manatee encounter habitat with lush plants and trees lining the river

A manatees natural habitat showcases the beauty of Florida

Do you ever wonder what a manatee encounter is like? Swimming with manatees in their natural habitat ranks high on Florida Bucket List Adventures. Yet because they are protected and still at risk, even after being downgraded from endangered to threatened in 2017, a little planning and understanding is key to enjoying your manatee experience.

While they may not be the most beautiful marine mammal, these gentle creatures have captivated humans for centuries. Beyond that cuddly face, their unique biology and curious and engaging personality draw you in. There are many ways to see manatees in Florida. However, to fully understand and appreciate them, you must meet them on their own turf, so to speak: the springs, rivers, and coastal waters they call home.

As you glide over the waters they call home, you hear the steady rush of a manatee’s breath as it surfaces, exchanging air with a slushy snort. You see them glide gracefully below the water’s surface as they snooze or graze on aquatic vegetation. It’s hard look away and you find yourself searching the water for tell-tale signs that a manatee is near.

Manatee Encounters Light You Up!

A wild manatee encounter will light up all your senses, connecting you with nature in a surprising way. For a moment, you will feel the power of their size (up to 13 feet and 3,000 pounds!) and the gentleness of their demeanor, all at the same time.

Yet these relatives of the elephant are blissfully serene. With effortless motion, they’ll swim straight towards you. You may get an inquisitive nuzzle if you remain still. Suddenly, you’re surrounded by a sense of peace and wonder.

Even when you don’t see them, or they are not very active (they don’t call them cows for nothing!), their natural habitats showcase the vibrant beauty of Florida’s diverse ecosystems. Explore volcanic-sculpted freshwater springs, winding rivers fringed by lush hammocks, and saltwater bays and coastal shallows bursting with marine life.

Experiencing manatees in these environments provides an appreciation for why conservation and ecosystem preservation is so important to their survival. Then, you may become curious how our own habits and decisions about what we do at home or as we travel affects water quality, habitats, and environments. It’s inspiring. Sometimes, little mindful changes on our part can collectively make a positive impact.

A wild manatee encounter delivers an immersive slice of Old Florida few people ever get to see. Whether it’s a winter escape to their warm-water gatherings or a summertime paddle through their feeding trails, the adventure can shift your perspective and create lasting memories. It’s why so many people search for where to see manatees in Florida!

When you do go, there are a few things you should know. That’s what we will talk about next!

What to Know about your Crystal River Manatee Encounter

manatee encounter underwater

Once you encounter a manatee in their natural habitat, you’ll want to share the experience with your friends!

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect habitats for Florida manatees after a small group of concerned citizens, just like you, saw a need to preserve an important part of Florida for manatees and humans alike. It’s a popular spot during the winter months, and has plenty to offer to active travelers and outdoor enthusiasts all year long. Here are the things you should know before visiting Crystal River, according to them!

  • Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is mostly accessible to visitors by water only.
  • Three Sisters Springs provides land access via a shuttle service, but there is no access to the water at this site. There is a boardwalk.
  • The refuge doesn’t offer water-access facilities; however, there are a few free City boat ramps and private ramps that may require a fee you can use for access to refuge waters.
  • You can use your own vessel, rent one, or join a guided tour if you want to visit other parts of the refuge
  • The Refuge doesn’t lead Guided Manatee tours. Instead, several tour operators in Kings Bay have been granted special use permits and you can experience a tour of Crystal River with them. Click here for the most recent list of manatee encounter providers in Crystal River.
  • Be kind and calm when you meet a manatee. This is their home; you are their guest.
  • Manatee season at Crystal River runs from mid-November through March. This is when manatee sanctuaries go into effect as they seek warmer water in Florida’s winter months.

Other Manatee Resources and Events

Florida Manatee Fest is held in January; it’s one of Crystal River’s largest festivals. Details at

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has a video entitled “Manatee Manners” that shares important information for you before you have your manatee encounter experience. Check it out below.

Oh, and be sure to check out these manatee articles:

Where to See Manatees in Florida

What’s New at Brevard Zoo Aquarium