Get Ready for an Unforgettable Encounter – Your Ultimate Guide to Swimming with Manatees!

Did you know you can swim with manatees?

Although they are protected, folks can snorkel in the same waters as manatees. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see manatees in their winter sanctuary. But you just can’t show up on a whim and expect to be able to jump in the water and take a million underwater selfies; you need to be prepared.

I had my very first snorkel experience when I visited Crystal River to swim with manatees. I was invited by a friend who has gone many times. My husband was also with us. Although it was my first visit, I wasn’t new to respecting Florida wildlife and Florida springs or to navigating non-motorized boats.  

There is quite a bit of planning involved. In this post, you’ll find out where you can swim with manatees legally, what gear you need, what to expect, what not to do, and my experience. 

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Table of Contents

When and Where to Swim with Manatees

The only place you can legally swim with the Florida manatee is in Crystal River, Florida. Here – and only here – the Federal Government allows “passive observation” in the water. 

Graphic of the state of Florida showing the location of Three Sisters Spring in Crystal River, Florida.

The best time to swim with manatees is in the winter, between November 15th and March 31st, when manatees leave the cold ocean waters and seek warmth in Florida Springs. 

You may still see some during the summer, but it’s possible to see hundreds of manatees during peak season. 

Best ways to swim with manatees:

  • With a manatee tour company
  • DIY snorkel outing

Manatee Snorkel Tours

Several companies in the area will take you and a group out for a snorkel tour. They provide transportation via pontoon boats, gear (more on that in the “Gear You Need” section), tips on how to conduct yourself while on the tour, and an in-water guide. Tours are for all ages and begin at around $65. 

Tours are a great way to learn and participate in this beautiful experience with support. Do your research, so you know some of the better companies out there. 

You can research tour companies at the Discover Crystal River website

One of the manatee snorkel tour boats out at Three Sisters in Crystal River, Florida.
Manatee snorkel tour boat

DIY Snorkel Outing

It is possible to go snorkeling without tour guides. This does not mean you get to bypass having the right gear or can conduct yourself however you please, however. There are still strict guidelines to follow. 

There are always folks out on the water. If you are seen misbehaving, you will most likely get reported and find yourself with a hefty fine, arrest, or other punishment. 

The best way to go without a company is to kayak or paddleboard in with all your gear. You cannot launch from the Three Sisters Boardwalk and must know where to dock your kayak and paddleboard. 

The best launching points are Hunter Springs Park and King’s Bay Park. Once on the water, you will see a tiny area near the boardwalk, not over the spring, where you can attach your kayak. 

Dismount in the shallows and then float over into the deeper water. 

If you don’t have a kayak, you can rent one at Hunter Springs (click here for details). 

Learn more about kayak and paddleboard launching in the area at this website

Red and yellow kayak docked just outside the snorkel area at Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida.
Kayak docked just outside the snorkel area at Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida.

Must-Have Gear for Swimming with Manatees

The Wetsuit

The number one item you need before you go is a wetsuit. 

You need a wetsuit because the water temperature in the spring and surrounding waters is anywhere from 68°F – 72°F. If you are splashing around and swimming, it isn’t a big deal, but when you are swimming with manatees, you are basically floating and not moving much (see What to Expect). The wetsuit will also help you float

They will have a wetsuit for you if you are going on a tour. Going on your own? Rent one for your trip. Please note, if you are renting, wear a bathing suit underneath!!! 

If you know you will do additional snorkeling in springs and other colder waters, consider purchasing a wetsuit. I decided to buy one, and it was about $150. I recommend going to a scuba shop and chatting with the sales team to get the best one for your needs. Yes, you can find one online for less, but if you don’t know what you are looking for, it could end up costing you in the end. 

Jessica Meinhofer, owner of Walk and Paddle, with her husband Robert in a pedal boat in Crystal River, Florida.
Post-manatee swim smile, still wearing my wetsuit.

Mask & Snorkel

In addition to a wetsuit, you will need to wear a mask and snorkel. This will ensure you can constantly watch the manatees in the water while you float. 

They will have them for you if you go out with a tour group. Otherwise, bring your own. They are not very expensive at all. I ended up borrowing my 10-year-old’s (similar to this one)!

Yep, that’s me with my mask and snorkel.

Towels & Dry Clothes

You will need to provide these for yourself whether you are going out on a tour or on your own. Bring more than one towel and more than one set of dry clothes. 

Keep all your dry items in a dry bag to make sure they stay dry. The last thing you want is a cold, damp towel after a cool swim in cold weather. The air temperature will be shocking after you are in the relatively warm spring waters. 

When I got out of the water, I was so cold. I wrapped myself up with two towels, and I was still freezing. I couldn’t change into dry clothes while on the water, but I was relieved to have them after completing my experience. 

Empty neon yellow Geckobrands 30 L dry bag on tile floor.
That’s our dry bag that can hold two full outfits and towels.

Tip to Stay Warm

Something that might help warm you up is HotHands. They are small and lightweight air-activated heaters that last for hours. So you can keep warm on your way before you get into the water and reuse them when you get out. They work really well. I’ve used them while hiking and paddling in the winter. Note that you can’t use them while in the water. They have to stay dry. 

Pool Noodle (optional)

Having a pool noodle is optional but highly recommended. You will be floating the entire time you are in the water. After a while, you might need a break, and pool noodles are a fabulous way to keep floating with little to no effort

They will have these for you if you are going on a tour. If not, consider spending the $2 and getting one for yourself. I had one, and I was so grateful for it!! 

Waterproof Camera (optional)

A waterproof camera is not a must-have item for your trip, but might be a nice-to-have item. If you bring one, make sure you can mount it on your body somehow. I had mine in my hand, making moving in the water super awkward

Remember, you can only move with your hands. You can’t kick, so having one of your hands holding something leaves you with only one hand to maneuver around people, manatees, and the current. This is the exact camera and bundle we have and took on my swim. 

If you go with a tour company, they take photos and things, but you have to pay extra for them. It may be worth it if you want to stay in the experience and not stress about keeping track of your camera. 

Accessibility and Swimming with Manatees

Going on Your Own

Although both Hunter Springs Park and Kings Bay Park allow paddlers to launch their own vessels, only Kings Bay Park has a handicap kayak launch. I recommend calling the park ranger at 352-697-0933 with your specific questions and concerns. 

Going with a Snorkel Tour Company

If you are interested in going on a snorkel tour, contact the tour company and ask questions regarding your mobility and accessibility needs and how they can be met during your visit.

Visiting Three Sisters Springs

You might also be interested in seeing manatees from Three Sisters Springs. The boardwalk at Three Sisters Springs is accessible to strollers, wheelchairs, and walkers. You can find out more about visiting the park by clicking here. And don’t forget that you cannot access the water from the Three Sisters Springs park. 

What to Expect When Snorkeling with Manatees

The Manatees Themselves

Manatees are enormous, curious, and protected mammals. They move carefully through the water. Their eyesight is terrible, and humans are their only threats. A human swimming under them freaks them out. They are sensitive to sound. 

Under water view of two manatees and a snorkeler at Three Sisters Spring in Crystal River, Florida on a cold December day.
My view from below.

The Water

Manatees live in warm waters, but humans find those water temperatures to be cold and uncomfortable. The waterways you share with the manatees are subject to low and high tides. Make sure you check the tide schedules before heading out. A manatee tour company will monitor that for you, but you should also be aware, especially if you go without a tour.

The depth of the water varies depending on where you go. If you are in the Three Sisters Springs area, the water is around 4 ft deep. Manatee tour companies vary where they go. Some of the areas they go to are up to 10 ft deep. Know before you go so that you can be adequately prepared. 

Water clarity will vary based on the depth of the water, the number of people standing in the water (please avoid doing this as it interferes with the natural movement of the manatees), and the number of manatees in the water (especially if they are feeding). 

The People

You will probably be one of many floating among manatees. Some folks will follow all the rules and give the manatees plenty of space, while others won’t. Always demonstrate the correct way to passively observe these gentle giants. If you see a ranger or a tour guide, notify them of the inappropriate behavior. 

To avoid crowds, go as early as possible and during the week. If you cannot do either, try calling tour companies or Hunter Springs Park to find out the best days to avoid crowds

Groups of people swimming with manatees at Three Sisters Spring in Crystal River, Florida.

Unique Information You Need to Know:

There is NO water access to Three Sisters Springs from the land, and there is no land access from the water. So, if you observe the manatees from the Three Springs boardwalk, you will not be able to launch from there. Also, if you are swimming or kayaking at Three Sisters, you cannot dock at the boardwalk. 

The Three Sisters Spring area may be closed to kayaks and swimmers at the discretion of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex

Alligators

Yes, there are alligators all over. If there is a body of freshwater in Florida, there is an alligator (maybe more) living their best life. 

When I went, I didn’t see one alligator. They were there, though, somewhere. The water was a balmy 72°F, and the air temperature was less than 60°F. There were most certainly alligators in those warm waters. 

However, alligators are not interested in going after people. They have more delicious foods readily available. “The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that a state resident’s odds of being seriously injured in an unprovoked alligator incident are roughly one in 2.4 million”, National Geographic.

The moral of the story is don’t let the presence of alligators keep you from enjoying your experience, just like you shouldn’t let sharks keep you from swimming in the ocean.

An anhinga is drying its wings after fishing early on a clear December day at Three Sisters Spring in Crystal River, Florida.
You might not see any alligators, but look up into the trees, and you might see an anhinga like this one that showed up for us.

What NOT to Do

Do not:

  • Swim after manatees
  • Touch manatees
  • Ride manatees
  • Block manatees
  • Tease manatees
  • Swim under the water
  • Kick in the water – only float and use your hands for navigation
  • Jump into the water
  • Feed manatees
  • Enter roped-off sections of water
  • Launch kayaks from unauthorized areas
  • Wear flippers – you won’t use them at all and they will only be in the way
  • Swim with manatees in unauthorized areas
Murky underwater shot with particulate floating around due to snorkelers agitating the water at Three Sisters Spring in Crystal River, Florida.
This is why keeping your feet up and not kicking is so important.

My Experience Snorkeling with Manatees

Wow. That’s how I want to begin sharing my overall experience. 

It was unlike anything I had experienced before. If you have gone snorkeling or scuba diving before, you can probably understand what it was like. 

It was life-altering and incredible for me. It was beautiful, exhausting, overwhelming, peaceful, stressful, energizing. It was a bunch of feelings, physical and emotional, that I wasn’t really expecting. 

Manatee with barnacles is sleeping while surrounded by fish at Three Sisters Spring in Crystal River, Florida.
Manatee taking a nap.

I worked really hard to stay calm and take it all in. I was also there working, capturing footage for someone else. While I was taking it all in, I was also a little removed from the experience. I’m already looking forward to going again, this time for personal reasons. I’ll still have the camera, but I’ll be wearing it. 

I had a lot going on, so I was in the water for 30 minutes. That is something to remember if you go out on a tour. If you finish early, you will still be waiting for everyone else to finish on the boat.

For me, 30 minutes was magnificent, and I was ready to get out of the water. I was no longer able to be calm and floating and filming… It’s hard to stay in control of your body when you are only using your arms. I only had one free due to my camera, and there are currents, people, and manatees all around you. 

As soon as I felt a bit less calm and like I needed to put my feet down, I got out of the water. I did not want to stir up the ground or, worse, float into a person or manatee. Once out of the water, I was still able to appreciate the manatees from the surface. They come up for air, and where the water is clear, you can see them pretty well. 

Manatee nose popping up out of the water to breathe at Three Sisters Spring in Crystal River, Florida.
Time to breathe

Why I Left the Kids at Home

On this particular trip, I decided the kids should spend the night with their grandma and sleep in instead of joining us. 

There were a few reasons. The first was that I was working. I could have brought them, but I didn’t think I would have been able to focus on my job and capture what I needed for my client. The second was that I had to be ready to launch at 7 am. My kids are not early risers, and it would have been a lot to try to get them fed and out the door at 5 am to get to the Crystal River area by 7. 

I saw families on the water with snorkel tours, and everyone seemed to be having fun, but I know it wouldn’t have worked for my family this time. Maybe I’ll bring the kids one day, but it would take even more planning. I’ll keep you posted if I bring them next time. 

Are You Ready to Go?

I hope this gave you a good idea of what you need to know to have a successful (and legal) swim with manatees. If you have any questions or want to share your own experience, please share them in the comments.

Collage of manatees and Jessica Meinhofer, owner of Walk and Paddle, at Three Sisters Spring in Crystal River, Florida.
Don’t forget to pin me!

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