When Is the Best Time
The manatees migrate to Crystal River, Florida during wintertime because they get stressed by the cold gulf if the temp goes below 68°F / 20°C. Although they look like to be prepared for cold temperatures. Their bodies have not much fat for insulation. The springs have a constant temp of 74°F / 23°C. The reason that they gather around the springs. During high tide, they move to the Three Sisters Springs, and at low tide, they gather outside in the channel at Idiot’s Delight I and II.
The best time to swim with manatees in Florida is from mid-November to late March. Only then hundreds of manatees are present at the springs. The total population in Crystal River alone reaches up to 800 manatees during the winter months.
Guided tours are being offered from November to end of March. You experience most activity during the early morning. If you like to get interactions with manatees book the early morning tour in advance! The most popular and best swimming tours are offered by River Ventures USA: Crystal River Florida - 3 Hour Swim with Manatees (safe and reliable booking via GetYourGuide, with excellent service). Book in advance (see below)! Even if you don't plan to swim with manatees, visiting the area to spot these amazing creatures is amazing.
Florida Manatee Calendar (Summer - Winter)
While manatees can be found in large numbers from mid-November until mid-March, exceptions are possible. In 2018 for example they already left the springs mid-February due to an unusual high day temperature. On the other hand, in one year they stayed until April, even early May. But still, you should stick to most likely months:
Mid-November | December | January | February | March
This is the time to spot Manatees and swim with them. The population in Crystal River goes up to 600-800 manatees. That's why so many visitors are coming in the winter months. Be prepared for competing with the best tour spots with hundreds of others. That's why it's critical to book in advance: Crystal River Tours - Florida (via GetYourGuide, safe booking and extremely reliable). You can also find the famous Manatee Swimming Tours by River Ventures via this link (or use the link at the top of this article) Tip: Book in advance!
April | May | June | July | August | September | October
These are the unpleasant and unlikely months. From spring (April and May) throughout summer (June, July, August) until the fall (September, October), you won't see large numbers of Manates in Florida, as they migrated to the ocean. That's why the manatee population ranges between 60-90 only in the Crystal River area outside of the winter months. That also means, there are still some manatee residents, and there is a chance that you might spot one or two. It's still a nice overall experience as it's much quieter of course with very few other visitiors.
Best Time of Day
It is almost impossible to avoid crowds while swimming with the manatees. Even in the early morning expect 30 to 40 people in the water. The Three Sisters Springs, however, are tranquil when they open the gate early in the morning and the manatees are most active during that time of day. That means, early morning bookings are necessary for the best experience, regardless of other visitors. Just want to spot the manatees without swimming? Also get there early in the morning, as this is the time when the manatees are active.
During the peak season of the manatees, it can be pretty chilly in the morning. On average it's roughly 50°F / 10°C cold in the early morning. We experienced 28°F / -2°C which happens rarely. It was pretty cold when we got out of the water. Day temps are usually between 58°F / 15°C and 70°F / 21°C. Precipitation occurs year-round with its peak in the summer months. It’s quite hot and muggy in the summer and temps are around 90°F / 32°C.
How Long to Stay
Regardless if you plan to swim with manatees or just want to spot them, we highly recommend staying here for a couple of days. Visit the Three Sisters Spring, have a look to one of the many other springs like the Rainbow Springs and enjoy the manatee encounter. Actually, we planned camping in the Rainbow Springs State Park. Due to the cold night temps of 32°F, we booked a room at the Hampton Inn Crystal River instead last minute. It was just a 5 minutes drive to our manatee tour the next morning. We loved the great breakfast each day. More alternatives can be found here: Hotels in Crystal River - via booking.com with price guarantee
Hotel Deals Crystal River (With Low Price Guarantee)
Where and Tips
Crystal River in Citrus County is quite busy during winter time due to the huge number of manatees in King’s Bay. It’s the largest gathering of manatees in North America. Everybody wants to get nose to nose with a manatee. You definitely spot them in high numbers.
The Three Sisters Springs
It's the perfect location to observe manatees along the boardwalk. Volunteers answer all questions and offer guided walking and birding trails. Birding is also outstanding around the springs.
- Parking: You either have to park your car one mile away at the Three Sisters Springs Center and take a trolley which departs every 30 minutes to get there, or you park your car nearby and walk by feet. For your navigation system enter 123 NW U.S. 19, Crystal River, FL 34428.
- Opening Hours: The Three Sisters Spring is open daily from 8.30 to 4.30
- Entrance Fee: Summer (April to November 14) $ 7.50, Winter (November 15 to March 31) $ 15
Swimming and kayaking are allowed during the summer. Anyhow, there isn’t any access through the refuge. You'd have to come by boat or kayak to get into it. It can happen that you spot a manatee, but there are very view around in summer.
If you don’t like to swim in the river in winter, you can go on a kayak tour to get a closer look.
There are plenty of tour operators around Crystal River for swimming or kayaking with the manatees and also for diving into the cavern at Kings Spring.
Try to book a morning tour (Selection of Crystal River Tours), as you'll experience the most manatee activitiy then. However, prices may be slightly higher for the morning tours. Some offer pictures on a USB stick, a CD or online afterwards. Check the quality of the pics before you decide to buy them. Due to the many people and manatees in the water, the visibility and clarity aren’t as good as you may expect.
Facts About the West Indian Manatees
The manatees migrate from Kings Bay and the Gulf of Mexico to the different springs during winter to survive. They need a water temp above 68°F, otherwise, manatees get stressed by the cold and can die. These gentle giants move slowly but can reach up to 15 mph. Their skin is covered with barnacles in the gulf during summer and with algae in the springs in winter. They are an aquatic relative of the elephant. Manatees breathe every 2 – 4 minutes, during resting only every 20 minutes. A newborn calf is already 3-4 feet long and an adult in average 10 feet. The weight is on average 1000 pounds but can be even higher. Actually, a manatee could get up to 60 years old, but in the wild often less than 30 years.
These amazing giants don’t have any natural enemies, but the biggest threats are caused by humans.
- They get injured by boat
- Disturbed by humans
- Loss their habitat
(It was planned to use the land around the springs for building houses and to bottle the spring water. Thanks to all backers who prevented these plans!!).
- Scalloping from July to mid-September
- Swimming in the Rainbow Springs