How to Swim with Manatees in Crystal River, FL

If I told you there was a place to swim with mermaids, would you want to go? Such a place does exist! Hundreds of manatees call Crystal River and the surrounding bodies of water home, especially in the winter when the warm spring waters are more comfortable to the manatees than the open sea. You can swim, kayak, or paddleboard with these sweet creatures, but there are a few things to know first.

These gentle giants are so sweet!

Choosing a Manatee Tour Company

I actually have a good friend with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who formerly worked at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. He recommended Manatees in Paradise, but unfortunately for us, they did not have tours available for our dates with just a month’s notice!

Fortunately, we stayed at the Plantation on Crystal River, which has its own Adventure Center that offers manatee tours. We booked with them, but selection was limited. We were lucky to get a private 10:00am tour for our dates. Prices range from $75-$500, depending on the tour experience you want, and photos of your tour from a professional photographer are available on a thumbdrive for $42.40 (including tax) after your tour. Here’s what’s included in a tour with Plantation’s Adventure Center:

  • Snorkel and Mask
  • 5mm Wetsuit (thicker than any other company)
  • Noodle Float (if needed)
  • Towels
  • Coffee, Hot Cocoa, Bottled Water (mix the hot cocoa with the coffee for a “Manatee Mocha”!)
Thank goodness for the wetsuits!
More here: Travel Splurges Worth the Cost

Tips for Booking a Tour

  • Book early. We booked a month in advance, but many tour times were already taken. I recommend booking 6-8 weeks in advance, or more if you can.
  • Go early in the day. It’ll be chillier in the morning, but that’s when you’ll see the most manatees!
  • Visit in winter. Manatee “season” is November-February, though you’ll likely see some of Crystal River’s 50-70 “residents” year-round.
  • Weekdays are best. As with any popular travel activity, weekdays are generally less crowded, and weekends are more hectic.
  • Ask what’s included. Most tours will provide snorkel gear and a wetsuit, but it’s always wise to ask and make sure before you book.
Even when most of the manatees were out of the Bay Area, we still got to see some sweeties like this!
More here: What to Know Before You Visit Crystal River

What to Know Before You Swim

Manatees are protected by three different acts of Congress, and violating the protective measures put in place can result in a fine of $1000 or up to one year in jail. That’s no joke, y’all. Play nice. Find out more in this video.

Look at that cutie!
Don’t forget your sunscreen: The Ultimate Traveler’s Guide to Sunscreen

Let them come to you.

Do not chase the manatees or reach for them. Just float, and let their natural curiosity take the lead. Manatees are sensitive to movement and sound, so diving and splashing are off-limits.

Swim (and float) above the manatees.

It is illegal to swim beneath the manatees. It scares them! Manatees are friendly creatures, but they’re also skittish, so let them get comfortable with you at their own pace.

Manatees are unbelievably graceful.

No, really, they’re gigantic, but they’re also graceful. Watching them move so smoothly is fascinating, so don’t forget to pause and just take in the sight of them. You can see why they were supposedly mistaken for mermaids by the sailors and pirates who came to Florida hundreds of years ago!

Here’s looking at you!
Keep reading: The 10 Best Things to Do in Crystal River

Highlights of the Tour

Glimpsing the First Manatee of the Day

They’re so big, you’d think you can’t miss them. However, because the water can get so stirred up from the bottom, it can be kind of murky. So when one suddenly appears out of seemingly nowhere, that first glimpse so close to you seems almost magical. There we were, swimming along, and all of a sudden, there was a gigantic manatee close enough to touch! (But we didn’t. Don’t worry!)

So glad our guides knew where to look!
You will work up an appetite: Where to Eat in Crystal River

Seeing the Manatees Up Close

Did you know manatees have thousands of hairs all over their bodies? It’s true! At first, I thought they were a bunch of tiny sea creatures feeding on the algae covering the manatee’s body, but it wasn’t! The hairs are there to help them know what’s going on around them, as a sensory system. Manatees can’t see well, so they use the tiny hairs to feel what’s around. Our guide even told us that manatees can feel you breathe when you’re in the water with them. How’s that for sensitive?

See those tiny hairs?
More manatees here: The Ultimate Guide to Homosassa Springs National Wildlife Refuge

Watching Manatees Glide Around Us

Manatees are so graceful. It doesn’t seem like they would be, but the way they gently maneuver themselves is truly beautiful to watch. They generally rest wherever they are, but when they want to move, they can swim surprisingly fast! Knowing how awkward and clunky I tend to be in the water, I was truly impressed with these giants’ incredible grace!

These “mermaids” are surprisingly fast!
Keep reading: How to Get the Most Out of Every Trip

The Tour Guide Literally Guiding Me

Okay, so I’m not usually a person who needs “hand holding” as it pertains to basically doing things for me, but because you’re really not supposed to touch the manatees, most people (including me) are afraid to get too close. I was so grateful when the tour guide just took my hand and basically moved me into position for photos and general manatee viewing! She even swam with me (holding on to me) alongside a couple of the manatees so I could get more than a passing glance. It was a fuller experience because of that!

That hand is literally pushing me into the photo frame–without disturbing the manatee!
More animal encounters here: Our Favorite Animals from the Galapagos Islands

Having a Manatee Bump into Me!

So, you’re not supposed to touch the manatees, but if you’re really still and very lucky, they might come over to say hi! One kind of waved at me, a couple of them came right beside me and looked me in the eye, and one bumped into me! It sounds so ridiculous, but it was one of the best things. I think she liked me!

Quick breath, then a quick bump.

Want more? Take a look at my dedicated United States Page for all you need to plan your trip to Florida!

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