When Is the Best Time
Manatees, also known as sea cows, are not adapted for cold water conditions, as they can’t maintain their core body temperature when it’s below 68 degrees.
Thus, hundreds of these lovable marine animals seek the Crystal River’s warm waters in Florida and leave the Gulf of Mexico every year. The constant flow of warm water in the Crystal River area offers a perfect environment for these fascinating giants.
Don’t forget to check out our 11 fun manatee facts at the end of this article!
Tip: Planning to visit the Everglades as well? View our complete Everglades – Florida – Best Time to Visit – Season Guide
The best time to swim with manatees in Florida is from mid-November to late March. Only during these months hundreds of manatees are present at the springs. The total population in Crystal River alone reaches up to 900 manatees during the winter and early spring.
Peak months: You will see the largest numbers of manatees in December, January, and February. However, you will still have an incredible time with the manatees when visiting in late November, March, or even early April.
Tour Recommendations | November – March
Every winter and spring, you can experience the once-in-a-lifetime experience of swimming with manatees on a guided tour. Crystal River is the only place in the USA where you can enter the water and are allowed to swim the manatees. It’s highly recommended that you pre-book an early morning tour.
Why early morning?
It’s less busy, and the manatees are more active during that time. The best tours you can book are provided by River Ventures USA: Crystal River Florida – 3 Hour Swim with Manatees (safe and reliable booking with GetYourGuide).
Location/Start: Drive to the River Venture Tour Center (Google Maps Location)
Can I book outside the manatee season (May – October)? Yes, it’s possible to come outside the peak months. However, you won’t see a large number of manatees. Read below for more details.
Manatee Calendar | Florida (Winter/Summer)
Usually, you experience the highest population of manatees in Florida every year in the winter and spring seasons between November and March. However, there can be deviations from this rule.
Once, they headed back to the Gulf of Mexico in February because of the unexpected water temperature in the Crystal River. In contrast, it rarely happens, but they might even stay until late April in some years. Once we went in late April and still saw a large number of these creatures.
However, we strongly recommend that you visit during the period with the highest number of these fascinating creatures:
Mid-November until March
During these months, you can experience the highest number of manatees in Florida. It’s the perfect time as the number of these adorable marine mammals can reach 700-900 in the Crystal River region.
As hundreds of manatees flock to the warm water springs, it’s also the most crowded time in terms of visitors. Make sure to read our best time-of-day tips below.
April to October
Between spring (usually April or May) and the fall months (September/October), the manatees enjoy the warm waters somewhere else. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that you spot large herds of manatees in the Crystal River area.
While it’s a much quieter experience in terms of tourist crowds, the number of present sea cows hovers only around 70 to 80 during this somewhat unpleasant time. However, the manatee tours usually operate year-round, and even during the off-season, you have a very good chance (about 90%) of seeing a manatee.
Best Time of Day
The best time of day to swim with manatees in Florida is in the early morning on a weekday because it is less crowded and much quieter. Additionally, manatees are most active and very playful during that time.
You will also have a great experience around noon and in the afternoon. However, the morning is definitely the best time of day to encounter these gentle giants and their unique and truly amazing attributes.
Thus, we highly recommend you book an early morning tour for your manatee experience. We always booked the very first tour of the day, not the second or third one.
Must-Know Tips | What to Bring
This is something we think you must bring: A camera that you can use underwater. Some say it is an absolute must for a swimming tour with manatees. With the right camera, you have the unique opportunity to take those breathtaking underwater manatee photos (like the ones in this article).
Check out our two recommendations above. Both cameras are 100% worth the money and can be used for countless other adventures.
Is Swimming With Manatees Worth It?
Swimming with manatees in Florida is worth it because meeting these big and fascinating creatures in the water is an incredible experience. It’s an unforgettable adventure to interact with the world’s largest population of manatees. You might even observe a mother nursing her calf.
The only downsides are the bigger groups in the water when you don’t book the early morning tour during the week. Another caveat is the water temperature of 72°F. Even with the provided wetsuit, it gets cold after a while. Tip: Bring additional neoprene protection.
Swim With Manatees Without a Tour?
It’s not recommended to swim with manatees without a tour, but it’s possible. You need knowledge of the location, experience, the right gear, and a detailed understanding of what to do and how to act. We urge you not to try it on your own.
💡 If you don’t follow the law and the rules, you might end up paying a large fine, being arrested, or receiving other severe sanctions.
A group tour is a convenient, safest, and most secure way to swim with manatees. With the right boat, you will get into the water faster and have a dry area to rest and store your belongings.
Can You See Manatees Without Swimming?
If you are not into swimming and snorkeling, it’s still possible to have a wonderful manatee experience. It’s not as fantastic as the encounters in the water, but still worth it.
You can see manatees in Florida without swimming by using the boardwalk at Three Sisters Springs. The boardwalk circling this one-acre springs complex offers incredible views offers. You are guaranteed to observe manatees from there between November and March/April.
The boardwalk has an elevated area of the spring’s mouth, providing a superb view. When we visited, we could clearly watch at least four manatees at once.
How to get to the viewing area?
There is no parking lot directly at the refuge. You can park your car about one mile away at the Three Sisters Springs Center (behind the City Hall – Google Maps) for free and take the shuttle that takes you to the boardwalk. It leaves every 30 minutes.
It’s also possible to park nearby and walk. When we visited, we are able to find safe and legal parking nearby the Three Sisters Springs front gate.
Regardless of your choice (shuttle or walking), you have to purchase a ticket for the Three Sisters Springs.
In winter, the ticket price for entering the area and viewing Florida’s manatees is $20 for adults 13 and older and $17.50 for seniors. Children from 6 to 13 pay $7.50. The summer ticket is cheaper as it costs only $12.50 (prices are subject to change)
The other best alternative for observing manatees is on a kayaking trip. You can book a tour at various places or bring your own. Besides Crystal River, you can do it here:
- Manatee Park in Fort Myers
- Blue Springs Orlando
- Silver Springs
- Manatee Springs State Park
- Lovers Key Fort Myers Beach
- Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
- Tarpon Springs
- Ichetucknee Springs
Why Can’t You Touch a Manatee in Florida?
You can’t touch a manatee as it’s against the law and because they are extremely sensitive mammals. Even the slightest active human behavior towards them can cause severe consequences for these creatures. Florida’s Manatee Sanctuary Act and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 forbid the touching of a manatee unless it touches you first.
💡 Keep in mind that you need to stay calm and passive. When a manatee approaches you, which they tend to do, you may not touch it with both hands.
What Happens if a Manatee Touches You?
Nothing dangerous happens when a manatee touches you. They are so calm and don’t bite. Being near them causes no immediate harmful behavior, as manatees aren’t known to hurt anyone or anything. They spend the vast majority of their days diving, eating, and resting in the water.
However, they are always curious and intrigued about anything that joins their environment.
How Long Should You Stay There
Most visitors stay at least two days. We recommend staying for 2-3 days. There is so much to explore in the area:
Hotel Deals Crystal River (With Low Price Guarantee)
5 Top Tips for Swimming with Manatees
Manatee at Crystal River by Julia
1. Swim Accompanied At First
If it is your first time swimming with manatees, it is a good idea to be accompanied by a captain or guide. These people are experts in swimming with manatees, and they will ensure you have a safe and manatee-friendly experience. More importantly, they’ll make sure that you don’t inadvertently violate any laws that could result in s fine.
2. Stay Cool
Swimming with manatees is an exciting experience, but do not allow yourself to get carried away. You have more chance of a manatee coming to you if you remain calm and still while in the water. Indeed, if you remain completely motionless, the manatees will be attracted to you out of curiosity – you might even get a hug or a kiss!
Try to make as little noise as possible, and avoid any commotion. Snorkeling equipment is better than SCUBA gear for viewing manatees, as the latter produces sounds and bubbles that disturb them. Avoid wearing fins and also splashing or boisterous behavior when you are close to manatees.
3. Let The Manatees Come To You
Holding back and allowing the manatees to come to you will avoid the risk of harassing or disturbing them. Allow them to make the first move, and they will be likely to approach you out of curiosity. When they do approach, they may roll over, presenting their underbelly for you to pat or scratch. You might even receive a kiss or a hug from their flippers.
Some manatees will have no interest in approaching you, and you should respect this by not approaching them. Never attempt to chase a manatee, and only swim with those that have approached you. The best approach is to float on the surface of the water and wait to get ‘picked-up’!
4. Maintain Pleasant Interactions
Not all manatees are as friendly as others, and you should allow them to decide if they want interaction or not. When you are approached, you may gently touch the manatee or stroke it with an open palm.
You should never try to trap a manatee, or ride, pinch, pole, or harass them in any way. You must be prepared to allow the manatee to swim away whenever it feels like doing so. You will only be able to hang out with the manatees if they like you, so be nice to them.
5. Don’t Isolate a Manatee From the Rest of Their Herd
You should never attempt to isolate a manatee or separate them from the rest of their herd. Manatee calves are entirely dependent on the mother’s support up to the age of two years. Mother manatees teach their young how to survive, so if a young calf gets isolated, it can become lost and end up dying.
You should also avoid attempting to feed the manatees. There is plenty of vegetation for them to eat around the springs, so there is no need for extra food.
11 Manatee Facts
- They are plant eaters
- The average manatee is 10 feet long and weighs 800-1200 pounds
- They have relatively good vision and can even distinguish between colors
- Unfortunately, they can’t survive in water temperatures below 68°F (20°C)
- Manatees can stay submerged for up to 20 minutes
- They spend 6-8 hours each day feeding
- They surface for air every 3-5 minutes
- They replace worn teeth throughout their lifetime
- Manatees may live as long as 60 years!
- They eat 10% to 15% of their body weight every day
- Manatees are an endangered species!