Your Family's Gotta Try This: Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River

By Kevin McGeever

Welcome to Crystal River, Florida, the Manatee Capital of the World.

That bit of branding is not braggadocio but fact.

So says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: “Between November and April, King’s Bay is home to the largest aggregation of manatees in the natural environment in the world.”

 An adult manatee will weigh more than 1,000 pounds.

An adult manatee will weigh more than 1,000 pounds, sustaining its pillowy physique by eating 10 percent of its body weight every day in sea grasses. Which explains the alias: sea cow.

Now picture 500 to 1,000 of these half-ton herbivores on holiday in these local waters. Whoa.

And yet, what’s more impressive than all the data points is a first-person, Florida family vacation experience: pulling on a wetsuit, mask, and snorkel, and sharing glass-clear spring waters with these gentle giants.

More than two dozen local tour operators, permitted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, provide visitors with the bucket-list opportunity to observe manatees in the wild – at rest in a shallow bay bottom, mothers and calves side by side and, if you’re lucky, maybe a furry, flat-faced kisser coming to check you out. (More on the rules of engagement in a minute.)

Here’s the thing: If visitors were asked to list the most iconic family vacation experiences in Florida, you’d likely get answers of theme parks, beaches, Kennedy Space Center, the Everglades. Fair enough. But encountering a wild creature on its turf – in particular one so unusual, so rare, so LARGE – makes for a special memory.

Here’s more of what your family will see on such an adventure – and how to do it.

Snorkeling With Manatees In Crystal River: What To Know Before You Go

Time Allowance Needed for Snorkeling with Manatees

Depending on your travel time, activities, and meal, anticipate a full day of family fun.

Distance from Big Cities to Crystal River, FL

Crystal River, on Florida’s central Gulf coast, is 75 to 80 minutes from Gainesville and Tampa, 90 minutes from Orlando, two hours from St. Petersburg, and three hours or less from TallahasseeJacksonville, and Sarasota.

What to Bring 

Most outfitters will provide the gear that you need. Nevertheless, the spring water is 72 degrees, eye-opening for its clarity and the chill. Prepare yourself and bring:
- water shoes;
- change of clothes;
- towels;
- sun block;
- waterproof bag for important items such as a phone;
- a camera with underwater housing;
- and your humility and sense of humor. Have you seen yourself yet in a wetsuit and a snorkeling mask?

Mind your manatee manners!

Manatee Manners, aka How to Behave with a Threatened Species

“Practice passive observation” is the official language. In other words, look but don’t touch.

Watch this U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Manatee Manners video,  or take a look at this graphic, to understand the required etiquette.

You will be interacting with a rare mammal protected by federal and state laws. Manatees have no natural predators, but they are vulnerable. Hundreds die each year, victimized by a loss of habitat and food sources or collisions with passing boat propellers.

The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect habitats for Florida’s beloved official marine animal. The warmer water within the seven manatee sanctuaries in King’s Bay is critical to manatee survival in the winter. From Nov. 15 to March 31, there is no swimming, diving, snorkeling, boating, and fishing in these areas.

Visitors must:
- Observe from a distance and from the surface of the water.
- Do not initiate any contact.
- Do not approach resting manatees.
- Do not separate a calf from its mother.
- Do not give them anything to feed or drink.
- Enter the water quietly and slowly.
- Keep your feet off the bottom.

But trust me. For this disciplined behavior, there is a reward.

Meeting a Manatee

Carol Grant saw her first manatee – rather, a drawing of a manatee – in the Encyclopedia Britannica in the early 1960s.

Forty years later, Carol saw her first wild manatee underwater in the freshwater springs at Crystal River. That meeting altered the course of her life.

Manatees became her passion project. She taught herself underwater photography (some of her work appears on Grant reckons that she has snorkeled with manatees more than 1,200 times.

“When you enter their world respectfully and calmly, and watch their lives … a whole lot of understanding comes into place when you see them in their habitat. To see them in clear water, to see mothers and calves, to see them moving around and munching on eel grass, to see them almost at eye level … it’s profound, it’s emotional.

“Then you understand boat propellers, boat speeds, and manatee slow zones.”

Grant says a manatee’s skin resembles the hide of an elephant, wrinkly and whiskery. The manatee’s snout is an appendage, albeit an abridged one, with all the movements of an elephant’s trunk.

Every meeting with manatees has been memorable, Grant says, but Leap Day 2008 stands out. “I was in front of a spring, alone and cold. I saw a little black shape (and) I realized it’s a baby manatee.”

Dr. Robert Bonde, a longtime research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told Grant that the baby she saw was just hours old, the beginning of a lengthy parent-child relationship.

A calf, 40-65 pounds at birth, will stay with its mother and nurse for up to two years.

For another look at snorkeling with manatees in Crystal River, see writer Lauren Tjaden's travelogue.

 Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except for federal holidays.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center

From the website …

“Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1983, is the only refuge created specifically for the protection of the threatened Florida manatee. …  This unique refuge preserves Three Sisters Springs, the last unspoiled and undeveloped spring habitat in Kings Bay.

“The purpose of the refuge is as follows:

  1. To protect threatened and endangered species, especially the West Indian manatee.
  2. To provide fish and wildlife-oriented recreational opportunities.
  3. To protect natural resources.
  4. To conserve endangered and threatened species.”

Monica Scroggin, a Miami native and the refuge’s visitor services specialist, figures that she has snorkeled with the King’s Bay manatees 40-50 times – including her bachelorette party.

She couldn’t compare her experiences to any other Florida vacation thrill. For her, meeting a manatee is “off the charts. Little calves are so curious, they’ll come up and look you in the eyes.”

For landlubbers, Scroggin says the refuge’s new visitor center provides educational experiences that will appeal to the senses – sight, sound, and humor.

A quarter-mile boardwalk, accessible to wheelchair users, has viewing platforms to see wildlife.

Interactive touch discs allow visitors to guess water temperatures and listen to manatee sounds: mother and calf talking to each other; a sea cow breaching the water surface for a gulp of air; and even a button to hear a manatee break wind.

The visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. everyday – except for federal holidays.

Driving Directions

To the National Wildlife Refuge:
- From the north, turn right off Highway 19 onto SE Paradise Point Road. Follow the road until it curves to the right. The refuge parking lot will be on the right.
- From the south, turn left off Highway 19 on Fort Island Trail, then right onto Three Sister Springs Drive. At the first stop sign turn left onto Paradise Point Road. Travel three blocks until the road curves to the right . The refuge parking lot will be on the right.

Phone: (352) 563-2088

1502 SE Kings Bay Drive

Crystal River, FL 34429-4661

Food and Drinks

The bias here might always be for fresh local seafood – shrimp, crab, clams, and scallops, oh my! – but Crystal River, Homosassa, Inverness, and Floral City also offer plenty of cuisine options such as Southern barbecue, Cuban, and Thai. Here are some ideas.

Seasonal Differences

Winter is manatee season in Crystal River as 500-plus sea cows retreat annually to the warmer waters of three first-magnitude springs.

For humans, the average air temperature might be as low as 43 degrees in January, but the typical daytime highs are in the 70s.

That said, the manatees matter most here. When the Gulf of Mexico water temperature drops to 17 degrees Celsius or lower, the springs are closed to water access. Follow the wildlife refuge’s Facebook page for daily updates.

While winter is high season for manatee observation, Discover Crystal River reports that “even in the much warmer summer months, up to 100 manatees remain here all year.”

Travelers with Disabilities

Before scheduling your snorkeling trip, travelers with disabilities should call tour operators to understand the possible challenges and accommodations.

Other Places to Swim/Snorkel with Manatees

Crystal River, Homosassa, and the waters of Florida’s Citrus County constitute one of the rare places in the world where you can have an in-water experience with manatees in their natural environment. You'll find abundant guided tours in the area, which promise the easiest, safest, and surest way to swim with manatees. Conducted via boat or kayak, tours allow you to get into the water quicker and have a dry place to rest and keep your items. Check out these Florida Manatee Tours

More Adventures In Crystal River, Fl

Water adventures

- Scallop season begins in midsummer. Parents and children can immerse themselves in shallow Gulf of Mexico waters to hunt for the tasty bivalves. Local restaurants then will cook your catch.
- This region is a paddling paradise, with seven rivers, freshwater springs, an open bay, and a chain of lakes.
- From Discover Crystal River: “Life here is lived in amphibious small towns where a boat is just as common as a pick-up truck and fishing is an esteemed way of life connecting one generation to the next.” Local guides can help you land trophy fish offshore, inshore, and on freshwater lakes.
- At Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Park, the natural spring bowl is a gathering space for manatees and fresh and saltwater fish. Humans can experience them from an underwater observatory.

Land adventures

- Cyclists have their pick off three paved trails, including the 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail. Mountain bikers can explore Withlacoochee State Forest.
- Florida’s subtropical climate and temperate North America intersect in Citrus County. The nexus of weather plus abundant habitat makes for great birding.
- U-pick farms unite families with a common cause: fresh Florida fruit. Blueberries, strawberries, oranges … so good.


Places to Remember