There’s something about manatees that pulls at my heartstrings. Maybe it’s the big nose or widespread eyes set into an immense round body flanked by little flippers. Whatever the case, after booking our December Orlando family vacation, I knew a road trip to Crystal River—the only place in Florida where swimming with manatees is monitored and permitted—was in order.
Right off the bat, let me tell you that the experience is more one of passive observation. You are swimming in the same water but not really with them. There are rules to follow and one major one is that you can’t approach or touch a manatee. You might get lucky and find that they’ll approach you. This is actually what happened to us.
With this in mind, I’ll tell you how to get to Crystal River, about our Crystal River hotel and what it was like to swim with manatees.
About Crystal River
The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was created for the protection of the endangered Florida Manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian Manatee. It’s the only wildlife refuge of its kind. Manatees come here to the warm spring water of King Spring and Three Sisters Springs (both are protected by the refuge) from the Gulf of Mexico during winter in order to survive.
Our short time in Crystal River taught us quite a bit about these beautiful sea cows and that one must be incredibly mindful when choosing to enter their habitat. The tour operator you choose matters.
Road Trip from Orlando
I rented a car through the concierge at Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort (I highly recommend that you stay here) that was delivered to the resort at our predetermined check out time. It took us about 2 hours to reach Crystal River on mostly highways.
My husband, ever the foodie, had decided that he wanted to check out The Crab Plant for lunch which proved to be a trip highlight. This combo seafood market and restaurant, perched right on the water in Crystal River, owns and operates its own boats that bring fresh catches in daily.
Here, we hammered our way through a dozen Stone Crab and other amazing seafood eats at very reasonable pricing and with super-friendly service.
Life moves a bit more slowly in Crystal River compared to theme park bonanza of Orlando.
It took only a few minutes from The Crab Plant to reach The Plantation on Crystal River, our hotel for the night. And, on our way we noticed a Winn Dixie and a bunch of convenient, casual restaurants nearby.
The Plantation on Crystal River
It’s not a big town so the choice of hotels in Crystal River is not huge. I’d decided that The Plantation on Crystal River would be the most suitable option for our family and was pleased that a two-story golf villa with a kitchen (that wound up being more like a large kitchenette) happened to be available during our stay.
It’s a 50-year-old plantation resort set on the water of King’s Bay and full of Southern hospitality. In fact, I couldn’t get over how nice everyone we ran into was from the time we checked in to the time we checked out.
The accommodations themselves do, however, look much nicer in the photos than they are in real life. Our villa was in dire need of a renovation.
Then again, even during peak season, we paid about $200 for a very large space so I felt the pricing was not terribly out of line. I read that the hotel has new owners (and they definitely have a new website since we visited) so am optimistic that changes can be made. The property has incredible potential.
That being said, if I were to visit the manatees again, I would stay here. The grounds are beautiful (236 acres) with a nice 9-hole golf course, swimming pool, lawn games and plenty of space for kids to run around. The vibe is comfortably relaxed and, again, was an extremely nice change of pace from Orlando.
We booked our manatee tour through the hotel’s Adventure Center, located onsite. Whether you choose to stay at this hotel or not, I would highly recommend their tours here.
The Plantation on Crystal River is an Ascend property and a member of Choice Hotels. Joining Choice Reward Privileges gave me a better rate so I’d recommend that you do this and book through Choice Hotels. The Plantation on Crystal River has its own site with a manatee package but I found it to be better value for us to book a room separately from our tour.
And, I wanted a private or semi-private manatee tour, which proved to be the right choice.
The Plantation on Crystal River Adventure Center Manatee Tour
It was dark when we walked over to the Adventure Center at The Plantation on Crystal River for a 6:30 a.m. manatee tour. The benefit to staying on the property meant that we literally left our villa at 6:29 a.m.
Upon check-in, we were fitted with wetsuits and snorkels. The 5mm thickness of these suits not only kept us warm in chilly water but they provide an extra and necessary level of buoyancy which allowed safe and quiet interaction with manatees. We saw others snorkeling with pool noodles for assistance. I’ve floated with pool noodles plenty in my lifetime. It’s not the same.
A semi-private tour meant that there was one other family on the boat with us and that we were out on the water before most other tours. Truthfully, I wouldn’t want more people in my group than what we had so would highly recommend that you book a private or semi-private manatee tour.
Rules for Observing Manatees
Before departure, we watched a video put together by the National Wildlife Service about how to correctly observe manatees in the wild. In a nutshell, look but don’t touch manatees. Do not feed them or give them water. Do not pursue them.
If they come near you, freeze in the water until they pass to avoid startling the animal. You can read more about manatee manners online.
On the Boat
The sun was starting to rise as our boat headed out to King’s Bay though the boat has protected sides to keep the cold more or less out. Manatees tend to gather in certain areas so our captains were on the lookout for signs of their presence.
The bay is lined with homes here—it feels very residential—and all the way along the shoreline to the entrance of Three Sister Springs. This is where our boat eventually stopped and because there were a handful of manatees congregating just outside of the entrance. We needed to swim into the springs anyway.
In the Water
Here, I enjoyed my first up-close interaction with a manatee. Per instructions, I froze as the manatee came over to say hello. They’re so slow in the water that the experience was definitely not overwhelming at all.
After checking me out, the manatee swam right under me and used my wetsuit as a backscratcher. They grow barnacles in the Gulf. These barnacles die off when the manatees enter Crystal River’s fresh water so I suspect he or she was trying to do away with some. Or, maybe he was just itchy.
There were only a handful of manatees in this spot. As you can see, the water is very clear but there is a little gunk floating around in it.
Three Sister Springs
The entrance to Three Sister Springs, one of the protected areas in the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge, is a narrow passageway that we had to swim through. No boats are allowed inside and there is a roped-off area where humans can’t pass and manatees tend to hang out. Regulators patrolled the area to make sure that anyone kayaking or swimming stayed clear of this spot and exercised their best manatee manners.
Here, we could also see the warm water bubble into the springs from the ground which was cool. A handful of manatees swam outside the barrier for us to see, but most of them stayed put inside of it.
Once we swam out of Three Sister Springs, everyone was ready to get back on the boat for some hot chocolate. It would up being about a 2-hour experience from start to finish.
There were two captains on our boat, and one got on the water with us, thankfully, with a GoPro because I wound up losing my micro-SIM card on this trip.
We were given the option to buy the footage we took (on an adorable manatee USB drive, no less) so I did and stitched together this short video with highlights from our experience.
The Best Time to Swim With Manatees
Regardless of when you visit Crystal River, you can swim with manatees. However, the best time of year for this is between November and April. When manatees are more likely to leave Gulf of Mexico for the warmer waters of Crystal River. Tours can’t guarantee you’ll see a manatee so it’s best to plan your trip according to the time of year when the odds are in your favor.
The best time of day is no doubt first thing in the morning before King’s Bay gets crowded with boats.
Is This a Good Experience for Kids?
The answer is, yes, with a few caveats. While the wetsuits float, they should have swimming basics down as they’ll need to keep up with the group when swimming into Three Sister Springs.
The water has algae and things floating in it and is also cold. The water that comes up from the ground into the springs is 72° F but the average temperature of the water you’re swimming in is more between 60-70° F.
We were cold in the water toward the end of our tour. Kids will also need to have the ability to be totally calm and quiet in the water with the manatees.
I’m glad we went, however, like any other animal interaction there are things to consider. I thought our particular tour by The Plantation on Crystal River Adventure Center (also called the Plantation Inn Dive Shop) showcased a great respect for the manatees.
We stayed within the rules though many people simply do not. We left our tour with a deeper understanding and appreciation of manatees. I do believe that when people fall in love with animals and experience them that they might be more motivated to save them.
At the time of this writing, manatees are a risk of being removed from the endangered list which means that some of their protections may be loosened. I, like many, am now worried about this.
Have you been swimming with manatees?