If dogs are men’s best friends on land, manatees are the ocean’s puppies and getting up close and swimming with manatees is a dream that can come true.
At the Crystal River National Wildlife Refugee, you’ll have the chance to engage with the manatees in a protected environment and with the help of expert guides.
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about the dos and don’ts of swimming with the manatees.
Manatees: Kind and Soft-Tempered
Manatees are also known as sea cows and are herbivore mammals living in the ocean. They don’t have a specific predator and can live up to 40 years.
Despite their chunky and less than proportionate look, the manatees have gained popularity due to their friendly and puppy-like attitude.
Their good personality makes interactions between manatees and humans easy and pleasant for both parties, with the animals enjoying cuddling and playing with humans.
Because the manatees are aquatic, the only way to interact with them is to do some snorkeling, and the most popular location is certainly Crystal River.
They are unfortunately threatened.
Why go swimming with the manatees now?
Because the time to witness this incredible species may be finite: from illegal hunting to incidents with motorboats, to climate change, the manatees’ threats to survival are many and difficult to address.
This species is protected in the US by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, and by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Swimming with the Manatees: Is it safe?
No worries! The manatees are herbivores and don’t constitute a threat at all to people engaging with them.
They don’t attack humans and are not even built to bite anyone.
Their very constitution impairs them from biting or attacking, so you can swim with them with no risks.
But can humans be a threat to the manatees?
Yes, humans have to be careful when snorkeling with the manatees. While you can engage with them respectfully, it is important to avoid scaring the manatees, separating them from the pack, or accidentally disrupting their habitat.
When interacting with the manatees, passive observation is the way to go. Avoid diving suddenly, moving unexpectedly, or trying to touch them. Instead, it is better to gently go with the flow and wait for the manatees to come to you.
To ensure the animals’ safety, there are several rules to follow when swimming with manatees.
For this reason, I would generally recommend booking a guided tour, however, swimming autonomously and safely can be done.
So let’s explore your 2 best options.
Swimming with Manatees By Yourself vs. Taking a Tour
Option 1: Take a Guided Tour
There are many tours available that include everything you need for the perfect “swimming with the manatees” experience.
The tours usually include the following:
- All of the necessary snorkeling equipment.
- A brief explanation of how to interact with the animals and the environment
- A boat tour to the prime spots to find the manatees.
The more exclusive the tour, the more you’re going to get from it. Here are some of the best options:
FunToDive offers a 3-hour long snorkel trip to observe the manatees. The tour is available every day and all year long and is one of the most popular among tourists for price per value.
The tour includes all of the aforementioned basics, plus a professional photographer on board that will take pictures of all passengers both on the boat and under the water.
The price does not include the pictures, that have to be purchased after the tour.
2. Captain Tim’s Family Adventure Charters
- Address: 1 S.W. 1st Place Crystal River Florida 34429
- Tickets: The snorkeling tour costs $65 per person, while the dry tour costs $40 per person.
- Contacts: You can call for additional info at the number (352) 445-5489, or send an email at email@example.com.
As the name suggests, this is a tour suited for families or small groups, as the tour specifically avoids larger crowds. The tours are scheduled every day, 3 times a day, at 7.30 am, 10.30 am, and 1.30 pm.
Captain Tim’s Family Adventure Charters also offers a “dry” manatee tour for those that don’t want to swim but are still interested in observing the manatees.
The tour includes 1.30 hours worth of boat ride where the manatees are and cost $40 per person.
3. Bird’s Underwater Manatee Tours
- Address:320 NW Hwy 19 Crystal River, Florida
- Tickets: the public manatee tour tickets cost span from $59 to $65 depending on the season. The private manatee tours can host up to 6 people and costs $449 in total.
- Contacts: You can book the Manatee tour here by clicking on “book now”, or contact Bird’s Underwater at (352) 563-2763, and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bird’s Underwater tours get consistently great reviews on all the main platforms, because of the quality of the service and the friendly attitude of the guides and crew.
The company offers public and private tours, both in the morning and in the afternoon. I would recommend choosing either a morning public tour or a private one.
In the morning there’s a higher chance of spotting active manatees, and with a private tour, you won’t need to share the animal’s attention with anyone.
Swimming with Manatees by Yourself
Snorkeling at the Crystal River Preserve State Park is permitted, with a few restrictions and guidelines to follow:
- Snorkeling is always allowed, however, scuba diving is only permitted from the start of April to mid-November.
- You are mostly allowed to explore freely, however, there are manatee sanctuaries and habitat areas that are forbidden to enter both alone or with a tour.
- Avoid any behavior that could stress the manatees such as chasing, cornering, poking, and in any way annoying the animals.
- Pay extra attention to manatees that are feeding or that are tending to a baby manatee. They cannot be in any way disturbed during these basic activities.
You can either bring snorkeling equipment from home or even rent it within the State Park. You can check specific instructions on how to snorkel at Crystal River before you head out.
A very useful source of information on how to correctly engage with the manatees is this official video guide from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The best Time to Swim with Manatees
Swimming with the manatees is possible year-round, but when exactly is “manatee season”?
In the rest of California, the manatee season coincides with the summer months, approximately April through November.
However, the peak season for Crystal River is November through April, during wintertime.
This is because the water temperature at Crystal River remains pretty much constant during the year, and is warmer in wintertime compared to other areas.
Therefore around November, the manatees migrate towards the sanctuaries at Crystal River, and it gets much easier to spot them in high numbers.
During the day, the best time to spot the manatees is in the morning, the earlier the better. The prime hours to swim with the manatees are 5:30 AM – 9:00 AM.
5 Other amazing Things To Do at Crystal River
While the manatees are the main attraction at Crystal River Preserve State Park, the whole natural area is simply stunning and has so much to offer for outdoor lovers.
Here are a few activities that will make your trip unforgettable:
- Taking a sunset cruise with Crystal River Preserve Adventures: the cruise is only available on Friday and Saturday, and the hour of course depends on the time of sunset on the date. I recommend this activity for the perfect romantic evening.
You can read more about the cruise and booking information here.
- Hiking: there are many trails available within the state park, suitable for both hiking and biking. For hiking, I recommend trying the Eco-walk Trail (2 miles long, it is the longest path), the stunning Lake Loop Trail, the Hammock Island Trail, and the Primitive Trails.
- Biking: The best biking trail can be found at the intersection between Sailboat Avenue and State Park Street. The path winds for over 7 miles through the tropical Crystal River environment.
- Visit the best reserves and beaches in the area: among the most stunning options around Crystal River, you can’t miss out on Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, Fort Island Gulf Beach, and Fort Island Trail Park.
- For a historical time, visit the Crystal River Archeological State Park, the Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins, Coastal Heritage Museum, or the Franklin Anderson Gallery.