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Meeting Manatees: Crystal River, Florida

There is only ONE place in the United States where you can float among 1,000-pound vegetarians.

Mother manatee with young calf in Crystal River, Florida

Crystal River, Florida is known as the Manatee Capital of the World! Famous for their yearly manatee congregation from mid-November through March. This literal hot-spot attracts hundreds upon hundreds of manatees to the warm spring fed waters of King Bay and Three Sisters Springs. The fact is, these massive marine mammals don’t care for the cold. They simply cannot survive in waters below 60 degrees. When the temperatures begin to drop, manatees migrate from the gulf to the springs for the cozy 72-degree water.

Lance and I, road-tripped to Crystal River in February of 2016, planning our entire journey around MANATEES! We wanted to boost our chances of seeing as many of them as possible. Our research and planning paid off, over the course of just 72 hours we observed nearly 40 wild manatees. A whopping 30 were resting in Three Sisters Springs that we watched from the boardwalk, 4 swam right beneath our kayak on the Chassahowitzka River, and we spotted 6 while snorkeling the bay. 

Here are my tips for seeing manatees up-close and personal – while keeping this vulnerable species safe and comfortable! 

Manatees resting in Three Sisters SpringsSOLID GROUND: Observing manatees from land is the least invasive way to see them in the wild. Three Sisters Springs is known as the best spot for manatee viewing from solid land in the United States. And YES, Three Sisters Springs really does live up to the hype! A crescent shaped boardwalk hugs the triplet springs where masses of manatees rest. This smooth quarter mile trail is accessible to all and gives observers a perfect vantage point to passively enjoy the manatees.

Access to this boardwalk is heavily controlled- no pets are allowed, and there is no parking on site. Instead guests are driven in via a trolley that begins at the Three Sisters Springs Center in town and departs for the springs every 30 minutes. During peak manatee season admission to the springs is $20 for adults (updated August 2020). Click here for more information on Visiting Three Sisters Springs.

KAYAKING: To connect with this unique Floridian ecosystem I recommend renting a kayak or canoe. Going this route helps to reduce the amount of noise pollution in manatee habitat and eliminates your risk of propeller strike on slow moving manatee backs. I would consider this mode of viewing to be very passive and a wonderful way to encounter manatees in their natural habitat. Lance and I shared a tandem kayak we rented from the Chassahowitzka River Campground for just $35 for the day. We spent hours in near silence as we dipped our paddles into the clear blue water. During our glide down the river we were lucky enough to have a group of four manatees calmly swim under our kayak. As we shared space, it was rewarding to see them just as relaxed as we were. Shockingly enough we also spotted a family of NINE river otters playing on the muddy banks. Highly recommend journeying out into nature on the Chassahowitzka when you’re in the area. 

Snorkeling near manatees in Crystal River, FloridaSNORKELING: Being in the water with manatees is a surreal wildlife encounter. There truly isn’t anything like it in the world. Getting up close and personal with these docile giants is unforgettable, and is even more rewarding when you’re not disrupting their natural behaviors or harassing their placid lifestyles. Remember that the manatees are in the springs to stay warm, they can die of hypothermia if they are disrupted out of the sanctuary of these springs. Citrus County has strict laws they enforce to ensure that the manatees are protected. Even though manatees might look cuddly, resist the temptation, please practice “passive observation” when you swim with these gentle creatures. That means, look, do not touch!

Snorkeling near manatees in Crystal River, Florida

From our experience in Crystal River we discovered conflicting facts about whether touching is allowed. Some outfitters strictly adhere to “look but don’t touch” motto while others state that you can touch with a single open hand as long as the animal initiates the contact. During our 2016 visit, the tour operator we snorkeled with said “if a manatee engages with you, legally we are allowed a one open-hand touch.” Looking back, I regret selecting that company, especially since Florida Fish and Wildlife law enforcement recommends to keep your hands to yourself when it comes to manatees. Sharing space with these placid mammals is amazing enough, touching simply disrupts their natural behaviors. Look at it this way, if you want to see manatees, simply act like a manatee. Practice passive observation, refrain from splashing around, instead move slowly and just float at the surface. Practicing good manatee manners allows you to soak up the amazing viewing opportunities while supporting these threatened species.

Check out this United States Fish and Wildlife Service video to learn “manatee manners” and how to properly observe manatees underwater.
My best advice is to avoid entering the water on busy weekends, and around holidays, and try to avoid cold snaps where even more manatees are congregating in the springs.

When I return to Crystal River my top priority is to support ethical manatee viewing outfitters.
My preference would be to go entirely self-guided – rent the snorkeling gear ourselves, and also observe from shore. That way we can ensure that we aren’t associated with disruptive manatee viewing practices. I’m already looking forward to the next time I can observe these adorable vegetarians.

View from Three Sisters Springs Boardwalk