Extraordinary Experience Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River

If swimming with manatees in Florida is on your bucket list, here’s how it might go. My heart was pounding a million miles a minute.  I could feel palpitations in my chest, throat, and even in my head. If I wasn’t wet I’m sure I would feel the sweat pouring out of my glands. I could see a large gray blob in the murky water about 10 feet away, but couldn’t really identify what it was. I suddenly became aware that my teeth were clenched so hard on my snorkel that my jaw was starting to hurt. 

The gray blob is on the move! Oh no, is it coming closer? My breathing became erratic. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. Oh great. I might just be hyperventilating, I thought to myself.

Phew, I think it went the other way. Now, if I could just find my husband through this cloudy river and make it to the opening of the spring without having a heart attack I’d be golden.

As I glide through the narrow concrete pillars to the mouth of Three Sisters Spring, the water starts to become clear. A school of shimmering silver fish swims by and I feel my breathing regulate and my heart slows down. My husband and aunt are just ahead which makes me feel at ease knowing they are close.

Swimming with manatees in Crsytal River, Florida.

As I calm down I have a chance to really take in my surroundings. The water is exceptionally blue, such a contrast to the stirred upriver I was in just seconds ago. I realize I can see all the way down the passage of the spring.

There are more gray blobs! But they aren’t blobs anymore, I can undoubtedly see that they are scruffy, adorable manatees just bobbing in the water.

Some are lying at the bottom of the spring in a group. At first glance, they look like a bundle of moss-covered boulders. It wasn’t until one boulder floated to the surface, sticking its snout out of the water to catch a breath, that I realized they were the beautiful beasts I was here to see.


Swimming with Manatees - Catching a Breath
Look at that adorable face!

Like other marine mammals, manatees cannot stay underwater indefinitely. They come up for air on an average of every three to five minutes but can stay submerged for as long as twenty. The moss on their back is actually algae and is usually eaten by small fish.

The manatee graces us with their presence in the natural spring waters of Florida every winter around November through March, as the coastal and river waters drop with colder temperatures.

I reached the back of the spring, where it opens into a circular cul-de-sac providing a cozy sanctuary for the manatees. I was thankful our guide provided us with noodles to help make it easier to hover at the top without disturbing them.

What a sight to see! I was so mesmerized by these calm creatures that I forgot how nervous I was to be in the water with them.

As I peacefully observed from my noodle, my husband began motioning something to me so I looked sideways but didn’t see anything. I felt a slight wave and within seconds a baby manatee swam directly underneath me. I couldn’t believe it. It was so close, if I reached out my hand I could have touched it! I was lying parallel with and only a few feet away from this amazing animal.

I didn’t even finish my thought when not a few feet, but a few inches away from me the monstrous mama came swimming by as well! Her quicker movement made that slight wave turns into a stronger wave and my body sort of rocked up and down as she glided beneath me. I have never felt so small in my life!

Swimming with Manatees - Snorkeler

Did you know manatees can grow up to 12 feet long and weigh up to 3,900 pounds? Don’t worry, they only eat plants. Or at least that’s what I kept repeating to myself!

The brisk spring water suddenly found its way into the opening of my wet suit. I held out a little while longer not wanting to leave. After I couldn’t take the cold any longer, I adventured back to the boat with a newfound love and respect for my oversized friends.

Swimming with Manatees - Wetsuits
Can anyone really pull off the look of a wetsuit? We sure couldn’t!

Swimming with Manatees - Noodles

First Thoughts on Swimming with Manatees

My initial thoughts when my aunt asked if we wanted to go swimming with manatees went something like this: swimming in the water with a huge elephant-type animal? Are you crazy? In a dirty river, uh I don’t think so!

As you can tell, I’m not the daredevil in this partnership. My husband and I are very much so on opposite sides of the spectrum in many categories. For instance, he is a great swimmer. He loves to scuba, and snorkel and is great at anything water-related. I, however, am good at looking at the water from a distance.

I mean I LOVE walking along the ocean, hearing the waves crashing on the shore, and watching sunsets on the beach. I’m not a great swimmer so I’m not that comfortable in the water. Throw a big animal in the mix, let’s just say I was a wreck just thinking about it! I was willing to at least try and I’m so glad that I did because it was an amazing experience I will never forget.

Swimming with Manatees

Best Place to Swim with Manatees in Florida

There are only a handful of locations in the world where you can snorkel with manatees, and Crystal River, Florida is one of them. With the increasing population, the number of regulated tour operators, and the clear water of the springs, Crystal River may very well be the best place out there. 


Swimming with Manatees - Boat
This lil’ guy couldn’t get enough of us! He was just hanging by the boat.

Best Place to See Manatees in Florida

If you do not want to jump in the water with these magnificent beasts, you can still enjoy their company by visiting one of the places below throughout the state.  

  • Lee County Manatee Park, Fort Myers
  • Blue Spring State Park, Orange City
  • Three Sisters Spring, Crystal River
  • Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville
  • Manatee Sanctuary Park, Cape Canaveral
  • Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Spring Hill
  • Riviera Beach, Fort Lauderdale opening 2016
  • Manatee Springs State Park, Chiefland
  • Manatee Observation and Education Center, Fort Pierce
  • Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center, Apollo Beach
  • Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Homosassa
  • Sea World, Orlando
  • Epcot, Orlando
  • Lowry Park Zoo, Tampa
  • Seaquarium, Miami
  • Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium

Read here for more information on a Three Sisters Springs Manatee Swim.

HOT TIP: Don’t forget to check for a swim with manatees Groupon for a deal on swimming or kayaking with the manatees! And if you book through Groupon, go through Rakuten first to get Cash Back! 

*As always, some links provided on Dang Travelers are affiliate links that provide us with commissions at no additional charge to you.*

Best Time to Swim with Manatees in Florida

The best time to swim with manatees in Crystal River, Florida is in the winter and early spring months: mid-November through April. You can choose a snorkel trip other times as the river has resident manatees that stay year-round. But there are a significantly larger number of manatees during peak season when the air cools and they head inland for warm water. 

Tips on Swimming with Manatees

  • Different tours go to different locations, ask the operator before you book where it plans to take you. If there are too many manatees in Three Sisters Springs, you may not be allowed to snorkel there. You have a better chance of getting inside the spring outside of the busy season of mid-November through March. 
  • Get out early in the morning when there are fewer crowds and the animals are more playful.
  • Follow the rules and DO NOT BOTHER the manatees so everyone after you has an opportunity to have this wonderful experience. 
  • The 72-degree water is COLD so know that no matter what time of year, you’ll have the option of wearing a wetsuit.


Make a Difference

Unfortunately, the manatee population is considered an endangered species. Sad to find out, that we are their only known predators. In the 18th and 19th centuries, manatees were hunted intensely for their meat, fat, and tough hides.

Update: As of 2017, manatees were taken off the endangered list and added to the threatened list. Yay manatees!

Coastal development has also affected the population by damaging the sea-grass habitat on which they depend. It is obvious that collisions with powerboats are probably the biggest threat to them now. We noticed many manatees with scars and gashes from incidents with propellers.

If you are interested in making a difference by volunteering or donating, contact the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge or Save the Manatee Club.

Looking for a unique holiday gift? Adopt a manatee! Save the Manatee Club, a program actually cofounded by the famous singer, Jimmy Buffet, has an Adopt-A-Manatee program going on for the holidays. You pick the manatee you want to adopt and they send you or the recipient an adoption certificate, photo, and biography of the manatee plus a magnet and calendar.

Final Thoughts 

Although I had some reservations, in the beginning, swimming with manatees was an unforgettable memory that I will cherish forever. We may even do it again next time we are in Florida!

Have you ever had an experience with a manatee? Tell us in the comments below!

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Swimming with Manatees

Swimming with Manatees



Follow Angela:

Angela E. is a travel writer from the Chicagoland area who has visited all 50 states in the US and has traveled extensively around the world. She is passionate about exploring the great outdoors and hiking in particular. Her love for nature has taken her to some of the most beautiful locations on the planet. She has written extensively about her travels on her own website, Dang Travelers, and has been published in collaboration with other travel websites and multiple visitor bureaus around the country.

60 Responses

  1. Carol Colborn

    We saw manatees when we were in Florida 2010 and 2011 but didn’t know you could swim with them!

    • Dang Travelers

      Yes, it was so awesome! I was very nervous at first, but was so glad we did it. We’ve actually gone twice now.

  2. Chris Travels

    You go, girl! Some of the best experiences in life can come from stretching our comfort zones to embrace new situations by confronting our fears. It’s empowering to feel like an overcomer and it may just put a big ole smile of satisfaction on your face on the tail end…just what happened to you as you fell in love with the manatees!

    • Dang Travelers

      LOL thanks Chris! I was definitely glad I didn’t let fear ruin an experience of a lifetime.

  3. Nancy

    My in-laws used to live on a boat in Florida. I loved when we would sail by and see the Manatee’s, they are so beautiful! Slow but beautiful. They are some of my best memories of visiting there.

    • Dang Travelers

      Wow, what a great way to live! Sounds like you had some fun memories with them as well. It is definitely something unique to the area.

  4. Kevin Wagar

    This article made me so excited! Swimming with Manatees has been a dream of mine since I did a report on them in the 5th grade. I’ll get my chance someday!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Dang Travelers

      You definitely need to! I don’t think I had any idea what a manatee was when I was in 5th grade! 🙂 I was so nervous, but it was an awesome experience. I’m sure you would love it.

    • Dang Travelers

      Thanks for reading Natasha! They are super adorable and extremely gentle.

    • Dang Travelers

      Sounds like a plan Alexandrea! I would highly recommend it. It was an amazing experience.

  5. Criz

    Monatee looks pretty scary to me too! I’ve never seen one before. But like what you said, “don’t worry they only eat plants”. Congrats you made it, Lol 😉 What’s the water temperature? It looks cold. 😉

    • Dang Travelers

      Thanks! Yes, they are large, but harmless. The water temperature stays around 72 degrees Fahrenheit all year round in the spring.

  6. Sabine

    That sounds like an amazing adventure =) Loved to do that too sometime…didn’t even know it is possible =D

  7. Nic

    I love how you described this, I was almost there with you! They are strange looking creatures but beautiful in their own way! It’s also good that your visit did some good too! Win win!

  8. Anda

    What a great experience! I love the manatees and sadly they are an endangered species nowadays. I would have loved to see them so close, but swimming in murky waters must have been a little scary. No wander your heart was pounding and sweat was coming out of your pores. They are huge animals, indeed.

  9. Charles McCool

    Very cool experience you had, it looks like, swimming with manatees. I grew up in South Florida and we had manatees in our back yard. There was never a thought of jumping in the canal and swimming with them. Well, truth is I was scared of the cottonmouths and gators. Later I worked at a facility that included a mana tee hospital and rehab facility. So I quite often saw the results of humans in their environment. Nice to see positive interactions.

    • Dang Travelers

      Cottonmouths and gators are a little intimidating. Don’t think I would be jumping in the water either! That is very cool about working in the hospital and rehab facility, but I’m sure it was a little sad as well. We would love to maybe volunteer down there one winter. Thanks for reading!

  10. Priya

    Our kids have swam with dolphins and stingrays before, didn’t know that you could swim with Manatees. Will have to check it out next time…They sure do look adorable!

  11. Holly

    lol love it..the gray blob is on the move. That is exactly what it looked like. Not surprised that humans are their only predators. Shameful. Glad you had a great experience

    • Dang Travelers

      Thanks Holly! It is a sad situation. Unfortunately, tourists can be part of the problem, but if you’re respectful it can be a transformative experience!

  12. travelling chingrita

    Going to Florida so many times, this is one thing I forgot to do and need to do. I’m always so freaked out by the bull sharks and gators that I often forget about the opportunity hang with the sea cows!

  13. Alyssa | Adjust Your Focus™

    Such an awesome experience!! I swam with whale shark in Australia and recently manta rays in Hawaii but not manatees, yet. It is on my list! I think, like anything in water, it’s scary at first because you don’t know what to expect but once you realize you are ok and calm down, it’s amazing being surrounded by such magnificent creatures.

    • Dang Travelers

      So awesome! Did you write up anything on your experience? Would love to read about it! I’m sure it’s something not too far ahead in our future!

  14. arvin

    WOW once in a life time experience, its good to see the part of your post on Make a Difference with links to donating to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge or Save the Manatee Club. Awesome!

    • Dang Travelers

      Thanks Arvin! Yes, we found the manatees need a little help and attention. Unfortunately, they are considered endangered and us humans are at fault. Thanks for reading!

  15. Leslie

    Citrus County, FL- Crystal River and Homosassa are the only places you can legally still swim with the Manatees. Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River is the home to hundreds of manatee in the winter. To see them from land visit the Three Sisters Springs page.

    • Dang Travelers

      Homosassa Springs is where we just adopted two cuties! Thanks for reading and sharing!

  16. Cathy

    We must have been at Three Sisters Springs the same day you were there as our yellow Bennington pontoon boat is captured in one of your photos. Glad you had an awesome experience with the manatees!

  17. Capt. Bryan

    Thanks for the right up! We really do try to respect our bay and it’s inhabitants while fostering conservational interests and spreading knowledge. I want to point out that watercraft are among the biggest day to day threats to a manatee, but the bigger threat to the species is habitat destruction.

    That is the BIG deal in my book. Our springs and grass beds are dying at an alarming rate. You can find alot of good information on these bigger picture issues on SWFWMD sites, Howard T. Odum Springs Institue and Amy H. Remley Foundation websites.


    Thanks for coming to see our area and having such a possitve experience. I hope it helps spread the word.

    • Dang Travelers

      Thanks for the links Capt. Bryan! It is so unfortunate that watercrafts and habitat destruction are the biggest threat to manatees. Thanks for trying to make a difference for them!

    • Dang Travelers

      We saw tons of gators in general, but none while in that area swimming or boating. Thankfully!! Believe me, I was petrified but was so happy to have gone through with it. It was amazing and informing!

  18. Shay

    It’s to my understanding that they are just as kind and goodhearted as dolphins.. If not moreso. Congratulations!

  19. Dominique

    AWESOME! I love manatees! They are totally adorable! I stayed at a beautiful eco-resort in the Mayan Riviera which was built into a lagoon. Each morning, I’d walk the bridge/walkways to the restaurant for breakfast and stop to look at the manatees swimming underneath me. What a treat! You are so lucky! Thanks for sharing these awesome pics and bringing back some great memories!

    • Dang Travelers

      Wow, that hotel sounds great! We’ll have to take a look at it. Yes, it was a treat for sure.

  20. Nicole

    That is such a cool experience! A few years ago my husband and I swam with wild dolphins in Hawaii and it was awesome as well. It’s so important to respect all of these wonderful animals.

    • Dang Travelers

      Respect is the key for sure! Unfortunately, people can do more harm than they realize. Snorkeling with manatees was a highlight of our 2 month road trip.

  21. Jesper, The Biveros Effect

    It sounds like an amazing adventure that you have engaged in 🙂

    • Dang Travelers

      Amazing indeed. Swimming and snorkeling with manatees was like nothing I have ever done before.

  22. Kim

    We’ve been swimming with the manatees, too! Incredible experience!!!! Once in a lifetime thrill!

    • Dang Travelers

      Where did you swim with them Kim? Just curious. Yes, such an incredible experience!

  23. Amanda

    I always wanted to swim with the manatees! I’m waiting for my kids to get a little bigger, so we can all do it as a family.

  24. Mikki

    We live within minutes of Blue Springs and I don’t get down there as often as I should. I know this winter there have been 100’s of them in the springs. Such beautiful animals.

    • Dang Travelers

      They are beautiful animals. You are lucky to be so close. We were there in November and there weren’t too many because of the warm weather. The year before that they were everywhere!

  25. Erica

    I would totally swim with them! I wanted to jump in when I saw them at the Tampa Electric Plant.

    • Dang Travelers

      We heard that was a great place to spot manatees. Glad you were able to see them!

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