One of the most popular reasons to visit Florida in the winter is to enjoy some of that famous sunshine and warm weather. A great way to get outdoors and see one of Florida’s most famous residents, the manatee, is with a manatee kayak or stand-up paddleboard tour. While manatees take up residence throughout the state’s inlets and streams during the winter, one of the most popular locations is in the small town of Crystal River, located on the gulf coast approximately 75 minutes north of Tampa. A Crystal River manatee tour on a paddle craft is one of the easiest ways to see these gentle mammals up close and is a great family activity when not enjoying the theme parks or beaches.
Why Choose a Kayak or Stand Up Paddleboard
There are plenty of manatee parks in Florida where visitors can walk along the shore in search of these large mammals, and Crystal River is no exception. Manatees can be spotted from shore, but doing it this way can be a bit underwhelming. Manatees spend most of their time submerged, only surfacing long enough to get a breath of air, leaving viewers to see only a small section of their backs as they swim. While the first manatee that you spot can be exciting, the feeling wears off quickly. I did this in Fort Myers last year, and well, not terribly exciting.
Renting a paddleboard or kayak allows you to get within a few feet of the manatee, giving you a much better view and seeing the animal for a longer stretch of time. Also, if you bring a dive mask and snorkel, you will be able to jump off into the water and see the manatees in their entirety from below. Swimming with the manatees is offered as a guided tour through local outfitters, but you can also do it on your own. Just be sure to view from a distance and not harass the animals.
Between the two paddle craft, the stand up paddleboard allows better viewing. The higher vantage point definitely allows the paddler to see through the glare on the water and with Crystal River being so crystal clear, you can best see the manatees with this rental. The kayak on the other hand is more stable and is best for those with little to no paddle experience, diminished balance reactions, reduced stamina, or even just a bit of nervousness on the water. Kayaks are generally about twice as fast as stand up Paddleboards, so if time is an issue, you may want to go that route as well.
Kayak and Paddleboard Outfitters
There are several outfitters in Crystal River that will be happy to get you on your way to see the manatees. During our family trip, we used Paddles Outdoor Rentals. The check-in process was quick and easy, and we were on our way to the launch site in a matter of minutes. They are listed below along with a few others.
Paddles Outdoor Rentals
Guided Tours and Rentals: Kayaks (including clear bottom kayaks), Stand-up Paddleboards, and Water Bikes. Also offers Swim With Manatees Tour.
Limited to 2, 3, and 4-hour Stand-up paddleboard rentals, as well as multi-day rentals if you are in the neighborhood for a bit longer. No guided tour options are available.
Hunter Springs Kayak
Guided tours, kayak (including clear bottom kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards. Also offers manatee swim/snorkel tours.
What to Bring
Here’s your packing list for a great Crystal River manatee tour:
- Mask & Snorkel: Not only can you paddle with the manatees, but you can swim with them as well. Stand-up paddleboards are easy to mount and dismount in the water, and the paddle outfitters at Crystal River rent sit on top style kayaks, so a wet entry and exit is also not very difficult (but a bit more difficult than a paddleboard).
- Go Pro or waterproof cell phone bag: With the manatees being almost entirely submerged, the best photos are taken underwater. Unfortunately, my GoPro broke earlier last year and I have not gotten a replacement yet, so we were only able to get surface photos on our trip.
- Picnic lunch: Paddlers renting from town-approved outfitters will launch from King’s Bay Park, which has plenty of tree canopy for shade and several covered picnic tables. Pack a cooler or grab sandwiches prior to arrival, and enjoy the afternoon following your paddle tour.
- Bottled water: It’s Florida and the sun shines hot. Stay hydrated.
- Polarized sunglasses: Polarized lenses assist greatly in cutting through the glare on the water and being able to see below. They can be purchased cheaply at any Walgreens or CVS.
Should I Get the Guided Tour or Rent?
The first 10 minutes of paddling can be a bit choppy, but it’s all calm water as you approach Three Sisters Spring.
If you feel comfortable in the water and have some paddle experience, then I would choose the rental option. It’s cheaper and I don’t think that you lose much by going it alone. There are plenty of other folks paddling in the area, so even if you are a bit nervous about being in unfamiliar water, that feeling should fade quickly. Crystal River manatee sightseeing is very popular, and the sheer number of paddlers during the winter months should put your anxiety at ease. The other paddlers also make it very easy to spot manatees. “There’s one over here!” is something that you will hear often as you paddle through the streams, so you do not have to worry about missing out.
Most rental companies will have options ranging from 2-8 hours. If you are looking to just see a few manatees at the Three Sisters Springs, then a two-hour rental should be sufficient. You will see several manatees in this amount of time, provided you go at peak season, December through March. If you want to spend a bit more time on the water, then you can paddle to Hunter Springs after viewing the manatees, where there is a park with a nice swim area. Three hours is sufficient for this itinerary, with four hours being about the longest I would recommend.
That being said, guided options are available, and you may learn a bit more about manatee habits and lifecycle with a knowledgeable guide.
Swim With Manatees Tour
Photo by John Brandaur. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Not only can you paddle with these gentle giants, but you can swim with them too. This adds an entirely new perspective to the animal encounter. With. a mask and snorkel, you can actually see their faces. Although swimmers are instructed to not approach or initiate contact with the manatees, it is very common for the manatee to initiate contact with you.
My family and I returned to Crystal River in January 2023 to do the swim tour and even though the weather was a bit chilly at 55 degrees, it was still worth the time and expense. The water was still at 75 degrees, making it fairly comfortable once in the river. There was no shortage of manatees, either. The first two manatees approached the boat as we were anchoring and hung out with us for the first ten minutes. We then swan a few yards from the boat, encountering more of the sea cows nearly constantly. These animals are quite used to human encounters and were not shy about visiting, so even though visitors are expected to practice “passive observation,” there was still plenty of literal face-to-face time.
The water clarity during our swim tour was a bit degraded due to the lingering effects of Hurricane Idalia back in August 2023, making the river a bit less “crystal” than I remember it from two years prior. However, Boat Captain Kevin said that the river is steadily recovering and should continue to get better with time. Water clarity also was further diminished during our tour when the manatees were spooked by something (probably someone) and created a manatee stampede. Every manatee suddenly bolted (they can move very fast, apparently), causing a lot of sediment to stir in the water. In a few seconds, every manatee was calm and back to normal, but visibility was not too good after that. Manatees were still everywhere, but it was hard to see them until only a few feet away, causing me to hit a few of them with my hands and feet inadvertently.
We toured with Crystal River Watersports, and I recommend that you do as well. Boat Captain Kevin and Tour Guide Dakota were personable, engaging, and knowledgeable about the local ecology and all things manatee. The outfit itself is designated as a Guardian Guide by the Save the Manatee Club and the Manatee Ecotourism Association. Out of 31 manatee tour operators, Crystal River Waterports is the only outfitter to attain this designation.
Are There Alligators in Crystal River?
Of course, manatees aren’t the only famous river dwellers in Florida. You’re probably wondering if there are alligators in Crystal River along with the manatees. The answer is that yes, alligators do exist in Crystal River, but they are generally not located in the tributaries where you will be paddling and swimming with manatees. They prefer the swampier areas of the river over the kayak and boat congested water of the spring-fed tributaries. There are no barriers preventing alligators from showing up, but it is unlikely that you will see one.
Three Sisters Spring Wildlife Refuge
For those that want to see the Crystal River manatees but don’t want to get in the water, there are other options. The Three Sisters Spring wildlife refuge offers land access via a boardwalk to a prime viewing area. The spring itself is closed off to boat and paddle traffic during manatee season, November through March, so this is the only way to see them at this location unless taking a guided swim tour. It is also a great alternative for members of a party that do not want to paddle while others do. The refuge is about a three-minute ride from King’s Bay Park, although parking is only available offsite at the Three Sisters Springs Center behind City Hall. From there, a shuttle will take you to the refuge.
Crystal River manatee tours can be enjoyed throughout the winter when manatees migrate to the warmer inland waters from the Gulf of Mexico. They are generally present from November through March. Our family went the week after Christmas and it was one of the highlights of our trip.
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