If you’re considering going on a manatee tour, you probably wonder what to expect.
What will your first manatee encounter be like? Will you only see manatees from afar or close up? And should you be concerned about manatees getting too close?
We’ll answer all these questions and more by walking you through a manatee tour in Crystal River — the only place in the States where you can legally swim with manatees in their natural habitat.
Crystal River is the best place to go to for your first manatee encounter. It’s considered the world’s manatee capital, as it often accommodates hundreds of gentle giants at the same time.
Manatees especially love dwelling around Three Sisters Springs and King’s Bay, parts of Crystal River that serve as their natural habitat. They have a perfect mix of temperature, available water, and ocean grass that make manatees prefer Florida over any other state.
But there’s so much more to do in Crystal River besides swimming with manatees. It’s a great place to relax, enjoy nature, and experience a slice of small-town life.
So, once you arrive at Crystal River, we suggest starting your tour by exploring the town first. Schedule some time to visit artisan shops, beautiful outdoor spaces, and local restaurants known for home-style cooking. You can also find some unique galleries spread around the town, such as Franklin Anderson Gallery or Coastal Art Gallery.
If you happen to have some extra time before your tour, you can enjoy some additional outdoor adventures, like fishing, golfing, or touring some of the many local state parks. Crystal River Archeological State Park is the best choice for history buffs, while nature enthusiasts will love exploring Crystal River Preserve State Park.
When you feel like you’ve soaked up enough of this small town’s charm, it’s time to start your manatee tour.
Head over to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and meet your guides. The park admission should be included in your tour.
Your manatee tour can last anywhere from one hour to six hours, depending on the tour you choose. You can also choose between a private and a group tour. Group tours usually aren’t crowded, as most operators allow up to six people per boat.
Most manatee tours on Rockon also include lunch and snacks, so you shouldn’t worry about bringing your own food.
Lastly, note that you can go on manatee tours any time of the year and throughout the day. However, the chances of encountering manatees are the highest between November and March, as that’s when most manatees migrate from the cold gulf to Crystal River.
We also suggest you book your tour in the morning and during weekdays if possible if you want a more intimate experience. There are more tourists in the Refuge during the weekend and afternoons.
Once you meet your manatee instructors, they’ll brief you on the do’s and don’ts of manatee encounters.
For example, you’ll learn that you should minimize splash noises around manatees, avoid touching them, and let them approach you instead of approaching them. Your instructors will also gladly answer any questions you may have, so don’t be afraid to ask them.
You’ll also get some basic snorkel gear that you’ll need to put on before swimming with manatees. More precisely, you’ll get a wet suit, mask, snorkel, and water noodles that will help keep you afloat. No need to be a swimming pro or bring a life jacket!
The gear is there for security reasons but also because it’s illegal to swim with manatees without a wet suit.
Once you get geared up, it’s time to dive in, literally.
When you finally dive in, prepare to be surprised by how nice the water feels. See, Crystal River springs produce water at a constant temperature of 72°F, so expect it to be warm and comfortable even during winter.
You’ll also be able to see all the wonderful underwater life even while afloat, as Crystal River truly has crystal-clear waters. The river is basically a natural underwater observatory!
Dive in only if you want to. There’s no need to do so otherwise since you’ll be able to see everything from the surface.
It shouldn’t take long until you spot your first manatee or even a group of manatees, otherwise known as aggregation. In fact, manatees prefer to travel in groups rather than on their own, so prepare to see more of them at once!
Manatees are usually not shy. Take a look around, and you’ll probably realize that you’re surrounded by these gentle giants.
If you’re lucky, you may see a herd of unruly males trying to mate or spot young manatee cubs nursing under their mothers’ flippers.
Also, don’t be surprised if manatees decide to approach you. They may even start chewing your hair, which is precisely what happened to one of our previous visitors.
This shouldn’t concern you, as manatees aren’t dangerous. They’re just curious and friendly to humans. Besides, they’re herbivores, so even though they have teeth, they prefer to chew on plants rather than humans.
If a manatee does approach you, stay calm and never, ever touch the animal with both hands. This is against the law and could be considered riding the animal. You also shouldn’t feed them or give them water, as this is considered harassment.
You can, however, touch manatees with one hand or greet them by extending your hand toward them. Treat them as friends, and they’ll surely treat you the same.
Overall, you’ll get the most out of your manatee encounter if you stay patient and respectful toward the wildlife.
You’ll learn more about the gentle giants during your first manatee encounter than you ever did in school. For example, you’ll probably hear them communicate for the very first time and notice that they produce unusual squeaky sounds.
While these may resemble bird sounds, they’re completely unique to gentle giants. Some even say they sound like screams, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Manatees produce sounds mainly when they’re having fun or are feeding and resting. So, the “screams” are actually a good sign – but you’ll probably realize this on your own during your manatee encounter.
Just in case you want to prepare in advance, you can listen to this underwater recording of manatees “talking” to each other:
You’ll also learn that manatees are quite intelligent. They can solve problems, come up with creative solutions, and mimic the behaviors of other manatees. In fact, they can even recognize and remember people thanks to their advanced long-term memory!
So, don’t be surprised if you come back years after your first manatee encounter and get greeted by the same gentle giants you’ve met before.
You’re probably visiting the Refuge simply to experience your first manatee encounter, but there’s so much more you can see and do after your swim.
For example, the Refuge is home to over 100 species of birds and is considered a birdwatcher’s paradise. If you’re lucky, you might spot some rare and endangered species like the wood stork or the bald eagle.
Alligators, snakes, turtles, and even a few deer also call the Refuge their home. And the wetlands and waterways provide a habitat for all sorts of other animals. It’s a great place to take a leisurely hike and see what you can spot.
And let’s not forget about the natural beauty of the refuge. There are wetlands, marshes, and hardwood forests to explore. It’s a peaceful and serene place perfect for anyone who loves nature.
So whether you’re a birdwatcher, a nature lover, or just looking for a unique destination, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is a must-see.
We’ve walked you through your entire manatee swim, as well as other things you can do in Crystal River and the Refuge.
Still, you may have some other questions we didn’t answer before. So, here are a few more guidelines to consider before your first manatee encounter:
So, are you ready for your first manatee encounter? Book your tour through Rockon to make the most out of your experience. We only work with vetted and credible tour guides who will ensure that both you and the animals are staying safe — and having the time of your lives!
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