How to Make the Most of Your Time at Crystal River

“Swimming with the manatees” is a bucket list adventure that I will treasure forever.

As someone from the Midwest, I’m definitely not used to swimming with fish and marine mammals bigger than me.

I’ve read articles and heard firsthand stories from friends who LOVED their experience at Crystal River…and now I know why.

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I would basically describe the experience as surreal.

It was one of those experiences that really made me appreciate slowing down and just being in the moment.

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If you are looking for a one-stop vacation-friendly option, I highly recommend staying at Plantation at Crystal River because the manatee tours are located on the site along with other activities that are very family-friendly.

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The property is located right on Crystal River surrounded by beautiful views for guests throughout the 232 acres.

There are even packages for hotel guests that are geared for various activities and group sizes with options ranging from public to private tours.

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Plantation Adventure Center and Manatee Tours

Our manatee adventure started at the Plantation Adventure Center conveniently located a few steps from our hotel room.

Plantation Adventure Center

We signed our waivers and then put on our wetsuits before watching a short safety video in the gift shop. The video explained what was and wasn’t acceptable during our swimming with manatees’ adventure.

You have the option to purchase images from the staff after your swim. This is a great option if you don’t want to worry about taking pictures. It’s also nice to be truly in the moment during your time swimming with the manatees.

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Swim with the Manatees at Crystal River

I’ve always been a little nervous about swimming with marine life because it’s definitely not my norm… but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from trying this experience anyway.

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I strongly recommend taking a guided tour when you swim with manatees for the first time. Having a guide instructs you through the whole experience really helps reduce any fears or first-time nerves.

It also helps ensure that both you and the manatees are safe.

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Our guide Jon helped remove the nervousness, alerted us when manatees were nearby, and guided us as they approached. 

I felt so much calmer during this experience versus another time when I was snorkeling in a river and knew that manatees were somewhere near without someone guiding me through the process.

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Manatees Choose If They Want to Swim By You

We swam in a designated roped-off section where the manatees could choose when and if they wanted to swim by us. Beyond the yellow rope was a Manatee Refuge area that no one is allowed to enter.

This helps protect the manatees from boats and also gives them a break from being around humans if they need one.

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We took a short boat ride to the designated swimming area and were given a few more instructions before we put on our snorkels and got in the water.

You are provided with all of the gear that you will need as part of the tour. In the beginning, the hardest part is just waiting for a manatee sighting.

The 5mm wetsuits are a little thicker than the wetsuits provided on other tours which we really appreciated because they kept us warmer and also made us super buoyant allowing us to float with ease.

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Ironically when I first started swimming in the area I had a manatee swim below me but I didn’t see it. Thankfully I had plenty of other interactions during our time in the water.

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We had one manatee that kept on swimming out of our designated areas to the manatee refuge area and then he would come back and get super close to us.

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Tips and Rules for Swimming with Manatees

Don’t feed manatees because it can alter their behavior and lose their natural fear of boats and humans.

Don’t chase a manatee.

Keep out of Manatee Refuge spaces.

Try to avoid making excessive noise or splashing because it can startle the manatee.

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Practice Passive Observation

During your swim with manatees, you will practice “passive observation.”

Passive observation is basically when you observe the manatees from above the water floating and at a distance. They can approach you and touch you but you are not to chase them down to touch them or use any objects to touch them.

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For example, I was floating in one spot and a manatee chose to swim directly underneath me. This caused me to touch him and basically be on top of him by his choice because I was just floating and trying to stay still.

This particular manatee seemed to LOVE hanging out with us because he kept on swimming out of our area and coming back in swimming right next to us and turning barrel rolls which are often something they do when they are playing.

The other manatee swam through our area but did not seem to have an interest in hanging out with us that day and proceeded to travel to the manatee refuge section.

full face snorkel by Ninja shark

I don’t snorkel a lot but when I have it’s been a constant struggle of keeping water out of my mask and snorkel.

I’ve never seemed to be able to get it adjusted to where it’s not watery or foggy….. and water in your snorkel when you are not anticipating it is the WORST!

During a visit to Englewood, Florida I tried a full-face snorkel for the first time on a SUP tour where we got to also snorkel for a bit and I LOVED it.

I could finally just concentrate on viewing what was in the water because I was not getting any water inside my mask.

ninja shark full face snorkel

Another thing that I really liked about this mask is that you can breathe with your mouth. This might take some getting used to if you typically use traditional snorkeling gear.

Ninja Shark full face snorkel

I brought a Ninja Shark Snorkel Mask Full Face Set sample set to test out during my swim and it only took a few seconds to get used to it.

I don’t even care if I looked nerdy because it helped me feel comfortable in the water and that is way more important to me.

Ninja shark full face snorkel

The snorkel mask has an action camera mount that fits a GoPro camera and other brands if you want to get some video or shots while you are in the water and it also comes with a waterproof bag and a waterproof phone case.

I didn’t get water in my mask and it didn’t fog up allowing me to truly be in the moment without messing with my gear.

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Other Manatee Tours You Can Take

If you don’t want to swim with manatees you can still enjoy other manatee-themed tours.  You can observe them by boat or by kayak on tour.

kayak at Crystal River

There are also stand up paddleboards and kayaks available to rent at the Plantation Adventure Center.

Plantation on Crystal River boat

Other Perks of Staying at Plantation at Crystal River

 Plantation at Crystal River is located close to everything which includes access to the Crystal River.

The water is only steps away from your room at Plantation at Crystal River. There are plenty of activities for the whole family onsite ranging from golf, boating, fishing, scalloping, tennis courts, a pool, paddleboard & kayak rentals, and more.

Your manatee boat tour is steps from your room. They have dining options inside and out, and you are conveniently close to where the manatees are from a very short boat ride or paddling by kayak.

You can save on booking your hotel here. 

Dining at Plantation on Crystal River

You really don’t have to go off the property if you don’t want to. There are several dining options in Plantation at Crystal River.

During our visit, we enjoyed meals at West 82 Bar and Grill and the Plantation Tiki Bar. The first night at West 82 we ate at the seating section in the bar area and the second night we ate in the dining area.

A few of my favorites were:

  • “West 82 She-Crab Soup” made with Blue Crab, Sherry, and cornbread croutons
  •  “Plantation Seafood Pasta” (grouper, shrimp, sea scallops, fettuccine alfredo), Blackened Grouper Sandwich
  •  “Smoked Mullet Dip” (lightly smoked fish dip with crostinis
chocolate dessert at west 82 bar and grill

Even if you are full, it’s worth sharing and enjoying a few bites of their chocolate dessert. This dessert starts with a small flame that has ice cream and delicious topping crumbles. Seriously, get it!

Plantation on Crystal River outdoor seating

On a beautiful day, you can’t beat the relaxing atmosphere at the Plantation Tiki Bar.

Boating Perks at Crystal River without the Work

My dad had a boat when I was growing up and my observation was that they were a lot of fun but they were also a lot of work!

The best situation is to be friends with someone who has a boat. The next best thing is to be a Freedom Boat Club member.

Freedom Boat Club Members get to experience the perks of using a boat without the hassle of transporting it and keeping up on the maintenance and storage.

Plantation on Crystal River is one of the locations for Freedom Boat Club and my friend Misty is a member.

We were able to walk a few steps from our room to board the pontoon boat and enjoy our time on the water both days which included a few manatee sightings.

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It was so great to just enjoy the boat during our visit and return it to the dock. The best part was that we didn’t have to worry about the boat after we were done using it.

After learning more about how the club works, I immediately called my dad who is a former boat owner.  I knew that he would really appreciate this concept. This is a really great option if you are visiting from out of town.

Homosassa Springs sign

Observe Manatees at Homosassa Springs

Located less than 15 minutes from the Plantation on Crystal River, Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is another great place to visit while you are in the area.

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We watched an educational presentation that included a manatee feeding. Manatees graze in 14 feet of water or less and have no natural predators. 

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We learned that the springs stay around 72 degrees year-round. Manatees are in danger when the water temperature is at 68 degrees and will perish if the water is 63 degrees.

That’s why many manatees head to the springs to survive during the colder months.

Any of the native wildlife that you see at the park are there because they would not be able to survive on their own.

A few other highlights during our visit were observing the hippo named Lu and the wildlife throughout the park. A few of our other favorites were the whooping cranes, black bears, red wolves, the endangered Florida panther, alligators, and panthers.

Underwater Observatory

The Underwater Observatory is another area that is really unique to check out. The floating observatory provides guests with unique perspectives of the fish below the surface.

The walking trails are also very beautiful and really relaxing. You will definitely want to allow several hours for a visit so that you can watch the educational presentations and see as much as possible.

I can’t say enough great things about my experience at Crystal River and I can’t wait to come back!

Thanks again to the Plantation at Crystal River for hosting our visit. All opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links. 

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1 thought on “How to Make the Most of Your Time at Crystal River”

  1. Absolutely! Manatees are protected under the Endangered Species Act and it is quite a privilege that we get to have this sort of encounter! Both the State and Federal Government oversee the protection of these animals and the guidelines get stricter every year. These laws are in place to help protect the animals and they will be enforced here in the Wildlife Refuge, people can be ticketed, fined and removed from the water if behavior is deemed inappropriate or illegal. When you arrive at the shop prior to your tour we will cover all the dos and don’ts so you are fully informed before you hit the water! Please remember that manatees are an endangered species and seeing even one of these majestic beasts is a great privilege. Our tours are conducted in their natural habitat and they are free to come and go as they please. No two days are ever the same, and no two tour times are the same either. Weather, tidal influences and time of the year affect the conditions daily and it can never be predicted just how many manatees you will see. During the colder months we have a large concentration, but if there is a considerable warm spell they will become difficult to find. Because this unique eco-system is a prime manatee habitat, we have a small resident population even in the summer. We never guarantee that you will find or encounter manatee and how many you see is tough for us to predict as well.

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