Swim with the Manatees of Florida’s Crystal River

Meet a manatee

Every year, tourists from around the world flock to Crystal River. A brief drive through the charming Citrus County hamlet provides a hint as to why: You’ll find manatee-shaped mailboxes, manatee placards on the streetlights, manatee statues, and murals. The city’s logo, a smiling sea cow, is festooned upon a water tower downtown.

Citrus County is revered as the manatee capital of the world and rightfully so. Only in the waters of Citrus County are you able to legally swim with manatees in their natural habitat. Home to roughly 3,000 people, Crystal River is located 80 miles north of Tampa. For snowbirds looking for a magical getaway, this is the perfect place to get up close with these gentle creatures.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Much like other mammals (humans included), at the first sign of winter, manatees seek out a warm locale to wait out winter’s wrath. For West Indian manatees, their go-to spot is Crystal River, Florida.

For generations, West Indian manatees (also known by their subspecies, Florida manatees) have been following the same migratory pattern from as far north as New England to this stretch of warm water located 85 miles northwest of Orlando and several miles inland from Crystal Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. This is where these herbivores will stay from roughly November through March spending much of their time munching on sea grass and other shoreline vegetation (they’ll consume as much as 10 percent of their body weight a day amounting to between 100 and 300 pounds of vegetation) while floating languidly in the warm waters of Crystal River and Kings Bay which average 72 degrees thanks to their shallow nature (manatees can’t tolerate water temperatures when they dip below 68 degrees).

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Crystal River area is considered the largest natural winter refuge in the world for manatees and is comprised of 70 springs including Three Sisters Springs where between 400 and 500 manatees have been sighted during the winter in recent years thanks to its ample vegetation and temperate waters.

Because of their calm demeanor and sheer cuteness—they’re a distant relative to elephants—seeing one of these gentle giants in the wild has become a bucket-list item for people around the world. But because they’re protected under the Endangered Species Act and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers them a threatened species (there are about 6,300 manatees in Florida today a significant increase from 1,267 in 1991). Citrus County is the only place in the United States where people can legally swim with wild manatees in their natural habitat.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Are manatees friendly to humans?

The manatee is the world’s most humble creature. They don’t know any form of aggression. They have no natural predators and no prey. They don’t even compete for resources.

Manatees are completely vegan subsisting on a diet of aquatic vegetation. They need to consume 10-20 percent of their body weight in wet vegetation every single day to keep their body temperature regulated. For an animal that weighs 1,000 pounds on average—that is a lot of food!

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They aren’t picky eaters; they will munch and crunch on any kind of grass, leaves, and even sweet potatoes if they can access them. Their most nutritious food sources are in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico where grasses grow in abundance and variety. In Kings Bay, they feast on the native Eelgrass which has been planted by our Grass Restoration Project to the tune of about 17 million dollars. Each acre of planted grass can support about 40,000 fish and 50 million small animals and it provides a necessary food source for our manatees.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Kings Bay, Crystal River, and Three Sisters Springs region

Three Sisters Springs gets all the attention and for good reason. It’s gorgeous: A rare freshwater spring that has never been developed as a swimming hole or park still features natural lush vegetation around its vivid and clear turquoise waters. And it’s popular with manatees as well as people.

But the Three Sisters Springs group represents just three of the 70 springs within the 600-acre bay. The Fish and Wildlife Service has maps that show areas that are off-limits to boats because manatees congregate there and those maps indicate a half dozen other manatee refuge zones in addition to Three Sisters.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two other areas are popular with swim-with-manatee outfitters and kayakers exploring on their own:

  • Adjacent to a mangrove-filled Banana Island in Kings Bay is Kings Spring, the largest and original spring that prompted the creation of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in 1983. In the winter, manatees congregate here and boats—but not swimmers—are barred from Kings Spring.
  • Not far north of Three Sisters Spring, Hunter Spring City Park is the most popular place to put in kayaks and is close to Jurassic, House, and Hunter springs, all of which attract manatees as well as people who want to swim with manatees.
Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crystal River is a year round home for the manatee

But, this isn’t what makes Crystal River so special. Crystal River didn’t earn its designation as Home of the Manatee from the ones that visit in the winter. That’s right! Crystal River is uniquely the only place in Florida that has a consistent year-round population of 50-60 manatees that decided to become permanent residents. No matter the day of the year, you are almost guaranteed to see a manatee in the Crystal River National Wildlife refuge. Visiting before the season is a great way to get close to these creatures while avoiding the crowds.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why do manatees love Crystal River?

The life of a manatee is pretty consistent—they sleep, eat, and repeat! Because of this, Crystal River is just perfect for them. For instance, there are a lot of quiet secluded backcountry for these solitary animals to rest, plenty of fresh water for them to drink, and plenty of food here to feed their humongous appetite.

Manatees are always on the food search. They graze about 8–10 hours a day consuming about 10 percent of their body weight daily. Weighing in at about 1,500 pounds, your average manatee consumes about 150 pounds of grass a day! That’s what I call a HEALTHY appetite!

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meet a manatee

There are plenty of ways for anyone to see manatees from swimming with manatees to kayaking and stand up paddle-boarding and boat tours to visiting the incredible fully accessible boardwalks at Three Sisters Springs Refuge in Crystal River and Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Homosassa.

However you choose to meet a manatee, remember to keep calm, enjoy the moment, and don’t be surprised if meeting a manatee changes your life.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All swimmers on manatee tours learn their manatee manners before ever getting in the water.

Find a tour group that takes a conservation-minded approach. Explorida is a company that starts each swim session with a lesson. These animals are protected by federal law and harassing or harming them can mean hefty fines and jail time. They emphasize the art of passive observation which involves quietly enjoying the animals from a distance. If manatees want to venture closer and touch you that would be fine but initiating contact is a big no-no.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the short boat ride, your in-water guide offers tips such as the following:

Manatees will be able to feel you coming thanks to the tiny hairs that cover their body. They are curious and friendly and generally don’t mind respectful humans. To keep them comfortable, it’s best to avoid loud noises or splashing. In other words, stay still and act like a manatee.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To spot manatees from the boat first look for a mound of bubbles. Then a whiskered nose will emerge from the water—the tip of the manatee iceberg. If the water is clear, you’ll see the round silhouette of the rest of its body under the surface.

The sleeping sea cow will hover in a cloud of bubbles. Every few minutes she/he will float to the surface to inhale before sinking back down. Small catfish may swirl around her. She won’t mind them or a group coming close to watch.

This process will be repeated several times. Find a manatee and get a peek into its morning routine.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other things to do in Crystal River

There is more in Crystal River than manatees. Here are a few other ideas:

Crystal River Archaeological State Park: An ancient Native American ceremonial site located in a beautiful setting overlooking the wide Crystal River. The mounds here are surprisingly impressive but little is known about the people who built them starting 2,500 years ago. A small museum has interesting artifacts and the picnic tables along the water are a great place to relax. Located at 3400 N Museum Point, Crystal River.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crystal River Preserve State Park: Located adjacent to the archaeological park, it has several trails with forest, marsh, and water views. Located at 3266 N. Sailboat Ave., Crystal River.

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park: 15 minutes south of Crystal River, you can see manatees every day via the park’s underwater observatory of its resident manatee population. Visitors start a visit on a pontoon boat ride down Pepper Creek to the wildlife park where you also see Florida panthers, bears, bobcats, deer, alligators, and a wide variety of birds. In winter, the gates into the first-magnitude spring are opened, and wild manatee flock to the warmer waters. On cold days, you may see dozens of wild manatees. The park has many attractions and charges an adult admission of $13. Children aged 6-13 are $5.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to camp near Crystal River

Here are a few RV parks and campgrounds throughout Citrus County to consider for your trip:

  • Rock Crusher Canyon RV Resort: A beautifully landscaped campground with a swimming pool, playground, fenced-in dog run, and a clubhouse for activities. Rock Crusher offers full hookups with 30- or 50- amp electric which can accommodate up to 40 feet RVs with plenty of room for slide-outs. All sites offer back-in and pull-through availability. They also have elite sites which include beautiful brick paver pads and a shed for extra storage.
  • Crystal Isles RV Resort: An Encore RV resort, this park offers numerous amenities including a pool, waterfront sites, and on-site laundry. Rent a boat, catch a fish in local streams, or visit nearby King’s Bay to swim with a manatee.
  • Rousseau RV Resort: Situated on 15 acres shaded by majestic, ancient live oak and cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, many of the sites are generous and big rigs are welcome.  All sites are full hookups with 30-amp and 50-amp service. 
  • Nature’s Resort: Situated on the Homosassa River, this 97-acre resort offers RV sites and also cabin rentals. There’s a swimming pool, game room, and access to the Gulf for fishing and boating.
Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

A full-grown manatee which can weigh more than 1,000 pounds looks like the result of a genetic experiment involving a walrus and the Goodyear Blimp.

—Dave Barry