There are certain key points to understand when planning your trip to Crystal River if you are to make the most of the journey and the overall experience with the manatees.
If you are a casual visitor to the Crystal River and all you want is the “swim with the manatees” experience, then you will be well served by the many tour operators in the town. Basically they all seem to be offering pretty much the same thing, so a bit of googling should allow you to check prices and select one for your trip.
However if you are looking to spend a number of days in the Crystal River to have a deeper overall experience with its famous winter residents, then understanding what you can and cannot do is all a bit confusing when trying to work it out remotely…
The basic thing being that the manatees are formally classified as “endangered” under US Federal Law.
Therefore there are numerous restrictions put in place (and enforced…) by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to protect them.
How those restrictions apply to the various types of visitors to Crystal River (swimmers, boaters, kayakers etc) is explained in a series of “manatee manner” videos on the US Fish and Wildlife Service website.
If you are planning to photograph the manatees then Manatee Manners for Photographer and Videographers is what you must watch to get the “special use permit”.
That permit gives you the best chance of a closer, better and more photogenic encounter.
“Passive observation” is the basic requirement – which means no approaching, chasing or touching of the manatees is allowed and you cannot get closer than six feet to a resting manatee.
If a manatee approaches you, that’s OK because that is deemed as the interaction being on its terms…
You are allowed to submerge to get a better image – but you cannot move towards the manatee.
There is a $100 fee for the permit and in return you will be given the brightly colored vest that must be worn while you are in the water. All the vests are numbered on the back – so if you break the rules the Manatee Watch wardens will know who they are dealing with and you can expect to be in a spot of hot water.
Planning Your trip to Crystal River – Personal Observations…
I have been to the Crystal River twice now – the first time for 10 days and the second time for 2. The first trip basically met most of my objectives and all the manatee images shown were taken on that trip, but the second trip was tied on the back of one to the Bahamas and was a wash-out because of bad weather and closure of the Three Sisters Spring because of low water temperatures.
Even on the 10 day trip I had completely washed out days, so the moral of the story is don’t think when planning your trip to the Crystal River that you can do it quickly… It’s not impossible to capture good images in a short visit – just highly unlikely!
The restrictions of the special use permit mean that you have to follow the rules – which I did… But that means you are completely dependent on the cooperation of the manatees and most of them just want to avoid you!
Planning Your trip to Crystal River – When to Go?
The best time to visit Crystal River is November through to mid-February, but whether the manatees are there and in any sort of numbers is entirely temperature related. When night time temperatures drop in to the 40’s F, the manatees are virtually guaranteed to head for the warmth of the springs.
But don’t expect too much interaction as the cold weather and the fact that they cannot spend as much time as they need feeding makes the manatees tired and a bit grumpy…
Mid-December can apparently be a real sweet spot and if there is a cold spell in March or April it will mean that the manatees will return to the Crystal River for the warmth of the springs, but because they have been well fed on the sea grass of the Gulf of Mexico they tend to be very content!