Swimming with manatees in Crystal River, Florida


It has been a dream for quite some years to make it to northwest Florida and the hot springs there to swim with manatees in winter. When the opportunity arrived, and we could start our travel plans yet again post covid, we wanted to make this dream come true.

Happy, happy, happy!

The manatee is an aquatic mammalian herbivore, it is also known as a “sea cow” grazing on seagrass for up to 8 hours a day. Our niece Nora claims that “it does not look like a cow at all!” but we could see the similarity in grazing and perhaps in the huge size, they can be 9-10 feet long from snout to tail weigh between 500 kilos (1000 pounds) up to more than 1500 kilos (3000 pounds!). They are huge! They have a cow like nose, two front flippers for steering and holding on to vegetation while eating and a large, round flattened paddle-shaped tail for swimming. They may seem big and cumbersome, but they are able to make short 15 mph bursts of full-on cow speed down a narrow channel, so look out!

First look at a manatee, shadows in the water…

They spend up to eight hours a day feeding, the rest is used for relaxing and swimming to new pastures. Their skin is fascinating, fine wrinkled leathery looking with algae growing on their backs. They truly look like something old and native to the sea, although they are distant relatives to the elephant.

Manatee chomping away at the seagrass

The” manatee season” officially starts on the 15th of November, and that was the date we went swimming. Although the manatees do not especially care about the human calendar, they feel the low pressures of winter, and the water getting colder. Therefore, they migrate from the ocean waters of the gulf to the rivers and artesian springs of north Florida. You can also spot them at power plant discharge canals, basking in the warm water. They do not have layers of fat like the seals, so if they do not get to warmer waters, they will freeze to death, same way as humans would.

Manatee mom and calf

We came to Crystal River the day before the “season” started, spending the night in beautiful Crystal Springs. Before checking in to the hotel, we took a lovely swim at the gorgeous Hunter Springs Park. It is next to Hunter Spring, with an artificial beach, and you can spot manatees if you bring a snorkel mask. Just do not forget to pay the parking fee, or you will end up having to go to the town hall (with a manatee statue outside) to pay the parking fine.

Hunter Springs beach

We booked our manatee snorkelling trip with Plantation Adventure Centre and we booked our overnight stay at the very Florida looking (think Forest Gump Hotel) Plantation On Crystal River.

The adventure centre is right next to the hotel, so getting up and ready for the 7am departure was no problem. We recommend the earliest possible departure, so to avoid the bigger crowds later in the day. We were well received at the centre, we got wet suits, and could have gotten the mask and snorkel, but brought our own trusted gear. The crew looked after us and gave us a short video introduction to the Dos and Don’ts of manatee swimming. Basically, this tells you not to touch, not to chase and not to step on any manatees you may encounter, easy enough.

We were a small gang, 2 American ladies, a Canadian couple and us, plus our captain and guide. As mentioned before, the manatees do not exactly follow the calendar, they follow the water temperature. And since the fall had been warm so far, the hundreds of manatees that normally flock to the warm springs in winter had not arrived yet. If you see the photos of schools of manatees relaxing side by side, this is when then ocean is much colder, and they flock to the constant warm temperature of the springs.

Ørjan encountering his first manatee, the joy!

Even though there were few manatees in the rivers and springs around Crystal River, we found some grazing manatees quite quick. We geared up, and carefully lowered ourselves into the water. And it was quite a shock to see and realize how big those sea cows are! Ørjan got a close encounter right away, the manatee not caring much about personal space and almost crashing into a bewildered Norwegian.

Tanja getting a closer look

Tanja also had some good looks at several manatees and a mother and calf. It was very cool to float inches away from gentle giants chomping away in the seagrass in the channels of Crystal River. Being looked straight into the eye by a sea giant was something else! We stayed in the same spot, swimming with the manatees for almost an hour, it was beautiful.

Ørjan and the Canadians being checked out by a manatee mom

After our time spent with the breakfast eating manatee friends, we headed through the canals to Three Sisters Springs.

Local and his dog, out every morning on the SUP

Three Sisters Springs is a spring system containing, you guessed it, three springs of sand boils and vents. The springs feed the Kings Bay, the headwaters of Crystal River with crystal clear water that holds a year-round constant temperature of 22,9 Celsius or 73,3 Fahrenheit. And that is why the sea cows love it, and since this is above any summer temperatures of Norwegian waters, we loved it too! The spring is on private lands, and there is no access from the walkways on land to the water. So you have to do like us, and swim from the boat. Luckily for us, the manatee season from the 15th of November means a ban on any kayaks or canoes going into the springs.

It was pure magic to be only 7 people swimming into the crystal-clear waters of the Three Sisters. We were alone in an area of exceptional natural beauty. It was very green and lush, quiet, only birds singing, and we could really appreciate this special place.

Pure bliss!

Under water we had never seen such clear visibility, it was like glass! Fishes and rays were swimming peacefully, no manatees yet but in deep winter there could be hundreds of them fighting for the best places to rest, and we were assured that the water then was like pea soup. We had a great time, even without the manatees present.

How clear is that water?

The trip back to base was via the serene channels again, having a good look at all the million-dollar properties that line the waterways and the rich birdlife including ducks, herons, pelicans and ospreys. A swim with the manatees should be on everyone’s bucket list for sure!

Categories:Travel

10 comments

  1. Meeting with Manatees in the water: what an experience that must have been!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an amazing experience, there is something very endearing about the manatees. And they seem completely unbothered by having a human pottering there with them!

    Liked by 1 person

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