Crystal River, Florida is known as the place to see manatees in the wild. The small community in central Florida, a short drive from Orlando and Gainesville, swells in the winter when over 800 of the West Indian manatees seek out the warm water of the natural springs that are found throughout the river.
Now a protected area, tours run to see these creatures in their habitat throughout the year. During a stay at Plantation on Crystal River, I joined an early morning tour. I wrote about the accommodations separately, but this is the best place to stay in the area in terms of access to the river.
The day started early, with our group meeting at 7 am, but thankfully the meeting point was within view of my room. We were given wetsuits to put on and watched a required video about how to behave around the animals.
The tour was made up of my mom and I, a family with two girls under 10, and a mother and two daughters probably in their late teens/twenties. It’s an experience that appeals to all ages.
The boat took us to two or three of the 50 springs found in the area. I donned my mask and snorkel and waded into the water, which was a bit chilly, but the wetsuit helped me adjust. It also gives you a certain amount of buoyancy so you can essentially float on top of the water.
Those who are less comfortable can use a pool noodle because too much motion both scares off the manatees and makes visibility worse. Our first manatee sighting was brief, but we changed locations and got up close with one under the dock. I will admit that the seaweed was a bit intense, getting stuck in my hair and face as I swam. But it was incredible to see the gentle giants.
If You Go
Plantation Adventure Center is one of many companies that operate on the river. Snorkeling tours run daily and multiple times throughout the day, lasting about three hours, but expect to be in the water around 45 minutes.
After your tour, they’ll give you coffee and hot chocolate to warm up. Towels and other gear are included, but if you have an underwater camera or GoPro, bring it along. Group tours start at $65 with additional options for private tours. You can also see manatees and the springs by boat cruise (without getting in), in your own boat, or by kayak.
Plantation on Crystal River and Plantation Adventure Center hosted me and a guest on the manatee snorkeling tour.