So often in the travel world with dream of bucket list adventures, knowing that if we ever get to do them we’ll spend a small fortune after spending a lifetime traveling to a remote destination. Those experiences are absolutely worth having, but they often require lots of planning, coordination and savings.
But we recently experienced one of the easiest bucket list activities around: going for a swim with manatees in Crystal River, Florida. I’m here to share why you should go do it yourself and how to make it happen. The best part is that you can easily make it a weekend getaway!
Why you should swim with manatees in Crystal River, Florida
I’ll start with the obvious: there is nothing not to love about manatees. These enormous marine mammals don’t have a mean bone in their thousand-pound bodies. They live to munch on sea grass and float around being lovable goofballs. In the introduction to our Crystal Springs manatee tour, the guide referred to them as “sofas with faces” and “sleepy potatoes”. Having now observed them in the wild, I cosign those descriptions. The worst a manatee can do to you is give a friendly bump if you’re in their way.
Manatees have no natural predators, but they are threatened due to habitat destruction. They left the endangered species list in 2017 but unfortunately appear to be on their way back to endangered status after hurricane-related storm surges killed much of the grass they feed on in the cold winter months.
The only place to legally go swimming with manatees in Florida is in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, and even then you must go with a licensed company. You can sometimes spot manatees elsewhere around Florida and they may even swim with you but it’s illegal to approach or disturb them.
What makes Crystal River the best place to swim with manatees is that it’s their balmy 72 degree water “winter home” – as the water gets colder out in the Gulf of Mexico, manatees retreat into Crystal River and the surrounding springs to warm up between open-water feeding sessions. You’ll almost always see manatees in Crystal River in the winter!
How to see Crystal River, Florida manatees
The first step to seeing these amazing creatures is to schedule your visit during Crystal River “manatee season”. The best time to see manatees in Florida rivers and springs is November through March, with December through February being ideal. We visited Crystal River in January during a particularly cool week and it was fantastic!
Crystal River is roughly an hour and a half from Tampa, Orlando and Gainesville. It makes a great day trip from Orlando as a break between Disney World and Universal! On this trip, we hopped over from Port Canaveral and then spent the night in Tampa after swimming with the manatees. We flew using our Southwest Companion Pass, giving us a huge savings on airfare.
We opted to check off our bucket list with River Ventures, which is routinely in the contention for best manatee tour in Crystal River. The booking process was extremely easy and they offer several tours per day. Generally the manatee viewing conditions are best early in the morning and there are very few visitors out at that time, but the mid-day tour worked best for our schedule and was a great experience nonetheless.
When we arrived at the office for our manatee swim, we first had a really helpful introduction to manatees and our role in protecting them. We learned about their habitat needs, common behaviors and risks.
The next step is to get geared up! River Ventures provides wetsuits for everyone, including sizes 6 (child) to 5x. Even my petite 9 year old had several wetsuits to choose from. My kids opted to wear their own neoprene water shoes, which provided a little extra warmth for their feet. There are storage cubbies in the office for your dry clothing, so you don’t need to bring anything with you to the boat – we opted to bring our towels, which was good because the kids were quite cold after the manatee swim!
You’ll take a short van ride to the dock and then board the well-equipped boat. Everyone will get a pool noodle to go in the water as well to help your lower body stay buoyant. Though groups are capped at 10 guests, we only had 8 (including two non-swimmers). The boat was spacious for all of us and the sides could be closed to keep the breeze out.
Our trip was led by tour guide Sarah and captain Luke, and I can’t share enough great feedback about both of them. They were fun and supportive throughout the whole experience, giving us tips on how to make the most of our Crystal River snorkel with manatees. They know the area extremely well and were able to take us to a spot where we had great visibility, tons of manatees and very few other visitors.
Each tour’s route is slightly different based on where the manatees are hanging out. Our afternoon manatee tour was in the Hunter Springs Run rather than the popular Three Sisters Springs. It turns out to be a great choice! As you can see from the photos, the conditions were amazing and the manatees were all around us.
There were also two guests on our boat who weren’t swimming. Luke stayed on the boat with them and helped them see the passing manatees, while also tending to all of their needs. When my kids got out of the water before us, he wrapped them up to keep them warm (even using his own jacket!) and gave them hot cocoa. We’ve done many boat tours over the years but never had such a sweet captain!
In total we swam with manatees for about an hour and a half before heading back to the office to dry off and clean up. If we’d had more time we would have headed over to Three Sisters Springs to enjoy the boardwalk for more manatee viewing.
What to bring when you go swimming with manatees in Florida
The most important tip for all of the best manatee tours in Crystal River is to arrive wearing your swim suit under your clothing. You’ll be wearing a wet suit so you will get wet underneath. Our tour provider offered plenty of space for changing, but having your swimsuit on already expedites things.
- Flip flops or water-friendly shoes – You don’t need footwear in the water or even on the boat, but you do need to wear something to walk from the shuttle van to the dock
- Dry clothing – You will probably be cold when you get out of the water, so you’ll want to be comfortable and dry after your swim with manatees. Don’t forget underwear!
- Towels – Did I mention that you’ll probably be very cold and wet? Bring at least one large travel towel per person. These are all basically the same, just make sure to buy ~30″x60″ for an adult.
- Wet bag – Be sure to have a place to store your swimsuit and towel when you’re done! This version is more expensive but also a little larger and I love the brand’s quality products
- Snorkel gear – This is optional, as the tour providers offer snorkel gear including open-top snorkels (which should be fine for such shallow, calm water). However, we feel really comfortable with our own sets and already had them with us from our cruise. In addition, I do recommend bringing snorkel gear for kids to be sure that it really fits their faces and mouths! Often tour provider have kid-sized masks but not kid-sized snorkels. We’ve had a great experience with this set for kids.
- Credit card – To pay for the photo package, which is absolutely worth it, and purchase adorable manatee-themed items at the gift shop (we use this fee-free one since it earns 3 points on restaurants and 1.5 points on everything else)
- Cash – Optional, to tip your guide
If there’s one think I wouldn’t bring, it’s your own underwater camera or waterproof cell phone pouch. While they aren’t prohibited and I brought mine, the photos I got weren’t nearly as good as our guide’s and there are lots of photos of me taking photos (not ideal). The photo package costs $39 for all of the guides photos and videos, so I recommend letting them do the documenting while you just float and soak in the experience.
Where to stay near Crystal River
If you want to spend the night near Crystal River, check out these great options:
- 2 bedroom cottage – Sleeps 6 people, quick walk to dock, includes 2 adult and 2 child kayaks to go scouting for manatees
- Holiday Inn Express Crystal River – Recently renovated hotel with spacious rooms and free breakfast
- 3 bedroom family home – Sleeps 10 people and offers a game room, floating dock with kayaks and more!
Alternatively, you can head down to Tampa – the most convenient airport location for most visitors. We spent an excellent night at Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, which offered amazing value when we transferred our points from the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card – just 12,000 points per night.
If you’ll be staying in the area longer, check out the aparthotels of ROOST Tampa. They offer spacious accommodations for up to 5 people, kitchens and an outdoor pool. It’s also walking distance to the Florida Aquarium!
Crystal River manatees FAQs
The only place where you can legally swim with manatees is in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, avoiding the designated manatee “rest areas”.
Manatees arrive in Crystal River in mid-November and are gone by the end of March. You’ll have the best chance of seeing them in December, January and February.
Children who are at least 3 years old can join manatee snorkeling tours. However, it’s critical that all participants be calm and quiet so that they don’t startle the manatees. As a mom of two kids I would say that calm, water-confident kids can have a great time as young as 7 or 8. Because of the water temperature, our kids couldn’t stay in the water as long as we did but at 9 and 12 they were able to hang out on the boat without needing a parent.