Swim with Manatees in Florida

Swim with Manatees in the Florida Springs

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It’s hard to believe after visiting 100-something countries and all 50 states that there are still several very attainable bucket list items like swimming with manatees in the Florida springs that I hadn’t tackled until last week.

Paddleboard with Manatees in Florida

And yet, sometimes those are the last ones we get to because they seem just that: so easy.

But while visiting Orlando last month, we were traveling by car and I decided, there’s never going to be a better time than now to see those OG mermaids. So we planned a quick little 24 hours on Crystal River en route back home. And it was worth the 11 hours we had to spend in the car to make it back because it was, quite simply, magical. Particularly, this little baby siren going in for a suckle at 1:20 in the video below. Squee!

Headed to Florida? Here’s what you need to know about planning your own jaunt to Crystal River:

When to See Manatees

Manatee season is November through mid-March when the manatees retreat from the cold sea to the warmer waters of the spring heads. The bonus is that, if you’re coming to Orlando to do the theme parks, you can do a double-header: hit up Universal during the shoulder- or off-season during the week (consider visiting during the holidays at the park), then head over to Crystal River for the weekend afterward.

Swim with Manatees in Florida

Where to Stay on Crystal River

We booked at the Plantation on Crystal River upon my friend Alex’s recommendation. It felt very Old Florida, not many bells and whistles, but absolutely perfect for what we needed: a clean, convenient hotel that gave us easy access to the springs. Plus, it was pet-friendly, and we had Ella with us, which significantly limits our options by way of lodging.

Where to Stay in Crystal River, Florida
Where to Stay in Crystal River, Florida

The staff was super friendly, the property was truly welcoming of dogs (unlike so many others that claim to be and aren’t), and I would recommend this hotel for anyone looking to snorkel, swim or dive with manatees—or simply experience the natural oasis of Crystal River and its surrounding springs.

Paddling, Snorkeling or Diving with Manatees

We had brought our paddleboards on this trip, so within an hour of us arriving at Crystal River, we’d loaded up Ella (after double-checking that the area was clear of alligators, of course!) and our camera gear on my board and set out into Kings Bay. We weren’t even past the resort by the time we saw a manatee and her calf cruise by us! I had no idea it would be that easy to find them. The resort where we were staying also rented SUPs and kayaks for those not traveling with their own.

Paddleboard with Manatees in Florida

The current was strong that day, so we didn’t get too far as we knew we’d never make it back. Instead, we paddled into a protected cove and just floated along, and moments later, a few manatees joined us! It was hard to spot them from the surface at first as the water there wasn’t super clear, and we almost mistook one mamma jamma for a boulder. Manatees spend most of their days eating, but they have to surface every few minutes, so keep on the lookout for a snout breaking the glassy surface of the water and then you’ll be able to keep eyes on them after that.

Paddleboard with Manatees in Florida

The next morning, we set out for a snorkel tour, and I debated long and hard between snorkeling and diving. Ultimately, snorkeling won out as the water isn’t that deep and you aren’t actually allowed to swim up too close to the manatees in dive gear anyway. If given the choice again, I’d still choose snorkeling.

Swim with Manatees in Florida

Which Tour to Book

There are dozens of tour operators to choose from; some are legit, others not so much. Ultimately, we booked with Plantation for pure convenience; we were staying there, and the boats left from, literally, right outside of our room. And our tour was awesome; Brian was our captain and Steve, a dive master, our guide. They were friendly, funny blokes and knew exactly where to find plenty of manatees. Even if you’re going to Crystal River and not staying at the resort, I’d look into booking this tour at Plantation Adventure Center.

Manatee Tour in Crystal River, Florida

While we were there, there were three options for time slots (this seems to vary based on the season): 7am, 10:30am, 1pm. We opted to take the first tour of the morning, as several experienced manatee spotters told us our best bet of seeing a whole herd of them was in the wee hours of the morning. I woke up at 6am very ill and almost bailed because I didn’t think I could handle three hours on a boat feeling the way I did. But I’m so glad I just bit the bullet and went anyway, as the manatees were out in full force that morning.

Swim with Manatees in Florida

Within moments of cruising into the river from the bay, our captain spotted a mom and a calf, so he turned off the boat as we all dropped into the chilly water in the river. Despite wearing a seven-millimeter wetsuit, the water was biting at first—it hovered around the same temperature as the air, which was in the 50s that day—but you quickly get used to it. The visibility was really low, so after we drifted around for a bit, our guide steered us toward a channel that led to a magnificent spring.

Swim with Manatees in Florida
Swim with Manatees in Florida
Swim with Manatees in Florida

Swimming Into Three Sisters Springs

Our favorite part of our tour was when we snorkeled from the river through a narrow channel and into Three Sisters Springs, which is the best place to spot manatees in this area of Crystal River. Not only was the water clarity (and taste, according to SVV) amazing, but the manatees were out by the dozens! I was in manatee heaven. I wasn’t sure which way to look, there were so many in every which direction: mama manatees, daddy manatees, fresh baby manatees nursing—it was all sensory overload.

Swim with Manatees in Florida

There are roped off areas where the manatees sleep (and nurse) that you’re not allowed to swim in, but you can get close enough for a good view and a snapshot or two. It’s discouraged to disrupt the manatees (or touch them, obviously), so you should plan on floating peacefully above them and do your best to stay out of their way.

Swim with Manatees in Florida

What to Pack

A camera with underwater capabilities. We took both our Canon G7X Mark II (the camera we use to dive with the underwater housing) and also a GoPro Hero mounted on a floating hand grip for stabilization. Water visibility is iffy and can vary day to day and spot to spot. We only had a couple feet of vis in the river, but once we swam into the spring, it significantly cleared up to a solid 50 feet.

A mask and snorkel if you have it. You won’t need fins—in fact, tours don’t allow them—but if you have a reliable mask, it behooves you to use your own instead of borrowing one from the adventure center. Your boat should have defogger to use prior to your dip.

A bathing suit and a towel (or something warm to wrap up in afterward). Your wetsuit rental is included in the tour, but it was cold after we got out—a chilling 50 degrees in the air—and I was happy I had packed my warmest, snuggliest beach towel. Our captain also had hot chocolate ready for us, which was an added bonus.

Swim with Manatees in Florida

What It Costs

We paid $139 for our hotel room including sales and occupancy tax, $14 for the resort fee and $65 each for our tours. To be honest, I didn’t even do any cost comparison, as this seemed like a fair price and we could head out to see the manatees directly from our hotel room. We ate lunch on site ($30 for two people, including tax and tip), had a couple of cocktails ($20) and had dinner in the restaurant ($74, including tax and tips). We brought our own paddleboards, so incurred no additional fees for equipment rental.

Paddleboard with Manatees in Florida

Factoring in gratuity for our guides, we spent $407 for this once-in-a-lifetime experience—such a fun and affordable getaway. Note: This would have been pricier, of course, had we had to fly in and not already been in the area with our car for transportation. Also, be sure and check out any special offers the Plantation may be offering, as they had a number of different promos going when I called to make our reservation.

Swim with Manatees in Florida

Have you ever spotted a manatee in the wild? Better yet, do you want to?


 

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Swim with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida
Swim with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida
COMMENTS
  • December 28, 2017

    Who would not want to spot manatees in the wild? Your photos make me so excited to undertake this excursion one day! Goals 🙂

    • December 28, 2017

      Right? They’re SUCH cool creatures!!!

  • December 28, 2017

    SO COOL! This is definitely on my bucket list.

  • December 28, 2017

    I’ve been able to swim with the manatees many times in the springs near Orlando. You will need a wetsuit if you go in winter, the water is always around 74 degrees, but the air is considerably colder when the manatees are in the springs (late November to mid-march).

    • December 31, 2017

      Nice, Lori! It’s such a cool thing to do. When we were there, the air temp was in the 50s (it was unseasonably cold) and the water in the mid- to high-60s, so we definitely needed a thick wetsuit!

  • January 5, 2018
    Sara

    I have done this and it is so fun. Your post makes me want to go back.

  • January 6, 2018

    Aww! They’re so cute!

    Have I ever spotted a manatee in the wild? I don’t believe so, although they look very familiar to seal lions in Scotland, but obviously, not as huge!

  • January 9, 2018
    Mat

    This looks so COOL ! I’m a scuba diver but never had a chance to see one in the wild. The scenery looks pretty nice above the water too.

  • January 10, 2018

    You got some really great shots lady!

  • February 8, 2018

    Thanks for the information. I just booked tickets to swim with the manatees in March.

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