Winter is the perfect time of year to swim with manatees. However, leaving a warm bed at 6:30 in the morning to go jump in chilly water doesn’t sound like a good idea, but I promise, it’s worth it. Especially when under the water, below the chilly air are hundreds of manatee, gentle sea cows who, like a sleepy puppy, are a bit curious, a little cautious and can be bought with a pat or belly rub.
Swim with Manatees
The opportunity to swim with manatees is easily one of my top 10 field trips. It hits many of my criteria for an excellent outing. First, it is something you can’t just pick up and do anywhere. In fact, Crystal River, FL is the only place in the world where you can swim with manatees in these numbers. Second, it’s something even my tween and teens agree is a keeper.
Here are a few reasons why you’ll want to brave the cold. During our trip, a woman in our group got a full on hug and a few ‘manitee kisses’. Afterward, I watched as a baby nursed from her mother, before being booted off. Just as the baby swam away, another manatee came up from behind me. I reached my hand out and touched her, feeling her slick hide.
What is a Manatee?
Perhaps you’ve never heard of these gentle giants and are wondering, what is a manatee? Well, the Florida manatee is actually a relative of the elephant. Maybe that’s why I love them so much.
They have a similar grayish brown, thick, wrinkled skin like the elephant and the green you see on them is often algae. Their front flippers have finger nails similar to an elephants. The flippers help them steer or crawl through shallow water. The flat back tails are powerful and help propel them through the water.
The animals are herbivores and eat mostly sea grasses and freshwater vegetation. Although you may find manatee as far north as the Carolinas, they prefer Florida’s coastal waters, especially Crystal Springs Florida and Hormosassa Springs FL.
Swim with Manatees: An Early Chilly Start
The calm darkness was all around us as we stepped into the brisk air. My teenager pulled the hood of his sweatshirt a little tighter, stuffing his hands in his sweatpants pockets, wondering why he was up at this hour, in this weather, while on vacation.
I can’t say I disagreed with him. We quietly trudged the 200 yards from our hotel at the Plantation on Crystal River FL to the dive shop on property where we were to catch a boat to go swim with manatees.
A Pontoon Ride to Kings Bay
After pouring ourselves into wetsuits, taking a few pictures and watching a safety video, we headed out into the misty darkness to find some Crystal River manatee. John, our guide started with a few Jungle Cruise jokes, working to wipe the sleep from our faces.
We puttered out to our first dive site on Kings Bay, as John quizzed us on the video. “How should you interact with the manatees?” “Passive observation.” “That’s right, let the manatee come to you. Stay still. Float on the water. Act like the manatee. Be a manatee. They are tactile creatures and they’re curious. They’ll come up to you if they want to, but only if you are still.”
Swimming with Manatees
My youngest and I were lucky enough to see manatees up close at Sea World, but swimming with them is a different experience all together. It seems so natural. The guide had me freaked out about touching them, so I kept trying not to float into them, but honestly, I think they wouldn’t have minded.
Some were curious about our presence, others indifferent. Their tails are big paddles, some with notches, where the cold had taken its toll. Our guide said it was similar to humans and frostbite. They had small nails on their flippers too, like an elephant, probably because the elephant is their closest land relative.
In addition to swimming in Kings Bay, we visited Three Sisters Springs. Three Sisters Springs is where manatee go when it gets really cold. John our guide explained it like a parking deck at the big game. One sister is where early birds get a good spot. The second sister is overflow. The third sister is for the late comers. It must not have been cold enough the day we were there because there weren’t any manatee in the springs.
Three Sisters Springs, Florida
We stayed a bit longer in Kings Bay than a normal Crystal River manatee tour because there were so many manatees and they were quite playful. I wished we had stayed there longer, it was cold getting out of the water and riding to our next stop, Three Sisters Springs Florida which is located in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
My youngest enjoyed seeing Three Sisters Springs, but it was manatee free, except for the sanctuary, and after swimming right next to them, I didn’t want to see them from behind the ropes. When the weather gets really cold, the manatees huddle in the springs. There are boardwalks all around where you can view the manatee from above, so if you don’t want to swim with manatees, you’d just prefer to look at them from above, this is a great option.
Another option is a Sunset boat ride from Crystal River State Park. The boats depart from the Crystal River Preserve State Park Visitors Center dock twice monthly October – May. (Note: Crystal River State Park is NOT Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. These are two different parks in Crystal River, FL)
Plantation on Crystal River Florida
Crystal River, FL is the only place in the world where you can swim with manatees in such a large concentration. They migrate to the warmer springs when it gets cold outside.
The Plantation on Crystal River is a perfect home base for a trip to swim with manatees. A stately Southern Mansion houses the check in and main restaurant. Hotel rooms are older, but the property is in good condition and the hot tub is a must after a chilly morning on the bay. The Tiki Bar is the answer after an afternoon of horseshoes or volleyball.
How to Get to the Plantation on Crystal River
If you are wondering where is Crystal River Florida? It is about 90 minutes north of Tampa. This area is old Florida. There are no neon signs, or precisely groomed gated communities. It’s more mom and pop vs. Orlando flash.
Plantation on Crystal River is a year round resort surrounded by the natural springs of King’s Bay. In the summer it fills with golfers and those embarking on an aqua treasure hunt for scallops. In the wintertime, when it gets cold, the manatees in Florida gather and bring visitors to Plantation on Crystal River.
We visited in January, prime manatee season, but also a great time to golf. During our stay, the 9 hole course was $12 and club rental 50% off. In addition to swim with manatees tours, the Dive Shop on site can rent a number of different watercraft for fishing or set you up with a fishing guide. There are also kayaks, skiffs and other pleasure crafts. Close by is the Homosassa Springs FL Wildlife Refuge.
Beyond Swimming with Manatees
Although a stay at the Plantation Crystal River may be based on sporting and outdoor activities, during our stay, we were looking for some down time too. Hanging out at the hotel with nothing to do and nowhere to go was a welcome treat. We played shuffleboard, horseshoes and watched a little croquet, and the heated pool and hot tub were just what the doctor ordered after our chilly morning on the bay.
The highlight of the afternoon was a family volleyball game, parents against kids. The fact that we kept hitting it into the channel and had to fish it out with the pool hook made the game all the more interesting.
Afterwards, we cozied up to the Tiki Bar for a killer blackened grouper sandwich and some smoothies. Plantation on Crystal River also has a dining room with a delicious looking menu and a substantial buffet breakfast.
Rooms at Plantation at Crystal River
Rooms at the Plantation at Crystal River are older and more spacious that a normal hotel room. We stayed in a suite with a pull out couch. There was plenty of room for our air mattress too, which made the boys happy because no one had to share a bed.
Our friends had a first floor room with a patio. Both rooms came with a refrigerator and the suite also had a microwave. The first floor patio is shared by all the rooms, but it’s where we ended up hanging out during our stay. It was nice to sit outside with a glass of wine, and watch the kids play in the grass along the channel.
If you have young ones, you’ll want to watch them too. The channel was outside our door and it would be easy for a curious toddler to fall in. For those who can’t be away from your computer, wi-fi was free and worked well.
Bring lots of warm towels, sweatshirts and snacks on your excursion to swim with manatees
Swim with Manatees: 8 Tips to See Maximum Manatee
After our visit to Plantation on Crystal River, my boys and I came up with 8 tips for swimming with manatee and suggestions to make sure you have the most enjoyable adventure and see the most Crystal River manatees possible.
The Colder the Better. Manatee come to Crystal River, FL to escape the colder waters, which means that January and February is prime manatee viewing season and the best time to swim with manatees. The colder the bay area is, the more the Florida manatee escape to the constant 74 degree water in the springs.
Go Early. Manatee watching is best in the morning. Get the earliest time slot available, which at the Plantation on Crystal River is 6:15 AM. Not only does the colder morning air keep the manatees in the springs, but after several hours of no human interaction, they’re likely to be a bit more curious and playful. In addition, the earlier you go, the less crowded it is with tourists like yourself looking for a glimpse of the manatee.
Bring a warm towel. The manatee may make you forget about being cold, but when you get back into the boat, you feel it. Towels are available on the boat, but you may want to use those to dry off and bring some of your own to wrap up in afterwards for the trip back. A warm sweatshirt wouldn’t hurt either. And maybe a blanket. Or two.
Use a Waterproof Bag. The towels from Crystal River were in a small laundry basket, which kept them dry. My beach bag was cute, but with all the water on board, it was tough to keep everything dry. Make sure you have a waterproof bag for extra towels, sweatshirts, snacks, etc.
Eat before You Go. Bring Snacks. The entire tour is about three hours long. Our friends had breakfast before heading out, but we couldn’t eat that early. The boys however were very excited about the snacks I brought once we got back on the boat. Our boat captain had hot chocolate which was fantastic to warm up our insides.
Make Sure Equipment is in Good Condition. It’s cold when you swim with manatees in winter. Plantation on Crystal River uses 5 mil wetsuits. I don’t know what that means but our guide John promised us they were thicker and warmer, plus they helped you stay afloat. We did not have noodles like many of the other tour groups and frankly didn’t need them. The snorkel gear from the Dive Shop was very nice too, which according to my friends who have done this from other vendors can be an issue.
Leave Small Children at Home. The Plantation on Crystal River has wetsuits as small as a size 6 for kids, so if you’re child is smaller than that, you’ll either have to bring your own wetsuit, or leave them at home. Think long and hard before bringing small children on the trip. The water is a constant 74 degrees and wetsuits do provide warmth, but it can be too much for young ones. Even my solid 10-year-old was still sporting blue lips and was ready to go back in before anyone else. In addition, your child should be comfortable in the water. The wetsuits keep you buoyant, but your kids still need to swim, as well as tolerate a mask and snorkel gear.
The Ideal Time to See Manatees: If you want to time it just right, go on the 6:15 am swim with manatees tour on a Wednesday. Preferably in the middle of a cold snap, the colder the better, or at least after a few days of cold weather.
We were given complimentary admission for some of our party and a media discount for additional members, as is common in the travel industry. However, all opinions are my own. In fact this is one of my top 10 field trips of all time!