Snorkeling With Manatees In Crystal River
Updated: Feb 21
Up Close Encounters With The “Teddy Bears” of the Sea
Manatees are large marine mammals with flippers, disc shaped flat tail, and a stubbly snout that move very slowly. They are often described as big floating potatoes, sea cows, puppy dogs, and teddy bears. They have a sweet, calm nature and a dopey appearance that make them exceedingly lovable. I’ve been enchanted by these unique, special, and kind creatures of the sea since my college days in the 80’s at the University of Florida. One time when I visited my grandparents in Orange City, they took me to Blue Springs State Park where I saw manatees for the first time. Yup, I was instantly charmed by these new (to me), strange animals. So when I moved to Florida in 2018, it was at the top of my Florida Bucket List to have an encounter with manatees. With a bit a research, I found King’s Bay on Crystal River where guided snorkeling trips to see manatees are offered. Crystal River is one of the best locations to closely behold Florida manatees because the federal government allows for “passive observation” in the water between manatees and people in King’s Bay. This law allows close observation of these massive, gentle marine mammals. However it is important to remember that manatees are protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which states: "It is unlawful for any person, at any time, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass, or disturb any manatee."
The highlight of the tour was watching a baby manatee nursing from it's mother.
Face-To-Face Interactions With Manatees: WHEN & WHO
My husband, Andy, and I went on the “Snorkel With Manatees Tour” with Plantation Adventure Center which is located on King’s Bay and the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. It is also close to Three Sisters Springs. Andy and I decided to do the adventure tour as a gift to each other for Valentine’s Day. We’ve embraced the minimalist philosophy over the last 12 years and prefer experiences over material gifts. The reason we took the tour in February is that there is a higher likelihood of seeing manatees because manatees migrate into King’s Bay in the winter. Even though manatees are big and look chubby, they are not fat. According to the Smithsonian, their large body is mostly made up of the stomach and intestines. They do not have sufficient blubber to keep them warm. Consequently, manatees cannot live in cold water (less than 68°F/20°C). As the ocean temperatures drop in the winter, manatees migrate into the natural springs where the water is warmer (72°F/22°C). Plantation Adventure Center states the “manatee season” is November 15 to March 31 and that up to 700 hundred manatees take refuge in King’s Bay. There are several dozen manatees that live year round in King’s Bay but it more difficult to find them in the summer because they are spread out over 630 acres. Manatees are also attracted to places where there is warm water outputs such as in the vicinity of power plants. In the Tampa Bay area, a popular place to see manatees from land in the winter is at Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center at the Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach.
Face-To-Face Interactions With Manatees: IN THE WATER!
On our boat tour, we had a boat captain and an in-water captain. Our guide, the snorkeling captain, was Dustin. He gave us a very informative and interesting briefing about the manatees, what to expect, and instructions on how to behave in the water around the manatees. He told us to be calm, move slowly, remain quiet, and don’t touch them. We had a small group of 10 people and it was a diverse group of people with respect to ages and experience with snorkeling. Dustin was very patient and helpful with all the guests. Dustin was very aware of the snorkelers in our group and the manatees. One of the awesome things he did was direct us into the best position to observe the manatees. For instance, there was a baby manatee nursing and he maneuvered us so that we were able to see this amazing sight from the best vantage point…facing the baby and mama manatees. For me, this was the highlight of tour. It was such an incredible, heartwarming, rare, and lovely sight to witness. Baby manatees nurse from a nipple located in the “armpit region” of the mother. Manatees share a common ancestor with the elephant and elephants nurse the same way. I was fortunate enough to have observed a baby elephant nursing at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand…another indelible experience that I cherish.
We spent two hours in the water watching the manatees. We saw about two dozen manatees, mostly adults and several mothers with their calves. The most common activity we observed was manatees eating since they spend about 6-8 hours grazing. Manatees are herbivores or in human vernacular they are vegetarians. They eat plant material. At sea, they eat sea grasses and in rivers they consume freshwater vegetation, mangrove leaves, and algae. They eat approximately ten percent of their body weight daily. It was very interesting to watch them move along the sandy bottom searching for food. They ‘walk’ along the bottom using their flippers to slowly propel them. The manatees ate algae from the underside of the boats and a chain. It was fascinating to see them move upside down to access the bottom of the boats. Several times I watched manatees scratching their backs either on the bottom of the boat or the ladder of the boat. We snorkeled in King’s Bay close to the mouth of Three Sisters Springs. We swam into Three Sisters Springs to observe manatees and this was a special treat because the water was crystal clear especially compared to the murkier waters in King’s Bay.
I shot still photos of this amazing experience with an inexpensive, point and shoot waterproof camera, Nikon Coolpix. The photos turned out alright but since then I have upgraded to the Olympus TG 6 and I can’t wait to shoot with this higher quality camera on our next underwater adventure. My husband used a GoPro Hero 4 to capture the behavior of the manatees. Dustin, our in-water captain, shot GoPro video and still shots and we bought the package. It was well worth it to add to our own photos and video. He took shots of us which was a cool way to memorialize our Valentine’s experience.
Plantation Adventure Center recommends arriving 15 minutes early. This is necessary to allow time for you to try on wet suits and properly fit mask and snorkel. For a wet suit to properly function (keep you warm), the fit must be snug requiring some effort to put on. The wet suits are 5 millimeters thick which are a bit cumbersome and doesn’t allow for flexible movement. However you really don’t need to move much on this tour. You are just floating in the water watching the best nature show. The thick neoprene wet suits help to keep you aloft. I get cold easily so by the end of the two hours in 72°F/22°C water, I was extremely cold and shivering excessively. The boat captain provided hot coffee and hot chocolate on the boat after the tour. I wrapped myself in a towel and enthusiastically partook in some hot cocoa to warm up. Next time, I plan to bring a sweater and a wool hat to put on after the tour to help me warm up. After the tour, I continued to warm up with a hot shower in the heated locker room and change into warm, dry clothes.
Snorkeling with manatees in Crystal River is an awesome way to get up close and personal with these lovable teddy bear-like creatures. This phenomenal experience is monumentally better than viewing them from land or boat and I hope to repeat this adventure annually. I highly recommend Plantation Adventure Center and their snorkeling with manatees tour to anyone who loves manatees.
Manatee Snorkel Tour
*Tours are in the morning
*Cost: $65 per person
Includes 5mm wet suit, mask, snorkel, towel, hot chocolate & coffee, heated restroom and changing facility with hot showers, no parking fees
*Duration: approximately 3 hours
*Address: 9301W Fort Island Trail, Crystal River, Florida 34429