Located on central Florida’s Nature Coast, Crystal River is known as the Manatee Capital of the World. Named after the short river that connects the city with the Gulf of Mexico, this destination is THE place to visit if you are looking for an opportunity to see manatees in their natural environment.
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Crystal River is situated along Kings Bay, a first-magnitude Florida springs system and a leading winter refuge for the Florida Manatee. This freshwater bay is linked to the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Crystal River, making it an ideal refuge for manatees who come here to seek refuge during the colder months.
The significance of this habitat prompted the creation of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, the only refuge in the U.S. dedicated to the preservation and protection of a single species.
Crystal River, Florida, and the surrounding Citrus County is the only place in the United States where you can legally swim with manatees.
It is exactly for this reason that we made our way to Crystal River in July 2023. Unsure whether manatees can be found in Crystal River in the off-season (they refuge here in hundreds during the winter months), we set off on a mission to find the Florida manatees in their natural habitat!
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A subspecies of the West Indian manatee, the Florida manatee, lives in the water up and down the Florida coast throughout the year.
Their preferred habitat is near the shore, with plenty of underwater vegetation. As the Florida manatee can’t tolerate temperatures below 20℃ (68℉) for an extended length of time, these gentle giants look for refuge in warmer canals, power plans outfalls and natural springs when the water temperatures along the coast start to drop in the winter months.
Starting in November/December, between 500 and 1000 manatees seek refuge in Crystal River, drawn to the spring-fed Kings Bay and its constant temperature of about 23℃ (72℉). In the summer, as the water temperatures come back up, the manatee numbers in Crystal River dwindle as they return back to the open waters in search of more food sources along the shores.
But as we found out during our visit, some manatees remain and choose to spend their summers in Crystal Rivers. More than 100 resident manatees live in and around Crystal River all throughout the year.
Once designated as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida manatee population has seen a resurgence in the last 30 years. While the population has bounced back, they are still considered to be threatened due to injury and disturbance from swimmers and boaters, toxins associated with red tides, and loss of the seagrass they subsist on.
Best Time to Swim with Manatees
Since manatees can be found in Crystal River, Florida, year-round, they can be spotted here at any time of the year. During our visit to the region and our tour with Explorida, we learned a lot about manatee behaviour throughout the year, which helped us further understand their activities in different seasons.
Allow us to shed some light. The truth is each season has its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to manatee interactions.
As the manatees migrate to warmer waters during the winter months, you can see hundreds of them in the springs during this time of year. Considered to be the Manatee Season, the winter months also see a lot of tourists wanting to catch a glimpse of the animals, so you can expect the tours and springs to be busy.
However, as we learned, manatees actually spend winters in semi-hibernation mode (saving their energy to stay warm in the coolest waters), so there isn’t as much action happening in the springs this time of the year.
They don’t often feed or swim around much and can often be found in much shallower (and hence warmer) sections of the springs. To protect manatees many of these sections get roped off in the winter months to protect the manatees in their fragile winter environment.
While the manatees aren’t very active in the winter season, planning a trip in the winter allows you to see more manatees in one spot and often in very clear waters!
Manatees are more active during the spring months since they are coming out of their winter hibernation. Spring also marks the beginning of the manatee mating season, which can last all the way through to the Fall months.
As far as tourists go, Springs isn’t as busy as in the Winter, so viewing areas won’t be so crowded, and you shouldn’t have trouble booking a manatee swim. As the waters warm up, so do manatee numbers, but you have a higher chance of seeing manatees feed or move around in manatee sanctuaries.
If you do go swimming with manatees in Spring, be sure to follow any and all guidelines while in the water. As they search for a mate, these gentle creatures can become a bit more aggressive during this time of the year.
With the Gulf waters warming up during the summer months, the manatees’ numbers in the springs and canals of Crystal River tend to go down. However, not all of them head out of the Crystal River area.
Some resident manatees, like mothers with calves and older males, do stay in the refuge, where they will be safe from boats and red tides.
The manatees are more active in the summer months. So if you choose to go swimming with manatees in the summer, as we did, you’ll be treated to a feeding frenzy show. It’s not uncommon for manatees to hang out in local springs and graze on seagrass and other aquatic vegetation for up to 8 hours a day.
Although there are far fewer manatees during this season, they sure are fun to watch.
During cold fronts and the cooler months of fall, manatees begin their migration back to the canals and springs of Crystal River, Florida. This also marks the end of their mating season. They are also quite mobile during the fall months, actively feeding as they prepare for hibernation.
Fall can be a great time to see manatees since their numbers will be increasing in the area, and they won’t be hibernating quite yet. If you do a manatee swim during this time, be mindful of the guide’s instructions because there will be a lot of movement with the migration.
They might be gentle giants, but these guys can weigh more than 3,000 pounds!
Choosing the Right Swimming with Manatee Provider
The privilege of swimming with Crystal River manatees is unique to Citrus County, so it’s important to do it responsibly. While we always advocate for responsible interactions with ALL wildlife, the Florida manatees are actually designated as a threatened species and are protected by law.
Interference with migration and feeding is a serious offence, so it’s especially important to select a knowledgeable and responsible manatee tour operator to help you have an incredible interaction with these animals.
We’ve found that it’s best to go with an established company that offers boat tours focused on environmental education and ethical operations. Since Citrus County is the only place in the country where it is legal to swim with manatees, several companies have tried to capitalize on the unique experience without the best intentions.
Swimming with Manatees with Explorida
For our manatee swim, we joined a manatee tour with Explorida, an activity operator that offers swimming with manatee tours and a Crystal River manatee viewing eco-cruise.
Explorida is a locally owned and operated company that has over 20 years of experience in environmental education and tour operations and has shown commitment to facilitating respectful, responsible native wildlife encounters. Their focus is on educating every visitor on manatees and their behaviour while helping to facilitate interactive manatee tours in Crystal River.
Another reason we chose Explorida is that the company continues to contribute to the conservation and care of the manatees and the environment. Captains and guides monitor animal behaviour and take action in an emergency or when an animal needs care. Several Explorida employees participate in manatee rescue efforts and water restoration efforts as well.
We really felt like the staff at Explorida were passionate about the manatees and cared for their well-being. It made us feel great to know that we were supporting a tour operator with a heart!
Getting Up Close with the Gentle Giants: Our Manatee Encounter
Following the advice of Explorida, we booked a 6 am tour to swim with manatees in July. The early start time was suggested to give us the best chance of spotting the manatees this time of the year. Given that the waters are warm all along the coast this time of the year, the manatees tend to move between the springs and King’s Bay and the Gulf, making them a bit harder to find later in the day.
Our tour began at the Explorida office in downtown Crystal River where we were treated to an educational presentation to help us learn more about manatees, and their behaviours and to understand the Do’s and Don’t of swimming with manatees (yes, there is such a thing and yes, the don’ts are a serious matter!)
From there, it was time to get our wet suits on, grab our snorkeling gear (3mm wet suites, masks and snorkels are included in the price of the tour) and head straight to the boat, where the search for the manatees began.
There aren’t a lot of manatees left in Crystal River in the summer, so we got a chance to go on a little manatee safari, searching for the manatees in canals around King’s Bay. We kept our eyes peeled on the water until we spotted bubbles and rings in the water and saw the cute nose of the manatee pop up for air right beside our boat.
“Yep, that’s Triangle”, called out Captain Mike, recognizing a familiar pattern on the back of the manatee in the water. “You guys are safe to jump in, he’s really gentle to swim with”
We put on our snorkels and masks, grabbed our floaties, and practically jumped into the water. Actually, we descended very slowly so as not to disturb the manatee, but our hearts were definitely jumping out of our chests from excitement.
The floaties help us hover above the surface and minimize our disturbance to the manatee’s environment. We stuck our heads into the water, hovering right above the manatee. We could barely make out his outline. But before we knew it, he was coming up for air, his mouth full of seagrass. He took a deep breath, exhaled, and dove back in, resuming his activity below the surface.
We adjusted our positions to get a little closer.
“Hover right above him and don’t move as he comes up,” instructed our guide, Amy, in a calm, gentle voice. “He’ll navigate around you,”… and so we did.
He popped up right in front of us, his chewing more audible than before, seemingly undisturbed by our presence.
The thrill of coming face to face with these gentle creatures was indescribable. We had to fight the urge to flail about as we tried our best to stay still while waiting for Triangle to come up to the surface, hoping for him to emerge close but not too close.
His every breath offered a new opportunity to admire him from another angle, to take in his splendour and majestic demeanour.
The hour we spent with him seemed to fly by. And thanks to the early start, our small group of 8 got to enjoy his presence all by ourselves. It wasn’t long before other boats, kayakers and snorkelers found their way to Triangle.
But it didn’t matter. It felt like we got the best of him!
Swimming with Manatees: Practical Information & Tips
Conveniently located in the historic downtown district of Crystal River, Explorida Adventure Center is very easy to find and has plenty of parking. The office hours are 6am – 5pm daily, and they can be reached at 1-352-423-3798 from 5am – 8pm. You can find more information about their tours and book a manatee swim through their website.
How Much Do Manatee Tours Cost?
Manatee swims start at $64 USD per person, and a Manatee Viewing Eco Cruise starts at $35 USD per person. Private tours are also available, and prices fluctuate by season.
There are no hidden fees – all snorkel gear, and a wetsuit are included with the tour price. Make sure to bring a swimsuit, towels, a change of clothes, and some sandals or water shoes. If you have a GoPro or another underwater camera, be sure to bring it along. But if you don’t, no problem. Your in-water guide will also serve as your professional underwater photographer, and the photos will be available for purchase when you return to the Adventure Center.
Other Information About Tours
Manatee tours run year-round, with the exception of a few holidays. Make sure you book at least a week in advance, especially during the winter months. It is rare for tours to be cancelled due to weather, but if it does happen, you can either reschedule or get a refund.
Other Places to Spot Manatees
Nearby Homosassa Springs Park and Hunter Springs Park are two other recreation areas where you can see manatees, especially during the winter months. Homosassa Springs Park has an underwater observatory where you can walk beneath the spring’s surface to watch the manatees swim about. In Hunter Springs Park, there is a roped-off area for swimming, a kayak/canoe launch, and a boardwalk from which you might spot manatees swimming by.
Our time with Triangle was an amazing experience, and thanks to Explorida – a responsible one too!
We can’t stress enough how important it is to be respectful and responsible when interacting with manatees in Crystal River and elsewhere in Florida. The natural habitats of King’s Bay and the surrounding springs are extremely delicate, and manatees already face dangers without our interference.
It is such a privilege to be able to swim with these amazing creatures, and with that comes the responsibility of behaving responsibly when in their environment!
Disclaimer: Our visit to Crystal River was organized as a part of a partnership with Visit Florida, but as always, all opinions expressed in this article are our own.
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