Where to Swim with Manatees in Florida

I’ve wanted to swim with manatees for ages, so as I begin to map out a two-week winter break road trip to Florida with two of my kids, I knew that a stop in Crystal River on Florida’s Nature Coast was in order.

Crystal River is 90 minutes from both Orlando and Tampa, so it’s easy to go just for the day, but I’d highly recommend an overnight stay. Florida manatee tours start early – our check-in time at the dock was 6:30 am – making it a better bet to be on-site.

Wake-Up Call

Plantation on Crystal RIver
Plantation on Crystal River

My iPhone alarm went off at 6 am (ouch, on vacation). We stayed overnight at Plantation on Crystal River. The manatee tours are offered on-site and from a small marina adjacent to the hotel, so fortunately we didn’t have far to go to reach our snorkeling tour. Just a short walk.

It was a chilly morning – in the low 50s – but that’s a good thing. Your chances of seeing manatees swimming in the water and chomping on seagrass is better when temps are low.

Manatees are not exactly svelte. Full-grown manatees can weigh up to 1,500 pounds, maybe even more. However, they have little body fat, so it’s easy for them to get cold.

When air temps are warm, the ocean water in the Gulf of Mexico is warm, so they will hang out there. However, these gentle creatures can’t survive in water colder than 68 degrees.

In winter, they stick close to natural springs, like Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. Here, the water temps are a constant 72 degrees. Just right for a manatee.

Colder is Better

Swim with Florida Manatees-Paul Snorkel

So, expected air temps in the low 50s was good, at least for seeing manatees. Not so good for humans with plans to get into the water (72 degrees is still chilly for you and me).

Wetsuits to the rescue. Moments after we checked in, we were directed to pick up our full body wetsuits. These weren’t easy to put on, but they covered us from wrist to ankle.

Once we geared up, it was time to get educated. There are A LOT of rules when it comes to manatees. Crystal River in Citrus County is the only place where you’re legally allowed to swim or snorkel with manatees, so they take a lot of precautions to protect them.

By law, these friendly creatures are protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. This law states that you can’t touch, poke, kick, chase, feed or harass a manatee. We even watched a video where people actually did all of those things. Oof.

Manatees are gentle creatures, even at 1,500 pounds. They have no natural enemies. They’re also herbivores, feeding on seagrass, mangrove leaves and shoreline vegetation.

Keep Your Eyes Open

Three Sisters Springs Boardwalk
Photo Credit: James Bobo / Discover Crystal River Florida

While temps were in the 50s that morning, the previous few days saw temps in the upper-70s, driving manatees out into the Gulf. Would they return to the springs that chilly morning?

The sun began to rise a few minutes before 7 am, just as we were taking the boat out into Crystal River on our way to Three Sisters Springs and the greater Kings Bay estuary.

We were on board with two other families and a young couple. We were all on the edge of our seats, eager to see that first manatee nose pop out of the water for air that morning.

And then, there he was. Our boat captain and tour guide had eagle eyes, so it didn’t take long before a manatee was on their radar. The captain steered the boat closer and it was nearly time to jump into the water.

The tour guide entered the water first. While manatees are extremely gentle, she wanted to assess the situation. Mostly to see if he was going to stick around or swim away. There was no sense all of us getting in only him swim along to another section of the springs.

Each of us put on our snorkels and face masks and got ready to inch down the boat ladder. You’d never want to jump in, creating a commotion and possibly landing on a manatee.

Up Close and Personal


Within minutes, we were a few yards (sometimes only a few feet) from a manatee. It was amazing to see nothing with your head above water, then there she was once you put your face into the water. Like, right there.

Even better, it was a momma manatee and her calf. Seriously, OMG. They were just slowly swimming, then stopping to munch here and there. She really didn’t seem to mind at all that there were a dozen of us watching her every move.

After 15 or 20 minutes, the two manatees swam away, bound for new adventures. We all got back on the boat and chatted about seeing and swimming with manatees. Some watched their GoPro footage. For most of us, this was our first time on a manatee snorkeling tour.

I can’t lie, it got cold pretty quickly, being in a soaking wet wetsuit. The captain steered the boat in a new direction and we were on our way to see more manatees. It wasn’t long before a manatee was spotted, just eating seagrass, minding his own business.

This manatee was huge and he was settled in at an all-you-can-eat buffet of seagrass. He was not going anywhere anytime soon. We all spent as much time as we wanted just ogling this incredible creature. I mean, wow. Truly the experience of a lifetime.

The entire snorkeling tour lasts three hours, so we were able to stop three to four times to visit with manatees. Honestly, that was plenty. I only wish that I’d brought a GoPro to shoot photos and video of these gentle giants too.

The tour guide, however, does take plenty of photos during the snorkeling tour. Not just of the manatees, but also of the group in the water with the manatees. The photos are for sale at the end of the tour.

What You Need to Know

Manatee Viewing at Three Sisters Springs
Photo Credit: Miles Saunders / Discover Crystal River Florida

Swimming with manatees is an amazing experience. I would recommend this to anyone, especially kids and families. If your child can swim, he can snorkel with manatees. It may take a few minutes to get used to breathing through the snorkel, but then it’s go time.

Here are a few quick tips and suggestions:

There are several different Florida manatee tours that navigate Crystal River. Whichever one you decide on, choose the first tour of the day, which could be as early as 6:15 am.

You’ll need to plan ahead. The early-morning tour can sell out weeks in advance. We booked our tour with the Adventure Center at Plantation on Crystal River.

While manatee tours are offered year-round, your chances of seeing manatees is greatest when the weather is cold, forcing manatees from the Gulf of Mexico into Crystal River. This means, the best time for a manatee tour is from November to March.

Bring a waterproof camera, like a GoPro with you. I regret not having one to capture underwater footage of the friendly manatees, as well as my kids swimming with manatees.

Book an overnight stay in Crystal River. As I noted above, since manatee tours set off early, you’ll want to be on-site. We stayed at the Plantation on Crystal River, which was adjacent to the marina where tours departed.

You can also see the manatees from the viewing platform at Three Sisters Springs. You can kayak or paddleboard in designated areas year-round

In summer and early-fall, pair a manatee adventure with scalloping in Homosassa. It’s a half-day boat excursion that lets you test your skills at collecting scallops from the Gulf of Mexico. 


Swim with Manatees in Florida-Crystal River