• Lauren H

Swimming with Sea Cows

Updated: May 21, 2021

A guide to visiting the one place in the US where you can observe hundreds of manatees from in the water. Read more for tips on how to save money on your visit and how to safely view the manatees.

Passively observing a Manatee in Kings Bay Florida

Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida


Jump Ahead to a Section Below:


About Crystal River

Tips for Swimming with Manatees

Guided and Unguided Options for Swimming with Manatees

What to Wear and Pack for Snorkeling with Manatees

When is the Best Time to Go Snorkeling with Manatees?


About Crystal River, Florida

Crystal River, a 7-mile inlet off the Gulf of Mexico, is the only place in the country where it is legal to swim with manatees in their natural habitat. The river is fed through underground springs and is named Crystal River for its clear, sparkling waters. 600-700 West Indian Manatees come into the river from the Gulf of Mexico for warmth in the winter. The river stays around 72 degrees Fahrenheit year round.


The King’s Bay section of the river has 70 fresh water springs throughout it. Three Sister Springs is the most well known area for manatee viewing. Kayaks are not allowed in this spring area in prime manatee season, and when the water is colder The US Fish and Wildlife Services will close it off to swimmers as well. If they close off access to the actual springs, there will still likely be lots of manatee activity around the entrance to the springs. Idiot's Delight Spring is near the entrance to Three Sister Springs, and usually has manatees as well. You are allowed to kayak into the springs from April 1st-November 14th. The short swim into the spring area is against a current, but there is a rope along the side to use for help if needed. The spring area is stunning even without manatees, with its clear turquoise waters and surrounding wetlands landscape. The area is extremely popular with tourists, so be prepared for crowds while kayaking and swimming.


A Manatee in The Clear Turquoise Water of Three Sister Springs
A Manatee in The Clear Turquoise Water of Three Sister Springs

You are not allowed to swim or kayak into the area and then hike up on to land. You also can’t hike around the area and then hike down into the water. The goal is to protect the land and vegetation surrounding the area. If you want to explore the area on land, before or after you kayak, walk the 1.3 mile loop boardwalk around the springs. It offers views of Three Sister Springs and manatees from above. You may also spot birds and snakes from the trail. There is a charge for visiting the boardwalk, and you must take a trolley from the parking lot to access the walk. It will cost about $20 total. The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge has numerous other trails to explore the surrounding wetlands, like the Chassahowitzka Salt Marsh Trails.


Tips for Swimming with Manatees

Avoid using your feet at all when swimming near the manatees. We only used small strokes with our arms to swim around and used pool noodles and a wetsuit for flotation. If you are exploring on your own, and don’t want to rent a wetsuit, a lifejacket and pool noodle works as well. Most tour companies will require a wetsuit and include it in the tour cost.


Using Noodles to Float Above the Manatees Three Sisters Springs Florida
Using Noodles to Float Above the Manatees

Kicking your feet to swim causes noise that can scare the manatees. If you kick your feet on the bottom it not only creates noise for the manatees it also kicks up sand and debris, that worsens the underwater visibility. It is also recommended that you don’t wear flippers on your feet. You are more likely to touch the bottom and/or create waves and noise with flippers on. Essentially the calmer and more still you are, the more likely you are to have close encounters with the manatees. The idea is to passively observe and to gently swim only when needed.


Passively Floating and Watching a Young Manatee in Crystal river Florida
Passively Floating and Watching a Young Manatee

I also recommend that you try to snorkel during low tide times. The higher tide makes the visibility in the area much worse.


The US Fish and Wildlife Services has numerous rules for visiting this area and viewing the manatees as well. You are not allowed to:

  1. Block the manatees swimming path

  2. Surround the manatees with a group of people

  3. Touch a manatee (unless they approach you and touch you)

  4. Disturb a sleeping manatee

  5. Enter a people-free manatee sanctuary area (they will be clearly roped off and offer an escape for manatees that want to avoid interaction with people).

This Manatee Manners video gives more information on the laws for the area.

A Marked People-Free Zone  Three Sisters Springs Florida
A Marked People-Free Manatee Sanctuary Zone

Guided and Unguided Options for Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River

There are a few options for visiting the area:

  1. Take a Guided Snorkeling Tour

  2. Rent a Kayak to Explore the Area on Your Own

  3. Bring Your Own kayak to Explore the Area on Your Own


I’ve broken down information for each option below.


1. Take a Guided Snorkeling Tour

My friend and I took a tour with Fun 2 Drive for $60 per person. Most of the tour companies offer small group tours, with under 12 people in a group. The smaller the group the better for easier viewing of the manatees. They also had the guide take underwater pictures of us throughout the experience. They sold all the pictures on a flash drive for $34. Another company I researched, Gulf Coast Expeditions, offered the option to rent an underwater camera to use on your own while snorkeling. The guided experience includes a wetsuit, flotation noodle and snorkeling gear. They require wearing a wetsuit and using a noodle to help you float.


You meet at their office in the Crystal River town and then they transport you to the nearby dock. Then you will take a 10-15 minute boat ride to a viewing spot. Depending on how many manatees you find in the viewing spot, they may or may not boat you to a 2nd spot as well.



Our tour guide gave us information on the area and about the manatees (my favorite fact was that the squeaking sound we occasionally heard underwater was a mother manatee calling her baby to come join her). The guide also initially led us around a small area but then we eventually could explore on our own. Other companies had scouts on the boats looking for incoming manatees from above. They notified snorkelers where to look for the manatees coming in.


A Mother and Infant Manatee in Crystal River Florida
A Mother and Infant Manatee

We were in the water for about 2 hours and then boarded the boat to ride back. The tour offered hot chocolate for our ride back as well. Even though the water is 72 degrees, and the wetsuit helps to keep you warm, it is still cold in the water, and it is even colder once you are out.


A Manatee Encounter Kings Bay Florida
A Manatee Encounter

2. Rent a Kayak to Explore the Area on Your Own

Crystal River Kayak Company has the closest dock launch to the best manatee viewing area, Three Sisters Springs. They rent kayaks starting at $30 for a 2 hour rental. They also rent wetsuits and snorkel gear. It is only a 8-10 minute kayak ride to Three Sister Springs from their dock. Note that kayaks aren’t allowed into the small spring area. Kayaks are permitted to go near the entrance of the springs and tie up in a designated area. Then you have the ability to leave your kayak and swim in from there. This is one advantage of a tour, you don’t have to worry about tying up your kayak if you want to snorkel.


Although this option isn’t that much cheaper than a guided tour, if it visited the area again I would rent a kayak and snorkel on my own, without a tour. Even though the tours are typically smaller groups under 12 people, it seems easier to have more manatee encounters without a group. I would prefer to explore on my own and try to avoid crowds and groups as much as possible.


A map of the area is here, if you kayak on your own you may want to download or bring a copy with.


Kayakers Approaching the Three Sister Springs Area Crystal River Florida
Kayakers Approaching the Three Sister Springs Area

3. Bring Your Own kayak to Explore the Area on Your Own

Crystal River Kayak Company offers an option to use their launch area with your own kayak. They also rent wetsuits and snorkel gear if you don’t bring your own. They only charge $8 to use their dock. It is the closest dock launch to Three Sisters Springs and prevents you from having to kayak in more open waters. It is only a 8-10 minute kayak ride to Three Sister Springs from their dock.. Note that kayaks aren’t allowed into the small spring area during peak manatee months. Kayaks are permitted to go near the entrance of the springs and tie up in a designated area. Then you have the ability to leave your kayak and swim in from there.


There is a free public launch site at Hunter Springs Park. From the park it is a 30-40 minute paddle (2 miles one way) to Three Sisters Springs. You will likely spot manatees as you kayak and maybe even in the park launch area. You will pass Jurassic Spring and House Spring along the way as well. Hunter Springs Park has a wildlife-refuge visitor center for help with directions and advice and also restrooms.


A map of the area is here, if you kayak on your own you may want to download or bring a copy with.


What to Wear and Pack for Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River


What to Wear

  • A swimsuit

  • A warm fleece. When you get out of the water you will appreciate having a fleece or jacket to put on after you dry off. Even if the outside temperature is warm, you will still be cold coming out of the water.


What to Pack (this list will vary if you are taking a tour or not)


When is the Best Time to Go Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River?

Most tour operators in the area will guarantee that you will at least see one or two manatees anytime of year that you go. There is a resident manatee population of 30-40 manatees that stay in the area year round. Winter, specifically November 15th through March 31st, is the best time to visit, as that is when the Gulf is too cold for the manatees and 600-700 of them swim into Crystal River. If you are planning on a self-guided option it is even more important to go in the winter months, as the few resident manatees may be harder to find.



Trip Dates: February 2021

Article Updated: March 2021