Kayak & Swim with Manatees at Three Sisters Spring

Hunter Springs Park, Crystal River, Florida, United States

  • Activities:

    Kayaking, Swimming

  • Skill Level:

    Beginner

  • Season:

    Winter

Easy Parking
Family Friendly
River
Wildlife
Swimming Hole

Crystal clear spring water, Manatees, and a good paddle create the perfect afternoon adventure!

When the ocean becomes too cold for the manatees, they take refuge in the 70 degree water at Three Sisters Spring. So, the best time to see the manatees in the spring is just after a cold front has come through. We also learned that they will swim back out to the ocean before low tide to avoid becoming trapped in the spring.

Not owning our own boats, we started our adventure at Hunter's Kayaks just up the road from the kayak launch at Hunter Spring's Park. They were great to work with, and hauled our boats, paddles, and life jackets down to the launch for us once we were ready to go. They have an assortment of 2 and 3 person kayaks as well as SUP boards which worked great because we had a party of 10 people (3 adults and 7 kids) that we managed to cram into 4 kayaks.

From the launch, we paddled out past Pete's Pier and followed the shore until we went under the bridge at King's Bay Dr. From there its just a relaxing paddle up the canal to Three Sister's Spring. About halfway up we started spotting manatees in the water, but we were ill prepared for the hundreds that crowded around Three Sisters Spring.

The National Wildlife Refuge manages the area and they have roped off some no-entry zones for the manatees to just chill without being bothered. It was still impressive to see them all clumped together, and there were plenty swimming out and about as well. Mostly they sleep on the sandy bottom and occasionally come up for air.

Once we got to the spring entrance, we tied off our kayaks, donned our life jackets and swam up into the spring. The water inside the spring was definitely warmer than the water in the canal! Although there were a lot of tour groups in the area, we were still able to swim freely and got some up close, personal time with the manatees. You can't swim up to them, but if they swim up to you its all right to reach out and touch them. There are Wildlife Refuge personnel monitoring the area, and they'll get after you if you try and start chasing them down.

After we swam back to our boats, we had a light lunch and paddled back to the park. Overall we were out about 3 hours which was perfect.

You can sign up with a tour group who will take you out to the springs on a boat, provide a wetsuit and goggles, and show you were to go but it was so much more fun to paddle ourselves. We did fine with just our swimsuits and goggles, and although it was a bit chilly our kids managed just fine!

Pack List

  • Kayak
  • Paddle
  • Waterproof camera
  • Googles or snorkel
  • Life jacket
  • Lunch or snacks
  • Drybag
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Pros and cons: Pros - You WILL see manatees and it is MAGICAL. Make sure you go in the winter because they are everywhere! I found better luck getting closer to them in a kayak. However, swimming with them you get a better viewing. The water is AMAZINGLY clear as long as you don't stir up the sand at the bottom. Cons: Some sections of Three Sister Springs are often blocked off due to sanctuaries for the manatees (rightfully so). However, many manatees will hide in these sanctuaries meaning no interaction. If you choose to do a tour, be careful with which one you sign up for. Many tours go in big groups where everyone goes to the same spot. If there's too many people or too much commotion, the manatees will not approach the group. If you have an open mind - you will have a wonderful time. If you plan on touching a manatee or have one play with you, you might be in for a disappointment. Keep in mind these are wild animals and a personal interaction might not always happen - tour or no tour.

8 days ago
8 days ago

Swimming with the manatees was an experience I could never forget. First off, the crystal river was insanely gorgeous and being able to swim next to creatures who were so calm was something that is indescribable. I highly recommend to ANYONE whether swimming is your thing or not as it is something that will stay with you for your life

2 months ago
2 months ago

This was an incredible experience to be able to swim with these playful gentle giants!

11 months ago
11 months ago

I did a 3 hour snorkel tour. I recommend just finding the cheapest tour you can as they all go to the same spots really. Going more in winter you have better chances to see them as in March they start making their way back to the gulf. You have to let them come to you, so there is a chance you may not see one up close to touch. I was lucky enough that a young one swam up to me and played with us for about 10 minutes. Letting us touch him, rolled over for a belly rub. It was absolutely incredible! Bring your go pro and hit record!

12 months ago
12 months ago

This is so awesome! My gf and I will definitely make it out here sometime, if we can get some time off from school and work. Not everyday you can swim with these majestic creatures.

over 1 year ago
over 1 year ago

Jess Curren Explorer

Outdoor adventure loving mom of 3 amazing kids and wife to the best husband a girl could ask for. We sold everything in 2013 to travel the United States in our Airstream travel trailer. We bike, hike, backpack, and love to explore new places as a family.

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