Crystal River is home to the worlds largest population of endangered manatee that rely on spring-fed Kings Bay to keep them warm during the winter season, including a small population in the warmer months. Crystal Bay and Homosassa are the only places in Florida where you can legally enter the water and snorkel with manatees in the wild.
The best time to view the manatees is November through March. Even though manatees can reach weights over one-thousand pounds, manatees are able to get hypothermia. The springs at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge on Kings Bay are consistently at 73*F, giving the manatees the perfect temperature to thrive.
Go early. We were driving a couple of hours to get to the manatees, so we were able to get onto the second boat trip of the day, at 10 am. The water visibility already was not great and with so many people in and out of the water already, it really did not help the water visibility as you can see from the photos.
Before you are allowed to get into the boat, you have to watch the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge’s Manatee Manners video. It teaches you all the do’s and don’ts when you are interacting with the manatees and you will not be able to participate in the experience without watching it. Even if you rent a kayak, the video must be viewed.
There is an off-limits Manatee Protection Zone that you may NOT cross. You are also not able to jump into the water or stand, only float. Chasing after Manatees is not tolerated, or approaching them to touch. However, if they are curious and pursue you, it is considered acceptable to use one hand to reciprocate. In 2017, Manatees were moved from the endangered list to the threatened species list. While that is a great improvement, it does not mean that you can do what you want because everything is magically better (it isn’t). Do not put the manatees in a stressful situation. They will go into the Protection Zone when they want to be left alone. Otherwise, it is your job to only passively observe and to be thankful for the incredible opportunity.
Even though the water temperature was warm enough to not have a wetsuit, it did help to keep us warmer longer so that we were able to stay in the water right until the boat was ready to go back. You will also want a mask, snorkel and a pool noodle, to help keep you buoyant.
Take a look at our Manatee adventure:
Our tour with Captain Mikes Swimming With The Manatees was $50 US and lasted three hours.
Being able to encounter these curious, gentle giants within their natural habitat is an experience that we will never forget. We were in awe as they swam along near us. Next time we are in Florida we are keen to try again to see if we can get some better water visibility.