Kayak to visit with Crystal River manatee
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Kayak to visit with Crystal River manatee

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We love kayaking and wildlife. Since we were parked about a half hour from Crystal River, Florida, an area well known for its wild manatee population, we decided to combine these two activities into an amazing morning on the water.
So, here are our tips to see the Crystal River manatee up close and personal from your kayak.

Crystal River

First, a little about the town built around these magnificent mammals, Crystal River.

Crystal River is well known for its manatee population at the heart of the Nature Coast of Florida. The city is situated around Kings Bay, which is spring-fed and therefore, keeps a constant 72 °F temperature year round. You will see signs for “swim with the manatees” all over town.

As more and more people come to Crystal River to see and interact with manatees, the Fish and Wildlife Service has tightened regulations in an attempt to protect this threatened species. To start they close the area directly surrounding the spring November 15 – March 31. They also have a lot of volunteers watching the area to help protect these fun animals.

Kayaking to Three Sisters Springs

First, the Fish and Wildlife Service have a map that shows areas off-limits to boats. We recommend checking it out to know what’s off limits.

Our personal Crystal River manatee experience

Put in location

In mid-November we put our kayaks in at Hunter Springs Park in Crystal River in the hope of seeing manatees.

From the park we paddled out towards Kings Bay (to the right). You head around the marina, keeping it to your left and take your first left under a bridge. This will take you to Three Sisters Springs.

Keep your eye out for manatee all along the way. They could be in Hunter Cove near the city park where you put it. We did see about 5 there.

Remember from November 15 to March 31, you can’t kayak directly into Three Sisters Springs. However, outside the spring entrance is another roped off sanctuary called Idiot’s Delight Spring. There you are pretty likely to see manatees floating undisturbed. They may even swim around your kayak. The manatees will move up into the Three Sisters Springs with the tides; it’s too shallow during low tide.

Crystal River Manatee Spotting 

We saw quite a few in the canals around Three Sisters Springs including calves and mom, manatee feeding, sleeping and one even gave a friendly nudge to one of our kayaks. So fun and exciting! They are curious creatures.

When we first arrived to the sanctuary, there were about 20 manatee in the immediate area!

Yes, that’s right. 20 manatee and the season had only just begun!

There was also a volunteer with the Fish and Wildlife Service in his kayak just outside the sanctuary area. He is there to keep an eye on behavior of people, but he is also a wealth of information. Feel free to ask him questions.

After about 20 minutes or so the area got busy and we noticed the manatees dissipate a little. So keep in mind that seeing manatees in a place where everyone else comes to see them isn’t a serene, personal experience like you might imagine. You could be surrounded by swim-with-the-manatee tour boats, snorkelers and other kayaks circling around. While we were thrilled to see manatees expect to be around other like-minded people.

Our tip: Get there early! We were there by about 8:30am and it was definitely quieter earlier. By the time 10am rolled around, there were tour boats and quite a few other paddlers/snorkelers around.

Where to put in

Hunter Springs Park has pay for parking ($5 for 12 hours), clean rest rooms and picnic tables, as well as a small swimming beach and a good put in spot for kayaks. You can rent kayaks there too.

While Hunter Cove is not a particularly natural setting (it’s surrounded by houses and seawalls), the water clarity is good and the springs attract manatees consistently. You should start to see some manatee immediately. Look for dive boats or other tour boats. They will clue you in if there are manatee in the area.

You may even be able to swim out from the beach into the cove and see manatee immediately!

We enjoyed a picnic lunch at the tables provided in the park after our kayak, so we thought it was well worth a stop here.

Three Sisters Springs Manatee

As stated earlier, you can’t kayak into Three Sisters Springs in winter (November 15-March 31). However, you can swim.

If you arrive in your own kayak, there is a location outside Three Sisters Springs where you can tie up and swim into the springs. The water near the tie up is shallow so it should be easy for kayak re-entry when you’re done swimming.

Swimming with the manatees: Is it ethical?

We did not swim with the manatees. Personally, we think it’s invading their space and from our observation when people got in the water, the manatees dispersed. You decide, on your personal ethics, if you want to swim or not.

We love and agree with this quote “A close encounter can truly be a life altering experience.  It can be even more special knowing that you’ve done no harm.

Is it ethical? That’s for you to decide.

Remember these are a protected species.

Many argue that it is better for the mammals to remain wild and without close contact with people. The operators of Aardvark’s Florida Kayak Company have chosen to forgo the more lucrative swim with the manatee programs in favor of a more environmentally friendly, passive observation approach. Do your own research and use your own judgement here.

More reasons we chose not to swim with these wonderful creatures. This post really struck a note with us. We agree that we shouldn’t chase them out of their home and natural habitat.

Please do not touch or approach a manatee. It is illegal! They are protected under the Endangered Species Act. They are wild animals. Keep them wild.

Manatee near Paul’s kayak

Honestly, we were so excited to see them from our kayaks that it was enough for us. They will swim around your kayak and get up close. However, we did see quite a few people swimming with manatees none of whom were overly excited by the experience.

Tips before you swim with Crystal River Manatee

While we can’t recommend a particular outfitter, the wildlife refuge offers a list of licensed companies. Prices aren’t cheap, but they do included wetsuits and snorkeling gear.

We noticed tour operators gave their swimmers less than 20 minutes in the water. If that’s enough for you, then go for it. If you want more time, you’d better get there on your own.

The number of people and nature of the activity makes this a bit of a chaotic scene. Set your expectations appropriately. Remember the manatee might leave an area if too many people are in the water. Again, is it ethical to chase them away from their home?

You should be a good swimmer.

Swimming into Three Sisters Springs is a challenge, even for good swimmers. The springs empty into a beautiful narrow spring run, so swimmers move upstream against a strong current.

You’ll want a wet suit. Swimming in 72 degree water is chilly.

Kayakers can tie up their boats outside Three Sisters and swim in.

Any time the Three Sisters Springs becomes packed with manatees during cold weather, they will close it even to swimmers.

Wildlife Refuge boardwalk

If kayaking or boating isn’t your thing, don’t fret. You can still see the Crystal River manatee. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge has a lovely boardwalk rimming Three Sisters Springs that gives you good views of the springs and manatees, if any are present.

However, there is no parking directly at the refuge. You must take a trolley to visit. For the full schedule and ticket prices visit their website.

The boardwalk includes an elevated viewing area of the mouth of the spring, where you have an excellent vantage point of Idiot’s Delight Spring. There are also volunteers on the boardwalk who will happily answer questions for you.

Other things to do in Crystal Springs

There are other activities besides manatee viewing in Crystal River. Here are a few other ideas:

Copp Winery and Brewery: We enjoyed visiting here after our kayak. They offer a free tasting of 3 wines from their list. The glasses are totally reasonable and you can sip on a glass outside on their patio. In addition, they serve food, if you’re interested.

Heritage Village: This is a small historic downtown with a few cute shops, a historic train station/museum and a beautiful street lined with live oaks planted by the women’s club 100 years ago.

Crystal River Archaeological State Park: This park preserves an ancient Native American ceremonial site located in a beautiful setting overlooking the wide Crystal River. There is little known about the people who built this place starting 2,500 years ago. A small museum has interesting artifacts and the picnic tables along the water are a great place to relax.

Crystal River Preserve State Park: This is adjacent to the archaeological park. It has several trails with forest, marsh and water views. Explore. Relax. Hike.

Get out and explore on your own. Sometimes, it’s fun to see a new place from your own perspective and stop at whatever catches your attention.

So overall, we spent $15 to enjoy 4 hours on the water and a wine tasting afterwards. That’s pretty reasonable. Plus, it was an experience we won’t forget. Feel free to share your own experience with the Crystal River manatee.