How to Swim with the Crystal River Manatees

Every year, tourists from all over the world flock to Crystal River. A short drive through the charming hamlet of Citrus County will give you an idea why: you’ll find mailboxes shaped like manatees, manatee signs on the streetlights, manatee statues, and murals. The city’s logo, a smiling manatee, adorns a downtown water tower.

Crystal River, home to about 3,000 people and located 90 minutes north of Tampa, is the only place in North America where you can legally swim with manatees. For Tampa Bay residents seeking a magical getaway, this one-tank destination is the perfect place to get an up-close look at these gentle creatures.

Manatee season runs from November 15 through the end of March, when cold temperatures drive the mammals into the mild waters of Crystal River. The springs around Kings Bay remain at 72 degrees all year round, and in the peak months it is not unusual to see hundreds of manatees gather to enjoy the warmth.

In September, a manatee is seen among the seagrass in Crystal River. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Although we booked a trip out of season, we were optimistic about spotting manatees. Crystal River is home to about 50 to 60 manatees, which attract travelers all year round. In fact, visiting before the season is a great way to get up close to these creatures while avoiding the crowds.

To book responsibly, look for a tour group that takes an environmentally conscious approach. Photographer Martha Asencio-Rhine and I chose Explorida, a company that starts every swimming session with a lesson. After all, these animals are protected by federal law, and harassing or harming them can result in hefty fines and jail time. The team discussed the art of ‘passive observation’, which means being able to quietly enjoy the animals from a distance. If manatees want to get closer and touch us that would be fine, but making contact is a big no-no.

Chris Scott is leading a manatee adventure tour in Kings Bay with Explorida, Wednesday, September 14, 2022, in Crystal River.
Chris Scott is leading a manatee adventure tour in Kings Bay with Explorida, Wednesday, September 14, 2022, in Crystal River. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

We donned wetsuits, which would keep us warm and buoyant, and headed for Kings Bay, also known as the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. During the short boat ride, our in-water guide, Amy Smith, provided tips.

Manatees will be able to sense us coming thanks to the tiny hairs that cover their bodies. They are curious and friendly, and generally don’t mind respectful people. To keep them comfortable, it’s best to avoid loud noises or splashes. In other words, keep quiet and act like a manatee.

Planning your weekend?

Planning your weekend?

Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter

Every Thursday we come up with ideas for going out, staying home or spending time away from home.

You are all registered!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters delivered to your inbox? Let’s start.

Discover all your options

“I call it manatee meditation,” Smith said. “So if you’re not relaxed and calm when you get out of the water, you’re probably not doing it right.”

A manatee comes to Kings Bay on Crystal River on September 13, 2022.
A manatee comes to Kings Bay on Crystal River on September 13, 2022. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Smith showed us how to spot manatees from the boat. First, find a mountain of bubbles. Then a whiskered nose emerges from the water – the tip of the manatee iceberg. When the water is clear, you can see the rounded silhouette of the rest of its body underwater.

Our tour group of 10 squeezed into snorkel masks and shuffled into the water. Although the bay was shallow enough to stand in, the captain handed each of us a pool noodle to squeeze under our armpits. It’s important to float, not to shovel up sand from the bottom or sink down on an unsuspecting manatee.

Amy Smith, an aquatic swim guide for Explorida, searches for a manatee sighted from the boat in Kings Bay in Crystal River on Sept. 14, 2022.
Amy Smith, an aquatic swim guide for Explorida, searches for a manatee sighted from the boat in Kings Bay in Crystal River on Sept. 14, 2022. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Our feet poked out of the water behind us and we cautiously paddled away from the boat to Smith. She had found our first manatee, a female napping.

At first it was difficult to see her through the water. Her long, flat tail had pushed up the sand from the bottom, and it was a challenge to get close enough to see and give her space at the same time. The fact that we had to navigate through others in our tour group made it even more inconvenient, especially as we were instructed to keep quiet.

The sleeping manatee floated in a cloud of bubbles. Every few minutes she would float to the surface to inhale before sinking back down. Small catfish swam around her. She didn’t mind her or our group coming close to look.

Smith motioned for us to hold our noodles and then “freeze and float.” We watched in awe through our snorkel masks.

A manatee forages for food in Kings Bay in Crystal River.
A manatee forages for food in Kings Bay in Crystal River. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Then another tour group approached. We should share this manatee. Our gang went back to the boat to find another.

It wasn’t long before the captain spotted a second manatee. Smith slid into the water to watch it. We followed behind.

Smith identified the animal as a male. (Women tend to be taller.) This fellow was hungry and sniffed the bottom of the bay for a bite. His small front flippers scooped clumps of seagrass toward his mouth as he swam. We could hear his crackling through the water.

Manatees eat between 10 and 15 percent of their body weight daily. With an average manatee weighing about 1,500 pounds, Smith said, be glad that’s not your grocery bill.

Tourists using pool noodles float on the water as they swim with manatees in Crystal River's Kings Bay on Sept. 14, 2022.
Tourists using pool noodles float on the water as they swim with manatees in Crystal River’s Kings Bay on Sept. 14, 2022. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

We repeated this process until just before 12:30 a.m. Find a manatee and get a glimpse into its morning routine. At the water’s edge, while the group admired a mother, her calf even came in to say hello.

With our last manatee it was hard to keep a good distance as he quickly scanned for lunch. He moved closer to us and I didn’t want to cause a splash by swimming away.

We froze. We floated.

The manatee swam on.

Where to stay

Crystal Blue Lagoon Bed and Breakfast is located on the edge of Kings Bay in Crystal River.
Crystal Blue Lagoon Bed and Breakfast is located on the edge of Kings Bay in Crystal River. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

For the best view, book a tour as early as possible. For example, Explorida offers a 6:30am slot. Call 352-503-4034 or visit explorida.com to book.

A stay near the springs is a must. We chose the Crystal Blue Lagoon Bed and Breakfast, which is on the edge of Kings Bay. Each room is themed, from mermaids to seahorses. A fully stocked kitchen provides the fixings for a do-it-yourself breakfast: fresh fruit, juices, pastries, and a coffee bar. Borrow kayaks or paddle boats for a trip to nearby Three Sisters Springs, or settle down with complimentary wine and s’mores by the fire pit. 244 NE Second Court, Crystal River. crystalbluelagoonbb.com.

This is the seahorse suite at the Crystal Blue Lagoon Bed and Breakfast in Crystal River.
This is the seahorse suite at the Crystal Blue Lagoon Bed and Breakfast in Crystal River. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

We also recommend the plantation at Crystal River. This historic hotel, dating back to 1962, is tucked away off Kings Bay. Amenities include a full spa, three on-site dining options, a lagoon-style pool, and an 18-hole golf course. The hotel also has its own adventure center, offering chartered scallop tours, scuba equipment rentals and, of course, manatee tours. 9301 W Fort Island Trail, Crystal River. plantationoncrystalriver.com.

Amenities at the Plantation on Crystal River include a lagoon-style swimming pool.
Amenities at the Plantation on Crystal River include a lagoon-style swimming pool. [ Courtesy of Plantation on Crystal River ]

Leave a Reply