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Every winter, thousands of West Indian manatees migrate inland to Crystal River in Florida, attracted by the 72-degree waters that the Gulf can’t offer them! During this time, you can join a tour and swim with manatees while keeping a safe distance.
This guide shares how to choose the best Crystal River manatee tour that allows you to experience the magic of the sea cows while respecting the beautiful beasts, as this particular mammal has been protected by Florida law since 1893.
We’ll discuss a bit about the area, how to select an ethical company, and what to expect on the day, so you can confidently choose a tour company.
Where is Crystal River?
Crystal River is a small coastal city located in Western Florida.
It is one of the most popular places on the state’s Nature Coast, and that’s down to the Crystal River manatees that return each year to take advantage of the toasty temperatures.
The city of Crystal River has a downtown with a few bars, cafes, public parks, and accommodations, which you can read about in this guide.
From downtown, you can walk to Kings Bay Park, where you will see birds, fish, and boats, but you do need to book a tour to swim with the manatees.
As the name suggests, Crystal River is also a river and this is where the freshwater Kings Bay is situated.
Kings Bay is fed by three springs called Three Sisters Springs.
Since the water at Three Sisters Springs is clearer than Kings Bay, it is much easier to photograph as it gives that turquoise pop!
You’ve probably seen the springs on social media while researching your trip to Florida.
When Can I Go Swimming with Manatees in Florida?
The Crystal River manatee season tends to start around mid-November, officially the 15th, until the end of March.
However, our tour guide explained that conditions have been so attractive to the sheltering manatees in past seasons that they stayed around until summer.
Tours followed suit, giving visitors more chances to swim with the manatees!
As always with nature, you can’t quite predict it; even if you book a tour to see manatees during the official window, they might be in hiding.
Outside of manatee season, Crystal River and the Three Sisters Springs area are popular with kayakers.
Check out our guide to all the best things to do in Florida in the winter for more seasonal suggestions.
Choosing a Crystal River Manatee Tour
In the recent past, the number of sea cows sheltering in the area dwindled, and great lengths have been gone to create the right environment to encourage their return.
The manatee population was negatively impacted by pollution, harm from boats, and habitat loss, so increased awareness and special schemes such as grass baskets were initiated to try to make positive change.
To choose the right tour that focuses on conservation as well as comfort for guests, consider the following.
How big are the tour groups?
Look for a small capacity tour as this means you have more chance of observing manatees and less chance of there being disrespectful members in the party who crowd and touch the manatees.
Does the tour mention observation rules on their website?
You’ll get the company’s vibe from the text on their website and social media channels.
If they talk about giving a high five to a sea cow, close the website!
While you get ready on the boat, most companies show a short video explaining how to protect the manatees, although not all enforce what’s taught.
Is the boat covered?
While you will spend most of your time calmly snorkeling in the water, there will be periods when you are on the boat, so a covered section is ideal for keeping warm.
Do they offer morning tours?
A local told us that mornings were the best time to see the manatees.
However, as we mentioned above, it really is just your luck.
Manatees in Paradise
We booked a morning tour with Manatees in Paradise as the group’s maximum capacity was six people, and they offered a morning slot.
We were very privileged to have no one else on our boat aside from our guides, Derek and Jacob (Jake).
Derek has taken part in a BBC documentary, which also featured Evergreen Athlete of the Year Winner Leilani Munter, so you know he really cares about the welfare of the manatees.
The tour meeting place is about 10 minutes drive from the center of Crystal River, where you’ll find accommodation.
All you need to pack is your swimsuit.
The tour includes polarized glasses to see activity in the water better, a wetsuit to keep you cozy, and a snorkel kit for observing the manatees.
We packed our own swim socks because we had them.
Another bonus is that one of the tour guides gets in the water with you and takes photos of the manatees.
The photos are sent to you after the trip, so you’ll always have a souvenir of your time manatee snorkeling at Crystal River!
Choosing the right tour is important because these guides are the folks who call to report hurt manatees and are the ones who whistle at ignorant tourists when they are in the protected areas, which we saw, unfortunately.
Swimming With Manatees Experience
Now we’re on to the good part, and honestly, we are beaming ear to ear at the thought of sharing this Florida bucket list experience with you.
As mentioned above, the start of the tour consists of your guide getting you ready with wetsuits and snorkel kits while you watch a short yet informative video on how to act around the manatees.
While this is happening, the captain sails towards the roped area that visitors are permitted to snorkel in.
During this time, if there’s any wildlife around, it will be pointed out to you.
This is where we saw our first manatee swimming past us; the polarized glasses help you see through the dark water of Kings Bay.
Close to the roped area, the boat will turn off its engine, and guests will get into the water to lightly doggy paddle towards the manatees.
There’s no need to use your legs for swimming; the aim is to keep the waters as calm as possible while manatees graze, and graze, and graze!
Other popular activities include sleeping, gnawing their gums on the ropes, farting, and pooping.
They are pretty gassy, our tour guide tells us.
According to our guides, manatees don’t have the best eyesight, but they know when humans are around because they can sense a heartbeat.
They are pretty curious, so some might brush up against you; just stay calm.
One manatee swam up to our tour guide and placed its face right up to his snorkel!
Some of the manatees have shell-like designs on their bodies called barnacles.
This means they’ve been all the way out to the Gulf, and the barnacles will fall off eventually.
Other observations include how they look like big stones while sleeping and how hairy their backs are!
After around 1 hour and 15 minutes at Kings Bay, we sailed to Three Sisters, where we met a group of kayakers and a volunteer guarding the protected area.
Inside the sanctuary was the sweetest thing: a baby manatee feeding off its mum’s mammary gland, which was like a white cloud underneath its fin.
Nature is amazing!
Three Sisters differs from Kings Bay as it looks as if water has flooded on top of the land with sand, grass, and stones.
It feels like a huge fishbowl!
There is also an underground spring vent chugging out water.
Crystal River snorkeling really is a cool experience everyone should aim to do before they die!
Crystal River is a lovely small city for an overnight stay or longer for those looking to get in the water.
The manatees really are the showstopper, and without sounding too cheesy, it really is a God-tier experience that won’t be forgotten.
We hope this guide has equipped you to choose the best manatee tour in Crystal River.
Please do tell us about your experience in the comments.