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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Swimming with Manatees - Crystal River, Florida

Northern Florida is full of history from ancient ports to historic forts (see what I did there?).
But, I bet you didn’t know northern Florida was also home to one incredibly unique marine mammal encounter.  I’m not talking a dolphin swim in a closed exhibit type-of-experience at Sea World, but instead a chance to get in the water with one of Florida's most famous critters in their natural environment, the manatee.

Crystal River on the west coast of Florida is famed to be the only place in the U.S. where you can (legally) swim with wild manatees.  It's here in Florida where manatees seek refuge from the cold Gulf of Mexico, spending their winters in the warm 71 degree springs.  This unique opportunity to see manatees up close and personal is possible through a collaboration between U.S. Fish and Wildlife and various tour agencies around the area.  

This form of ecotourism works to provide visitor’s with a unique, educational yet unobtrusive experience with Florida’s most famous natives.  The first half of this post discusses the area, the visitors center, the program and finally the manatees.  Scroll down if you are just here for the swim or watch my overview video here. 

Visiting the area of Crystal Springs can be really confusing. There are a lot of names floating around like "Three Sisters", "Kings Bay" and "Crystal River". Then, there are a few visitor's centers/information centers and shops and no know seems to know which is which.   And then theres figuring out how to see the manatees on land portion, in the water, and understanding all the refuges.  So you aren't as confused as I was, let's go through the basics.

The lingo:  Three Sisters (springs) feeds into Kings Bay (large bay) which is the headwaters for the Crystal River (the start/top of the river). Spring to Bay to River.  Kings Bay has over 100 springs that feed fresh water into Crystal River (Miller's Creek, House Spring, Hunter Springs, Jurassic Springs, Magnolia Springs, Little Sister, Big Sister, Pretty Sister, Idiot's Delight, King Spring). 

A popular way to see the manatees is by land at the Three Sisters Spring Wild Refuge run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife .  U.S. Fish and Wildlife is "an agency of the federal government within the U.S. Department of the Interior dedicated to the management of fish, wildlife, and natural habitats".

This area is a world-renowned sanctuary for the West Indian Manatee (native to Florida) during the winter.  This 57 acre refuge around Three Sisters Springs has a 1/4 mile boardwalk with viewing platforms to observe the springs and wildlife. There are also at least 1.5 miles of nature trails that you can explore to see views of Kings Bay, Magnolia Springs, Lake Crystal and wetlands. There is an admission fee to enter the refuge. 

Three Sisters Springs Refuge
Hours: open 8:30 to 4:30
Address:  123 NW U.S. Highway 19 Crystal River FL 34428
Prices: Summer (April 1 to Nov. 14) :  $7.50 per person (children 5 under free)
                Winter (Nov 15 to March 31): $15 adult $12.50 senior $10 military, $7.50 kids
**Trolley tours depart from the Three Sisters Springs Center about every 30 minutes and head to the boardwalk at Three Sisters Springs. Meet at the Visitors Center for your tour. 

Manatees can be seen in the springs year round but stay in the springs in high numbers form mid November to late March.  During the summer, most of the manatees leave the springs to look for food in the Gulf of Mexico.  

Saving the Springs
Originally, there was a plan to develop the land surrounding the spring (condominiums and bottling the spring water).  The 57-acre parcel of land was purchased in 2010 with funds from the "Florida Community Trust", the City of Crystal River, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), as well as community members and non-profit groups.  The City and SWFWMD jointly own the land and it is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife under the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Many Manatees
On the day we visited, the guides at the visitor's center told us there were 65 manatees accounted for during low tide, and about 100 at high tide.  We did not realize there was a fee and had already spent $100+ on guides to swim with the manatees so we decided to skip this portion as we were short on time and thought knew we were getting in the water with them (which we thought happened here).   However, water access is not permitted through the refuge which is a sanctuary for the manatees.  This refuge is a land tour only (via trolley in the winter months) and you can see the manatees from a boardwalk .

Turns out, this area (Three Sisters) is closed to all boat and swimming traffic to provide a sanctuary for the wintering manatees.  Between November 15th and March 31st each year manatee sanctuaries are in effect prohibiting boating and limiting swimming access only to a designated part of the main spring.  By closing off these popular areas, F&W is able to provide "peace and safety to the hundreds of manatees that arrive in the Crystal River each year".  We would not be allowed in these areas but would have to look for manatees in the “boat allowed” areas.  While initially disappointed I wouldn't be surrounding by 100 manatees, I completely understood and completely support this regulation and support of ecotourism. 

Ecotourism: tourism directed toward exotic, often threatened, natural environments, especially to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife. Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel.

After leaving the Three Sisters Spring Refuge, we left in search of a visitors center to learn more about the area before our 4:00 pm swim. I was told there are technically three visitors centers/information centers yet few people A) knew of this or B) could decide which three.

The town was quite confusing and no one seemed to be completely sure off what was going on. What I discovered was the Three Sister's Spring Headquarters is where you can buy tickets to the Three Sisters Springs Refuge. There is also a small visitors center sort of place where you can learn about the manatees. When I plugged in "visitors center" into google map, it brought me to a dive/kayak shop (it is apparently closed and being relocated). Then there is the visitor's center at the chamber of commerce, or according to the women at the other visitors center "with the big blue front by the Arbys". To this day I cannot find any information on this mysterious visitors center but in fact did find it by the Arbys (and closed for the day).
In hindsight, I wish we had the time and bought tickets to see the manatees (land portion) in the famous Three Sisters Spring. However, our up close 3 on 1 encounter with a wild manatee in the water could not be replaced and there are only so many hours in the day. In hindsight I completely support these roped off areas where manatees are completely off limits to public in the water, trying to conserve energy and stay warm during the winter months.

10 Manatee Fun Facts from
  1. There are three species of manatee—the Amazonian manatee, West Indian manatee (Florida variety), and West African manatee
  2. Manatees are typically found in shallow coastal areas and rivers where they feed on sea grass, mangrove leaves, and algae. 
  3. These herbivores munch on food for almost half the day, eating ten percent of their body weight in plant mass every day. 
  4. Manatees can weigh up to 1,200 pounds
  5. Manatees go to the surface of the water every three to five minutes to breathe although they can remain underwater longer, holding their breath for up to 20 minutes.
  6. Dugongs, in the same order (Sirenia) as manatees, spend all of their time in coastal ocean waters of the Indian Ocean and western Pacific and they don’t ever venture into freshwater. Although they look similar to manatees, dugongs have a more whale-like fluke compared to the round, paddle-like tail that you see on manatees.
  7. The closest living relatives of sirenians are elephants. Manatees evolved from the same land animals as elephants over 50 million years ago.
  8. Female manatees usually have one calf every two to five years and the calf then stays and nurses for two years. Calves nurse from their mother’s teats, which are found right where the forward limbs meet the body. 
  9. Manatees have no natural predators in the wild but humans have played a large part in making all three species at risk of extinction. About half of West Indian manatee deaths are caused by humans, and most are due to boat collisions. 
  10. Manatees are quite buoyant and use their horizontally placed diaphragm and breathing to control their buoyancy. This and their average speed of 3 to 5 miles per hour means that manatees are way too slow to escape from the path of a speeding boat.

Now that we are all manatee experts, understand the visitors center dilemma, and know how to see these creatures from the boardwalk at the refuge, let's talk about getting in the water to see the manatees (finally). 

It is important to note that there are many many, many companies advertising Swim, Paddle, Snorkel, Do Whatever with manatees. While U.S. Fish and Wildlife technically regulates this activity, I still found it important to do my research and find the most reputable and respected company for my visit with the manatees. I was willing to pay a little more, to support a company with amazing reviews and who’s focus was on ecotourism, conservation, and following the rules set forth for interactions with these creatures. After my research, I came across "Fun 2 Dive". Fun 2 Dive is a 5 star highly rated and reviewed operation, and most importantly, one of the few Federally licensed and authorized by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Another big feature for me was the small group numbers Fun 2 Dive offers for their tours. I got lucky and the only other people on the boat with us was the guide and the captain. Private Manatee Tour Indeed.

I have read horror stories about large groups surrounding one lone manatee on a tour and this was something I wanted to avoid- something I needed to avoid.   I ended up booking a "sunset tour” which meant a 4pm departure to head out to the springs after everyone had left.  The kayakers were gone, and most of the other companies were already back at the dock.  This meant just the three of us in the water, hanging out observing the manatees. Before we left the dock, we watched a 5 minute video on the DOs and DONTs of swimming with Florida's wild manatees. This video was a mortifying display of tourists kicking, corralling and riding the manatees (a WHAT NOT to do video...real videos, real tourists doing awful things).  Respect the rules and please please don't be the person who ruins this unique experience for the rest of us.

Video Montage swimming with the manatees 

We put on our wetsuits (provided by the tour company along with a mask and snorkel) and headed to the van which would bring us to the dock.  The water is shallow and fins are not allowed nor are they needed.  If you want help with your buoyancy, there are noodles on the boat for flotation.  

After a five minute boat ride, the captain spotted a lone female in the water and we slowly entered the water and swam over. This time of day, and this time of year, the manatees are not very active and this one was snoozing on the bottom. It was an awesome experience to just a few feet from a wild manatee, watching her snooze on the bottom before opening her eyes, seeing us, and coming up for a big breath of air and slowly leaving.

There are strict guidelines on interacting and observing these creatures. US Fish and Wildlife encourages passive observation- observe from a distance and at the surface of the water.  Do not initiate contact, do not dive down, do not touch, interfere, separate mom or calf, ride, surround, corner - just view from a safe comfortable distance. You are not allowed to reach out and touch them but can acknowledge them if they come to you (and in the more active season they do).  Don't kick with your feet but instead use your hands to propel you around the water.  The manatees we saw were either cruising by or snoozing on the bottom conserving energy.  USF&W is out on the water making sure visitors adhere to these guidelines and visitor's have been cited for breaking the rules, a big one being diving down to see the sleeping manatees.  Don't be that person and please (please) follow the rules.

After spending some time first the first manatee, a large female estimated to weight about 700 pounds, we got back in the boat and headed to another area. In this area, we saw three manatees cruise by and spent some time swimming and free diving in a nearby spring where the water was nice and warm and the fish were plentiful. While we didn't see a ton of manatees, we enjoyed being in the warm crystal clear water and the amazing visibility was a nice surprise. I was amazed to see how large these creatures are, how slow they move, and watching their adorable squishy pug like faces come up for a breath before returning to a nap or slowly leaving the area. 

Manatee Swim Tours: 3 hour adventures. 
Sunset Manatee Swim: 2 hours 4:00pm - 6:00pm
Semi-Private: 6-9 Guests Maximum
Cost: $69.95/person, all snorkeling gear included
Need to Know: Arrive to the shop by 15 minutes early to prepare for your tour. 
The sunset tour is a 2 hour trip into the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to swim with the manatees. 
Bring: Bring a towel, your bathing suit, and something warm to put on for when you exit the water.  The boat is enclosed which helps on the cooler winter days.  There is hot cocoa and tea on the boat. 

Overall, the experience was exactly what I imagined, up close and personal with these amazing creatures.   I was initially disappointed by the "lack" of manatees and I was unaware of all the closed of sanctuary areas.  I sort of envisioned a disney film of me surrounding my 20 manatees vying for my attention (a girl can dream). However, I completely understand why these high concentration areas are closed off to swimmers and prefer to support companies and activities in line with ecotourism.  I was glad to see the manatees we did and spend some time in the warm waters of Crystal River. 


  1. So awesome. I LOVE manatees! Maybe because they kind of look like water pugs?

    1. They so do! I was told the babies really do! I can't believe this was my first time every seeing one! I am sure you have seen a few in your FL visits :)


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