One of the things I love most about Florida is being able to see manatees during the winter. Well, at Crystal River not only can you see manatees, but you can swim with them! Swimming with manatees is an unmatched experience and a needs to be on everyone’s Florida list. My friend and I signed up to do this, when we first arrived at the registration building we sat down for a presentation on the manatees. We learned about proper interactions with them: you can’t go out of your way to pet a manatee, the manatees have to engage you first. You also can’t kick when you are near them, so really you float with the manatees instead of swim with them!
After we finished our manatee class, we put on our wetsuits and headed out to start our tour. Crystal river stays a constant 72 degrees year round. Even though it was cold outside, I assumed that the water would feel warm. Don’t make this mistake! Even with wet suits on we were all freezing. The manatees were napping when we got to them, but every now and then one or two would wake up and swim around with us. Manatees come up for air every fifteen to twenty minutes, even when they are sleeping. It was amazing to watch them.
Swimming with Manatees
This was such an incredible experience. The manatees are so graceful. As I watched them glide through the waters, they reminded me of mermaids. These creatures are huge! You don’t realize how big the manatees are until you’re in the water with them; there’s a reason they are called sea cows! Eventually our time was up, so we reluctantly got back on the boat and left the manatees to their nap.
Three Sisters Springs
After we got back from swimming with the manatees we changed out of our wet suits and dryed off. We then rode the trolley to Three Sisters Springs. This spring has the absolute most gorgeous water I have seen in Florida.
From pictures online I assumed the photos had been edited, but the waters look even more beautiful in person! They are a magical iridescent blue, truly fitting the ideal lagoon image. The springs can be viewed from all sides from the walkway around it.
As the tide rose, manatees began to fill the springs and snorkelers were delighted with their presence. You can walk to a platform and view where the springs meet Crystal River. A small stream allows the manatees to glide into the springs one by one.
Even though you can snorkel and swim with the manatees in the springs and in the river, there are areas blocked off where people cannot go into, leaving safe havens for the manatees. If you don’t look closely, these areas seem to be filled with rocks, but upon further inspection you will realize these rocks move and sway every so often and there are nostrils that surface for a quick breath.
The experience of swimming with manatees and visiting Three Sisters Springs is one of my favorite adventures that I have had here in Florida. Florida is the only state where you can swim with manatees, so if you have the opportunity, don’t pass up on it! Crystal River is an hour and a half west of Orlando. If you want to swim with the manatees, be sure to book ahead. As I mentioned earlier, the water is cold, so be sure to take a towel, change of clothes (preferably sweats if you go in the winter), and socks for your feet!
Read more about where to see manatees here
If you’re interested in reading an article I wrote about swimming with Manatees in Crystal River, here it is below:
A Dip in the Water
The cold air cut through my wet suit, a frigid 49 degrees for a Floridian. I raced from the warmth of the building to the van, excited for the new adventure.
Last winter I went to Blue Springs State Park, an ethereal spring manatees visit during the cold winter months. These graceful creatures flow through the warm, clear blue waters, their winter home a tranquil serenity. Long branches lean over transparent waters, moss sways gently in the breeze, bright green leaves contrast from afar. As I watched the majestic sea cows another onlooker interrupted my fascination with the submerged world: “You know you can swim with them at Crystal River?” This was now at the top of my bucket list.
Fast forward a year later and here I am, soaking up as much heat as I can from a tiny vent in the back of a van full of strangers. As the van slows to a stop I gather my belongings. We get into the boat and although we are shaking, the cold metal numbing our bare feet, our grins are as wide as ever. We are about to swim with the gentle creatures of the sea, those once mistaken for mermaids, we are about to share the water with manatees.
Our guide tells us his first trip this morning was a success, a herd of manatees from the ocean arrived earlier in the week. He says we can differentiate between manatees that live in salt water versus fresh water by the barnacles nesting on their backs, although this distinguishing mark is short lived: within a week of entering fresh water the barnacles lose hold, the rocky fortresses nestled in seaweed fall off revealing the smooth, true back of the manatees.
The boat slows and we are still quivering as we put on snorkel masks and fins, hopeful that the 70 degree water will feel warm. It’s not, but our guide quickly takes our thoughts off the cold bath, moving us towards the manatees. As we get closer a large manatee swims up to greet us. To my surprise it swims underneath me, lifting me up, exposing my back to the icy air. I am floating on a manatee, it’s unbelievable. It pauses, welcoming in the rest of the group, then elegantly swims away.
As my body re-submerges I laugh through my snorkel. The encounter is more than I could have dreamed. We watch in awe as the manatee glides away from us. My heart lessens, but our guide quickly fills the void. “The rest of them are waiting for us over there.” Our hearts are full again.