Denise's Corner

Swiming with Manatees in Crystal River: A Unique Experience Only 2 Hours from Orlando (But it Feels Worlds Away)

Hi everyone!

Last week, we received an email asking if we wanted to swim with manatees, visit an island with monkeys and scallop in the Gulf of Mexico. We had the evening to decide, because the overnight trip was just a few days away. We checked our calendar and soon were researching what our trip would entail. Crystal River is just an easy 2 hour drive from Orlando, but it feels like a world away.

All photos were taken during our stay at the Plantation on Crystal River

Our stay was based out of the Plantation on Crystal River, a resort in Citrus County that offers its own dive shop only about a minute or two walk from the main lobby. Guests are able to reserve manatee tours, scalloping tours (in season) and other river tours whether staying at the resort or not. But it was extremely convenient to stay and play at the resort. I was worried ahead of time that it would be confusing to find the dive shop (due to the fact that it sits on 232 acres of preserve), but everything was extremely close. If we stay in Crystal River on our own in the future – and that is now highly likely – this would be our preferred hotel.

The Plantation at Crystal River was built in 1962, and has been renovated and updated many times since then. The lobby has a warm, welcoming ambiance with seating and the entrance to the West 82 Bar & Grill. Our room was quite nice, but it really was just to sleep in and we didn’t have a chance to take photos of it. Our room was maybe a 4-5 minute walk from the dive shop, and it wasn’t one of the closer rooms to it. The Plantation on Crystal River truly has an intimate feel.

Whether guests stay at the resort or not, parking is free and there is a shower (which we didn’t need to use, so I can’t comment on it). Wet suits, masks, and snorkels are provided with the tour.

Prior to our visit, we didn’t realize that manatees could be found year-round in Crystal River, nor that we could swim with them. I am sure that I’ve seen dozens of ads through the years for it, but it never clicked in my head that either was possible. We have seen manatees in the wild previously in Tampa, where they gather in winter at the power plant. This was a much different experience, and gave me a greater appreciation for the gentle giants.

Arriving at the dive shop, we were sized up for our wet suits. Flippers are not allowed for manatee tours, but we received our snorkels and masks. Wet suits are not only necessary due to the temperature of the water (which actually wasn’t too bad at about 72 degrees in most locations), but it also helped keep us buoyant, staying above the manatees most of the time. Putting on a wet suit is neither easy nor pretty, but it was helpful for this non-swimmer. And by non-swimmer, I mean I can dog paddle and propel myself pretty well by kicking (I only passed YMCA Polliwog class as a kid because I was getting too old for it). I was probably the only adult in Kings Bay & Three Sisters Springs using a swim noodle that is kept on the boat, but I was happy to have it. Diving is not allowed off the boat, so we gently walked down the ladder into the water.

This is summer, and most manatees have left for the season. Kings Bay is home to 600+ manatees in the winter (November – March) and just 30-40 manatees during the summer months. But we saw quite a few of those manatees in the two days we were on or in the water, including the next day when we planned to scallop. While the weather didn’t cooperate for scalloping, we did enjoy a few hours in the boat. It allowed for some wonderful views of manatees and dolphins!

Before we boarded our boat, we watched a video on manatee manners. It can also be found online. A lot of the rules are common sense, like not to kick the manatees (which should be a given for all animals). Some rules I wouldn’t have known. I’ve never heard the term “passive observation” before, which currently allows for open hand touching if the manatees initiate it. Other rules include not separating a manatee from its calf, and not to feed the manatees. This video comes from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees the manatees in Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs (and likely everywhere else). Captain Ross did take it upon himself to advise others in the water about any rule-breaking, and not just where it concerned manatees. I wish everyone in the water had to watch the video.

We went out into the water 4 or 5 times from our boat during the tour. It is truly a special experience to get to see manatees in the wild, especially swimming near them. Captain Ross made sure that we always left plenty of room for the manatees, and I personally never touched one. The tour gave me a sense of how big a responsibility we have to the manatees, which are still on the endangered list. While swimming in the water, we weren’t able to kick our feet or stand so as not to disturb the manatees. Floating quietly is the best way to see them. We watched mantees as they ate vegetation at the bottom of the spring, which is something they spend a lot of time doing. At 1000 – 3000 pounds, they eat 10% – 15% of their body weight daily, which is a lot of vegetation!

Jeff was swimming when a manatee started rising from the vegetation, and he moved out of its way.

Here is our short video of the manatees, thanks also to Captain Ross for taking video too.

The best time to view or swim with manatees is winter (November – March), during mid-week and early in the day. January is the best month to see the manatees. During our tour on Sunday, Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs were both very busy with guests by the afternoon – swimming, boating and kayaking due to it being a weekend and the kickoff of scalloping season. During summer, the same rules still apply as far as when to see manatees. We went out in the late morning on Sunday, but early is best and during the week is less crowded on the water. We enjoyed viewing manatees and dolphins from our boat on Monday morning, and I think we saw more manatees due to less boats on the water.

Our excursion included coffee and hot chocolate on the boat. It was welcome in the summer, and I am sure even much moreso in the winter. Towels were also available onboard.

Three Sisters Springs was a gorgeous experience, and I’m glad we had it. The water was colder than in Kings Bay and very clear. The only issue was trying to dodge kayaks, which were abundant that day. Three Sisters Springs is not always on the tour, it depends on several factors.

If you want to combine your time in Crystal River with scalloping, the regulated season begins July 1st and ends September 24th.

In our Mousesteps Weekly YouTube Show #152, we talk about our manatee experience (and much more).

We had a wonderful time at our overnight in Crystal River, and can’t wait to get back!

The Plantation on Crystal River is located at 9301 W Fort Island Trail, Crystal River, FL 34429, and the phone number is (352) 795-4211.

Visit Citrus and The Plantation on Crystal River covered our hotel, meals and tours. All views are are own.