How to legally Swim with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida

If you want a unique wildlife experience you can’t find it anywhere else in the world, head to Crystal River, Florida, to swim with manatees. Crystal River is a small town 65 miles north of Tampa and the only place in the US where you are legally allowed to swim with manatees.

Manatees are large gentle mammals often called “sea cows” that live 60+ years and grow to over 3,000 pounds. They can be found all over FL throughout the year and often initiate human interaction.

They can’t survive in cold water (below 68 degrees), so during winter, up to 800 manatees migrate from the Gulf of Mexico to Crystal River, Florida, in search of the warmer 72 degree spring-fed waters of Kings Bay.

Watching 100s of manatees piled on top of each other like a set of Lincoln logs and catching a glimpse of their snout as they gulp air from the surface is exciting in itself, but swimming, snorkeling, or kayaking alongside of Crystal River’s West Indian Manatees is an extra special once-in-a-lifetime experience anyone can enjoy.

Manatee Crystal River

Whether you want to observe from a boardwalk, kayak, paddleboard, or take a boat tour to interact with the famous Florida Manatees, you must always abide by the manatee’s health and safety precautions to protect the now threatened (once-endangered) manatees. Fines are up to $100,000 and a year in jail if safety precautions are not taken.

Some of the manatee interaction rules are listed below. Make sure you always search for up-to-date information and ask wildlife rangers and tour leaders for instructions on legally swimming with manatees in Crystal River, Florida.

Do’s and Don’ts of Manatee interaction

Do this when swimming with manatees

  • Wear a wet suit for warmth and easy flotation
  • Use additional flotation devices to float on the surface of the water
  • Only swim with cupped hands and no kicking
  • Only touch a manatee with an open palm and bent elbow
  • Only touch a manatee if they enter your personal space
  • Stay calm if a manatee swims up to you
  • Know they are gentle and will not hurt you at all

Don’t do this when swimming with manatees

  • Kick while in the water
  • Ride a manatee
  • Pinch, claw or scrape a manatee’s skin
  • Swim over a manatee
  • Stretch your arm toward a manatee
  • Harass, swim after or separate manatees away from their group
  • Enter into any protected sanctuaries
  • Feed or give any liquids to a manatee

Where to swim with manatees in Crystal River

The best locations to see or swim with manatees are close to the manatee sanctuary areas in Kings Bay. The sanctuaries are roped off by a floating rope and are closed to humans. The manatees will casually swim in and out of the sanctuary areas, so if you are floating nearby, you are guaranteed a manatee encounter. 

The three best ways to get to the manatee sanctuary areas of Kings Bay

  1. The boardwalk at Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Park (no swimming)
  2. Renting or transporting your own watercraft to Crystal River
  3. Purchase a guided tour 

Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Park

This was my first stop when I arrived in Crystal River. Three Sisters Wildlife Park is a 57-acre wetland refuge that surrounds the Three Sisters Spring. There are multiple hiking trails for visitors to view the Wetland, Lake Crystal, Magnolia Spring, and the scenic boardwalk surrounding Three Sisters Spring.

There is a $20 entrance fee for adults during manatee season and no on-site parking (handicap parking only). However, public parking and a shuttle service from the Three Sisters Springs Center (behind city hall) are at 123 NW US Hwy 19, Crystal River, FL. I walked to the springs from my hotel, the Plantation on Crystal River Hotel.

The best area to spot manatees is on the boardwalk near the section to the left of the entrance, where the spring meets the canal. Many manatees are constantly moving between the canal and the spring, and this area is the closest viewing platform to the water (as seen in the photo above to the left). The boardwalk does get busy, but people are polite and frequently move to allow everyone a chance to see.

If you take the boardwalk to the right and continue straight to the nature trail, there are a few areas on your left where you can maneuver between the trees and canal bank to observe additional manatee sanctuary areas (photo above on the right). This is where I spotted the mommy and baby manatee in the below photo swimming only a foot away from the bank.

Rent or launch your own boat or paddle craft

Another Florida manatee swim option is to rent or launch your own boat, kayak, or paddleboard. If you have your own watercraft, you can use Crystal River’s city and county launch ramps to get on the water. However, many ramps charge a launch fee + parking fee. 

Make sure you know how to get to the populous manatee areas from the launch sites. Also, if you are traveling solo, make sure you have a rope attached to your paddle craft so you can tie up and enter the water without your craft floating away. Finally, of course, make sure to follow all health and safety precautions before getting into the water around manatees.

Boat Launch Sites

  • City Boat Ramp: 558 NW 3rd Ave Crystal River, FL 34428
  • Pete’s Pier Marina (Kings Bay): 1 SW 1st Place Crystal River, FL 34428
  • Plantation Adventure Center– 9301 W Fort Island Trail, Crystal River, FL 34429 ($15 ramp usage + free parking)
  • Fort Island Trail Boat Ramp: 11978 W Blue Bayou Ct, Crystal River, FL 34429
  • Hunter Springs Park: 18 NE 2nd Street, Crystal River 34429, (no trailer parking, good for SUP + kayaks)
  • Kings Bay Park: 268 NW 3rd St, Crystal River, FL 34428

You may want to rent a boat or kayak if you do not have your own. Most kayak or paddleboard rentals are offered for $10-$20 an hour and rent daily or weekly. If you rent, make sure to take a map of the river, canals, and directions to the manatee sanctuary areas. Most rentals will require you to return before 4 pm, some closer to 3 pm, and won’t start a rental too close to closing.

I attempted to rent a SUP from Plantation Adventure Center, but when I arrived at 3 pm, they were no longer renting for the day even though they closed at 5 pm and only wanted an hour rental.

Water Craft Rentals

Join a guided tour

One of the most popular ways to swim with manatees in Crystal River, Florida, is through a guided boat tour. About 13 companies in the area provide manatee swim tours for $65-$80 per person and include a wet suit, mask, snorkel, and small towel. It’s not the cheapest option but probably the most convenient if you are unfamiliar with the area.

Manatee Tour Companies

I booked a manatee tour through Plantation Adventure Center since it was on the property of Plantation Crystal River, the hotel I stayed at. The hotel was a convenient choice (I walked 20mins to Three Sisters Springs) and ok for one night, but it was a little dirty, and I had three hotel staff walk in on me during my one-night stay. I’m not sure what the confusion was, but I’ll make sure to bolt the door next time!

As far as the tour, it cost $80 + tip and lasted just over two hours. It advertised three hours online, and I expected to go to more than one manatee zone. The boat left at 7 am, and we only went a few minutes away from the dock to one manatee area.

We did see some manatees, and I got a very friendly interaction with a youngster. Still, I was disappointed the captain didn’t take us closer to the Three Sisters Spring, where the water was so much clearer, and there were sooo many more manatees. He said the spring would be too crowded and too hard for us to swim up to the proper area with so many other boats, snorkelers, and kayaks that were already there. Our boat was not full, so maybe the cost of fuel played a role in his decision.

However, I still enjoyed the boat tour and would recommend it to anyone unfamiliar with the area. It is a very convenient option to swim with manatees as all the gear is provided, and they do their best to keep you warm and provide photos of the experience for an additional cost. The boat tour offered hot chocolate and coffee and had plastic coverings to help block the wind. It was chilly in the water, but the experience was so worth it. Tours make the experience easy, but on the flip side, you do give up some control.

Swimming with manatees FAQs

Do I have to have to wear a wet suit, snorkel + mask to enter the water with manatees?

No. It is not legally required; however, it is highly recommended to have both a wet suit (3mm-5mm) and snorkel + mask before attempting to swim and interact with manatees in the wild.

Wet suits not only allow you to stay longer in the cool water but also help you to float. If you cannot float on the surface and your legs dip down too far, the manatees may see this as a barrier and swim away from you instead of towards you.

Masks are also needed to help you see better and protect your eyes in the sometimes murky and dark waters.

When is the best time to swim with Manatees in Crystal River?

The manatees head to Crystal River during winter, usually mid-November-April, in search of warmer waters. The best time during the winter to see them is during a cold front. However, they may return to the gulf if weather temps reach 70-the 80s as it is only a few hours swim from the river. Check the weather and expect to see more manatees on the coldest of mornings. 

How much does it cost to swim with manatees?

Tours with a guide cost $65-$80 + tip for a 2-3 hour tour. You can expect up to an hour and a half in the water with the manatees. Most tours provide wet suits, snorkel, masks, towels, and additional flotation devices like a noodle.

A more cost-effective way to swim with manatees is to rent your own paddle craft and visit the manatee zones on your own. King’s Bay is pretty easy to navigate, and most rentals are close to manatee viewing/swimming areas. Expect to pay up to $50 a day for a rental or $10-$20 an hour.

Is it safe to swim with manatees?

Yes! Manatees are very docile, slow-moving, and friendly creatures. However, many seek out human interaction and have been known to nuzzle snorkelers and playfully grab ahold of their legs with their flippers.

Is it legal to swim with manatees in Florida?

It is only legal to observe manatees from land or on top of the water in most areas. It is legal to enter the water and swim with manatees in Crystal River, but manatee protection rules and regulations must be followed.

To legally swim with manatees you are not allowed to:

  • Kick while in the water, use cupped hands to paddle
  • Ride a manatee
  • Pinch, claw, or scrape a manatee’s skin
  • Swim over a manatee
  • Stretch your arm toward a manatee
  • Harass, swim after or separate manatees away from the group
  • Enter into any protected sanctuaries
  • Feed or give any liquids to a manatee

Where can I swim with manatees for free?

If you have your own boat or paddle craft, you can launch at one of the many marinas and boat launch sites around the Crystal River area and navigate yourself to King’s Bay. Unfortunately, most launch docks charge a parking and launch fee. If you really want a free experience, ask a local to use their dock and hope for the best!

***

I had an amazing experience swimming (well, floating) with these majestic creatures. Their playful, gentle, and curious nature makes it an experience suited for all ages and one impossible to forget! There are many ways to interact with manatees in the wild, but Crystal River really takes the cake if you are looking for an up-close and personal manatee adventure.

If you have been to Crystal River, Florida, to swim with manatees, or if this post inspired you to book a manatee swim experience, let me know in the captions below. I’d love to hear about your trip and if it was as thrilling of an experience as mine was.

Hi, I'm Sam

After a lay off from the corporate world I decided to SEE the world. Sharing all my bucket list experiences to help spark your wanderlust and inspire your next adventure!

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