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