When the water temperature drops in the Gulf of Mexico, hundreds of West-Indian manatees move to the warmer waters of the Crystal River. The naturally-occurring warm water springs offers a constant 72°F water temperature in the bay, and a safe heaven to these endangered animals. If you are dreaming about encountering manatees in the wild, the head to Three Sisters Spring, at the heart of Crystal River. It is the only spot in Florida where people can legally swim and snorkel with manatees.

How to get there?

Crystal River is a small city located in an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, a 1 :30 hours drive from Orlando and Tampa, and 4 :30 from Miami. Due to the environmental regulations, the easiest way to encounter the manatees is to book a tour in Crystal River. Many tour-operators and diving centers in the town offer snorkeling tours, with prices ranging from $30 to 80 per person. Contact them in advance, because some snorkeling sites (including Three Sisters Springs) are sometimes closed, depending of tides, season and water temperature.

Snorkeling with manatees at Crystal River

Three Sisters springs is also accessible by land, via the trolley service run from the Visitor’s Center every 30 minutes ($15pp. for round trip). Those who don’t want to snorkel will enjoy the springs and the manatees from the boardwalks.

Water entrance

The trip organizer will take you to the spot, and you can enter the water from the boat.

Crystal River snorkeling map, Florida

Exploration

The area to explore covers the spring and its surroundings, where the depth is constant, around 5 to 12ft (1.5 to 4m). The crystal-clear waters offer spectacular underwater visibility, and the constant temperature of the springs (around 72 to 74°F) allows to practice snorkeling all-year-round in good conditions.

Snorkeling with manatees at Crystal River

The areas around the springs are critical for protection of the West Indian manatee, and have been designated as manatee sanctuaries. One-sixth of Florida’s manatees population can be found in winter in Crystal River area. This being so, more than 200 to 300 manatees can be present at the same time in Three Sisters Springs. They congregate in the warmest areas, especially in the winter months, from November to March.

Underwater landscape at Crystal River, Florida

Encounter manatees underwater is a profound experience you will always remember, but just remember these gentle and giant animals are in the warm springs for survival. In winter, outside the springs, manatees experience cold stress and hypothermia. To allow the manatees to enjoy a peaceful rest in the springs, do not harass or disturb them, do not touch them, chase them or try to feed them.

Restaurants and accommodation

Crystal River is a particularly touristic town, and offers a wide range of accommodation, restaurants and supermarkets.

Species you may spot while snorkeling Crystal River
COMMON NAME SCIENTIFIC NAME ABUNDANCE FISHBASE WIKIPEDIA
West Indian manatee trichechus manatus  
  • Level required Intermediary
  • Protected areaCrystal River National Wildlife Refuge
  • Maximum depth4m
  • Water entranceEasy, from a boat
  • Visitor numbersHigh
  • Access costsExcursion price ($30 to 80pp.)
  • Restaurants nearbyNo
  • Public toilets & showersNo

MAP Spot

These spots are accessible to anyone with basic snorkeling skills, and feeling comfortable in the water and with his snorkeling gear. You will enter the water from the shore (beach, pontoon, ladder, rocks) or from a boat. The water height in the sea entrance area is reasonable, but you will not necessarily be within your depth. Moderate currents can occur in the area, even when the sea conditions are good. The distance to swim to reach the most interesting snorkeling areas of the spot does not exceed 200 meters.

This level only apply when the spot experiences optimal sea and/or weather conditions. It is not applicable if the sea and/or weather conditions deteriorate, in particular in the presence of rough sea, rain, strong wind, unusual current, large tides, waves and/or swell. You can find more details about the definition of our snorkeling levels on our snorkeling safety page.