The Crystal River is best known for scalloping and swimming with manatees. It is the most popular place in Florida for both. And, the only place in America where it is legal to swim with manatees. Deceiving as the title is, it’s not a river. This area is a combination of an estuary, freshwater springs and brackish water leading to the west coast ocean. All accessible once you launch into Kings Head Bay. As a result, you can experience fresh and salt water in the same region.
Scalloping and Swimming With Manatees
We first started venturing here before we owned a boat. Our maiden trip to this area did not include the water, but we immediately booked to return and do a manatee tour. From my perspective, the tours are a colossal waste of money. You can only see the manatees if you are on the water. In short, you would be better off renting a boat vs. going on a group tour. That’s Several restaurants are surrounding what we did on our second trip! Most importantly, not only have we swim with the manatees we’ve seen hundreds of them over the years.
We’ve done many a day trip and tons of weekends, and it never disappoints. The Crystal River is one of my favorite places in Florida. What’s crystal clear is you are guaranteed to have the time of your life! As our experience with the area has matured, we have learned the do’s and don’ts and have become veteran scallopers. I will share all of the information you need for a great weekend or day out without booking a tour.
The Crystal River Accommodations
Like the Rainbow River, most accommodations are dated and then some. Some are absolute S**t tips. We have had to check out of a place or two over the years. It took us a couple of years to find the hot spots, and now we have it down to a science!
If you want to stay on the water, the place to book is Plantation on Crystal River. A resort with resort amenities, but not all of the rooms or corridors are updated. As a result, this resort has been in the process of upgrading for a while. This place is right on the water. You can launch your boat from the dive center, and you can moor your boat on to the sea wall.
A massive advantage if you spend the weekend. The restaurant is fantastic, affordable and will cook your catch including scallops. Therefore, if you are planning to stay here during scalloping season, you need to book ahead as it sells out way in advance. Something else to note, ownership changed in 2017. Sadly, they now charge a “resort fee” in addition to the nightly rate so make sure you factor this into the cost when booking.
The other option is the Hampton Inn Crystal River. Above all, this hotel is not on the water. There is boat parking, and it’s a very modern hotel. It is only a five-minute drive to the Plantation where you can launch.
There are a couple of other reasonable places that won’t break the bank. I won’t recommend them. Having stayed there, I know there are better places to book. However, I would be happy to give you the information if the above two are not available or are too costly. Just shoot me a message, and I’ll share.
Swim With Manatees
Manatees are everywhere throughout this region. In the winter they congregate at the Three Sisters Springs. You will have no doubt seen glamorous photographs of people up close in the bright blue spring water.
The chances of you getting this close are limited. For example, the springs are closed as a sanctuary when the temperature drops below 68 degrees. Meanwhile, most tour operators operate all year round. If you decide to go in the winter, the tour operators will take you as close to the entry of the Three Sisters Springs as you can get. Even if you go on your boat, you will only be able to get as close as the barriers. I do not recommend the tours. Firstly, you can get to the springs yourself. Most importantly, tour operators troll around Kings Head Bay which is an inlet that consists of murky brown water. Lastly, if you spot a manatee, you will have zero visibility making this experience pointless.
Best Spots To Swim With Manatees
If you want to swim with manatees visit in spring or summer and rent a boat if you don’t own one. Simply explore the area. You will run into the manatees all over the Crystal River region. Our most intimate swim with manatees was in April. We had parked up for lunch at the bridge heading to Three Sisters Springs. A group of ten manatees along with some babies swam up towards our boat.
Naturally, we jumped in the water to get a good look. Floating on top of the water watching these gentle giants is a surreal experience. Firstly, manatees are a lot bigger in person than you anticipate. Secondly, while appearing slow, they do move fairly fast! One thing you must know is that you cannot harass manatees. You must respect their space. Contact with them is illegal. The only exception being them contacting you, or as in our case swimming into you.
Frequently Asked Questions:
- Where in Florida can I swim with manatees? The Crystal River is the only place in the US where you can legally swim with manatees.
- Can you touch a manatee in Florida? No, it’s illegal to touch a manatee, but that does not mean they won’t touch you. Just be respectful and do not harass them.
- Do manatees only live in Florida? No, there are several species of manatees throughout the world:
- West Indian manatee
- African manatee
- Amazonian manatee
- Steller’s sea cow
Three Sisters Springs
Another spot that’s popular is Hunter Springs. Essentially right around the corner from the Three Sisters Springs. Hunter Springs has an enclosed beach area that is popular and most of the manatee tour operators pass through this area. Many a time we’ve seen manatees swimming here.
All you need to enjoy the manatees is a water vessel, snorkel, and mask!
The Crystal River Boat Rentals
- Plantation Dive Shop
- Crystal Lodge Dive Center
- Port Hotel & Marina
Alternatively, rent one here from Boatsetter, the one stop shop for all your boating needs. The best thing about renting here is that you can choose the right boat for your needs and the right size for the party:
The Crystal River Public Boat Ramps
There are twelve public boat ramps:
|Facility ID||Ramp Name||County|
|CI27104BY||Crystal River Preserve State Park – Mullet Hole Kayak Launch||Citrus|
|CI96686MM||Crystal River Preserve State Park – Visitor Center Kayak Launch||Citrus|
|CI00020SL||Crystal River Watersports||Citrus|
|CI00064EX||Fort Island Gulf Beach Public Boat Ramp||Citrus|
|CI00022EM||Fort Island Trail Park Public Boat Ramp||Citrus|
|Facility ID||Ramp Name||County|
|CI00006HV||Adventure Center at the Plantation on Crystal River||Citrus|
|CI71617FT||Crystal River Kayak Company (Kayak Launch Dock)||Citrus|
|CI00050YG||Dive Shop At The Port Hotel & Marina (Call ahead to be sure ramp and parking are available)||Citrus|
|CI30005XY||Dockside Trading Company (Limited Parking)||Citrus|
|CI58374OQ||Hunter Springs Park Kayak Launch||Citrus|
|CI30006NW||Kings Bay Park Kayak Launch||Citrus|
|CI00012EE||Pete’s Pier Marina (Limited Parking)||Citrus|
We always launch out of the Shop At The Port Hotel & Marina.
The Crystal River Scalloping in Florida
We have scalloped many times from the Crystal River and had great success. In 2019 we scalloped out of Homosassa. We were lucky enough to be given coordinates to a hot spot where people can catch their limit in an hour. Read my opinion of the differences between Homosassa and The Crystal River.
For information on where to catch scallops, how to find them and how to clean see this article Florida Scalloping Everything You Need to Know.
The Crystal River Restaurants
There are several restaurants surrounding Kings Head Bay. You can pull your boat up to most and enjoy a drink or a snack. Many will cook your catch:
- West 82º Bar & Grill – at Plantation on Crystal River. This place will cook your catch! It’s semi-formal, definitely not a shack but you can roll in here in casual attire. During scallop season make a reservation or eat late as it’s packed! We often stay here so this is a natural first choice for us.
- Cracker’s Bar, Grill, and Tiki. This place is on the opposite side of the bay from Plantation. It’s a spot we often visit for a bon voyage beverage or lunch. We usually stop here if the weather is bad and wait for it to pass. You can boat and more to this place which is super convenient. Firstly, I don’t know if they will cook your catch, but the food here is excellent. The Pina Coladas, yummy!
- Charlie’s Fish House Restaurant and Seafood Market. This place is a choice for many. Certainly decent seafood, but a tad overpriced. It’s on the water and accessible, but it does not have the ambiance of others. They specialize in stone crab which makes them very popular.
The Crystal River provides you with many options to enjoy Florida. It’s the number one spot to go if you want to swim with manatees. There is plenty for every one of all ages to see and do. Join us on the river and create new traditions with your friends and family!
Looking for more posts on Florida? Start here:
- Five Best Airboat Rides Near Orlando
- Florida Scalloping Essentials You Will Need To Scallop
- Homosassa – Is It Better Than The Crystal River?
- Rainbow River – Why You Should Visit
- The Dome Houses of Cape Romano – Marco Island Florida
- Westgate River Ranch Resort and Rodeo
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