How to legally Swim with Manatees in Florida

If you want a unique wildlife experience you can’t find anywhere else in the world you have to head to Florida, Crystal River in particular, a small town 65 miles north of Tampa.

Only here you are legally able to interact with a Florida icon, the West Indian Manatee. 

Manatees are large gentle mammals often called “sea cows” that live 60+ years and can 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 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 snorkeling among them is an extra special once-in-a-lifetime experience anyone can enjoy.

Whether you want to observe from a boardwalk, kayak, paddleboard or take a boat tour to interact with these cuties you must always abide by the health and safety precautions to protect the now threatened (once-endangered) animals. Fines are up to $100,000 and a year in jail.

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 the 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/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 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 arrived in Crystal River. Three Sisters Springs has a boardwalk between the springs and a nature trail winding along the canals where hundreds of manatees can be spotted at one time in the manatee sanctuary areas.

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

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. Lots of manatees are constantly moving between the two and it is the closest viewing platform to the water. 

Rent or launch your own boat or paddle craft

This is the most economical way for swimming with manatees. If you have your own watercraft you can use city and county launch ramps to get on the water. 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. 

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

Most kayak or paddleboard rentals are offered for $10-$20 an hour but also rent daily or weekly.

I attempted to rent a SUP from Plantation Adventure Center but when I arrived at 3pm they were no longer renting for the day.

Paddle Craft Rentals 

Join a guided tour

One of the most popular ways to swim with manatees is through a guided boat tour. There are about 13 companies in the areas that provide manatee swim tours for $65-$80 per person per tour and include a wet suit, mask, snorkel, and small towel. It’s not the cheapest option but probably the most convenient if you are not familiar 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 fine 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 next time I’ll make sure to bolt the door!

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.

We did see some manatees and I got a very friendly interaction with a youngster but I was disappointed the captain didn’t take use closer to the Three Sisters Spring where the water was so much clearer and there are sooo many more manatees. 

Since it was my first time going to swim with the manatees I opted for the tour but now that I know where to go and since I have my own wet suit, mask and snorkel I definitely will never do a tour again.

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 are not able to 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 see the 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. They may return to the gulf if weather temps reach 70-80s 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, towel,s 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 in close proximity 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. 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 most areas, it is only legal to observe manatees from land or on top of the water. In Crystal River, it is legal to enter the water with manatees but there are many rules and regulations that 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. 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!

Hi, I'm Sam

After I got laid 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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