temperatures are cooler.