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How to Kayak and Swim with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida

How to Kayak and Swim with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida

Want to kayak and swim with manatees in Crystal River, Florida? If you’re visiting during the winter months, then kayak down to the Three Sisters Springs to swim with manatees in crystal clear blue water. This guide has everything you need to know about kayaking and swimming with manatees in Crystal River. 

Crystal River calls itself the manatee capital of the world, but there’s a few key facts you need to know if you want to ensure you spot these gentle giants.  

Kayaking is one of the best ways to see the incredible manatee up close and visit the beautiful Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. It’s the only place you can legally swim with manatees in North America too! 

Kayak and Swim with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida
photo credit:  USFWS Endangered Species

A few fun facts about manatees 

The manatees you see down in Florida are West Indian manatees. There are three species of manatees – the other two are the Amazonian and the West African manatee. 

They’re herbivores. Manatees spend about half their day eating sea grass, and need to eat about 10% of their body weight every day. That equates to over 100 pounds a day for full grown manatees. 

Despite their large size, manatees have almost no fat. Their rotund body is mostly stomach and intestines. 

Because of their minimal body fat, manatees need warm water above 68°F to survive. The natural springs that stay 72°F degrees year-round are what makes Crystal River the perfect winter spot for manatees.  

The West Indian Manatees can live in both fresh water and salt water, and typically move between the two depending on the season. After spending the winter in Crystal River, these manatees make their way out to the Gulf Coast as the water warms up.  

Kayak with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida

Best time to see manatees in Crystal River 

The information I just listed might just seem like some random facts, but it’s really helpful for determining when and where you can see manatees in Crystal River. 

The Manatees in this area spend the warmer summer months out along the Gulf of Mexico feasting on the plentiful sea grass. As the waters start to cool down along the coast, the manatees migrate to the warmer springs in Crystal River and other fresh water springs around Florida. It’s typically around November when you’ll see manatees start showing up in the springs. 

The best time to see the manatees in Crystal River is during the coldest months, December through February. As the coastal waters begin to warm up, the manatees no longer need to stay in the springs to survive, and can go back out to the coast in search of more food. 

When we visited at the end of February, many of the manatees had already left the springs. In fact, the Three Sisters Springs were completely empty the day we visited; the bay was already warm enough for the manatees. The manatees don’t stay in the springs if they don’t have to as there isn’t much food for them there. The springs are full of crystal clear blue water, but not much sea grass. 

Luckily, we were able to spot a handful of manatees just outside the springs along the canals in King’s Bay, including a mother and her young calf! Many of the manatees are very curious, and several poked their head up right next to our kayak!  

Kayaking in Crystal River

Where to kayak with Manatees in Crystal River 

The main area to kayak with manatees in Crystal River is in Kings Bay. There are several springs within King’s Bay where the manatees come to rest and warm up.  

One of the most popular springs to see manatees in Crystal River is the Three Sisters Springs. The water is amazingly clear, it’s easy to kayak to, and you can swim in the springs depending on how many manatees are in it.  

Kayaking with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida

Kayaking to Three Sisters Springs 

One of the main reasons we added this spot to our Northern Florida road trip was to kayak with manatees in Crystal River. You can kayak to Three Sisters Spring on your own, or take a guided tour. We opted to rent kayaks and paddle around on our own.  

Kayak Rentals in Crystal River 

There are several kayak rental companies in Crystal River. We used Hunter Springs Kayak and had a great experience.  They offer single, tandem and clear bottom kayaks.

Hunter Springs Kayak brought the kayak down to the boat launch at Hunter Springs Park and helped us launch the kayak. They also provided wetsuits, snorkels for swimming, and a dry box. 

There is a paid parking lot that costs $1 per hour right by the boat launch. 

Guided Kayak Tours in Crystal River 

If you prefer to go with a guide, there are a lot of options for that as well.  Several offer in-water guides and photographers too!

Our experience kayaking with Manatees in Crystal River 

We ended up using a double kayak for all four of us – two adults, one kid and one baby. We’ve gone kayaking pretty often in our own tandem inflatable kayak, so we were comfortable on the water with both kids. The water in King’s Bay was shallow in many parts when we went (sometimes only a foot or so deep), very calm, and not very busy. It can vary by the day, but I’d say generally it’s pretty safe to bring young kids as long as you’re comfortable in a kayak. 

After launching from Hunter Springs Park, we paddled through Kings Bay towards Three Sisters Springs. We kayaked by a few manatees in the main areas of the Bay, but they are harder to see as the water isn’t that clear.  

Once we turned into the canals closer to the springs, the water clarity was much better. We spotted several manatees swimming along the canals, and several resting near the banks. The manatees seemed pretty curious – some even came up to our kayak to say hello.  

While you can let the manatees come up to your kayak, you are not supposed to pet or touch them. While they do seem very friendly, they’re still wild animals.  

It took about 30 to 45 minutes to kayak from the launch to Three Sisters Springs. Kayaks are not permitted inside the springs from mid-November until the beginning of April (usually to give the manatees more space to rest). We dropped our weight outside the springs so we could leave our kayak and swim into the springs. 

Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River 

While we saw manatees in the canal kayaking, there were no manatees in the actual springs at that time. From talking to a volunteer ranger later on, it sounded like it had been a warmer winter than usual, and the waters outside the springs had already warmed up enough for the manatees to venture out. 

If there are manatees in the springs, there are areas marked off where no swimming is allowed. This is so the manatees have areas to rest where they will not be bothered by swimmers.  

While manatees are in the springs, you are required to wear a wetsuit and snorkel if you get in the water. These can be rented from the same spot your rent your kayak, or are usually included with a guided tour. 

Even without manatees, the Three Sisters Springs is an amazing place to swim and explore. The water is so incredibly clear and beautiful! 

You can only access the springs for swimming by a boat or kayak; you cannot enter on land. There is a fenced boardwalk surrounding the springs that you can also visit, but there is no water access from the boardwalk. This is to prevent erosion around the springs. 

Swimming in Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida

Three Sisters Springs Boardwalk 

If you want to see the manatees and the Three Sisters Springs without kayaking or taking a boat tour, then visit the Three Sisters Springs Boardwalk.  

The boardwalk is a viewing platform built around the springs. You cannot access the water from the boardwalk, but you can walk around to get a view of the bright blue waters and any manatees that happen to be swimming or resting in the springs.  

Here is what you need to know about visiting the Three Sisters Springs Boardwalk: 

  • Open daily from 8:30 am – 4:30 pm. Last entry at 3:30pm 
  • Entry fee depends on the season.  
  • Winter (Nov through March) is $20 for adults and $7.50 for children.  
  • Summer (April through Nov) is $12.50 for adults and $7.50 for children. 
  • National Park Pass holders receive a $5 discount per ticket. 
  • Parking and the ticket center is located at Three Sisters Springs Center 
    123 NW HWY 19 Crystal River, FL 34428. From there, you take a trolley over to the boardwalk.  

Like I mentioned above, there were no manatees in the actual springs on the day we visited, so we were really glad that we went kayaking early in the day to see them out in the canals and bays. For your best chance to see manatees inside the Three Sisters Springs, I would go in the morning in the coldest months: December, January and early February.  

Where to Stay – Hotels in Crystal River 

Retreat at Crystal River – This updated 4-room property has an amazing location and some of the best reviews of Book here early as they often book up! 

Hampton Inn Crystal River – The Hampton Inn is clean, updated, and conveniently located. It also offers breakfast and a swimming pool. 

Plantation on Crystal River – The Plantation is a larger resort in Crystal River that includes a pool, spa and onsite restaurant.  

Where to Eat – Restaurants in Crystal River 

Cajun Jimmy’s Seafood Seller & Café – If you’re looking for amazing seafood, don’t miss Cajun Jimmy’s! Everything we ate here was incredibly delicious, from the shrimp, fish, and even the alligator mac & cheese. 

The Biscuit Barn – Southern-style breakfast including biscuits and country-fried steak.  

The Crab Plant – A no frills spot serving super fresh seafood.

Frequently Asked Questions – Kayaking and Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River 

When is the best time to see manatees in Crystal River? 

The best time to see the manatees in Crystal River is during the winter, usually from December through February. 

Can you kayak with manatees in Crystal River? 

You can kayak with manatees in King’s Bay, a popular place to kayak in Crystal River. Most kayak tours start at Hunter Springs Park, paddle through Kings Bay, and stop at the Three Sisters Springs.  

How long does it take to kayak to Three Sisters Springs? 

It takes about 30 to 45 minutes to kayak to Three Sisters Springs from Hunter Springs boat launch.  

Can you swim with manatees in Crystal River? 

Yes. Crystal River is the only place you can legally swim with manatees.  

Can you swim in Three Sisters Springs? 

Yes, swimming is allowed at the Three Sisters Springs. However, can only access the springs via the waterways, which means by either a kayak or boat ride through Kings Bay. There is no access to the springs from the surrounding boardwalk.  Parts of the springs may be closed when manatees are there to give them space to rest.

How cold is the water in Three Sisters Springs? 

The water in Three Sisters Springs is about 72°F – all year round. Since the water is directly bubbling up from a spring, it consistently stays the same temperature.  

Planning a road trip around northern Florida? Don’t miss the history and beautiful beaches in St. Augustine!

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Kayak and Swim with manatees in Crystal River, FL

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