In 1976 our Guide in Crystal River told us that he estimated there were 300-400 Manatee in the river that year, and that our experience diving with them wouldn’t be possible for future generations. He would have been delighted to know how wrong he was.
Recently our Guide from Birds Underwater Service guessed that there could be over 7,000 in the river for our dive. Manatee are still considered a threatened species, but they have been taken off of the endangered list. Divers are even beginning to wonder if manatee might become more prevalent in the Caribbean as well.
These gentle creatures are making a comeback despite the environmental issues they face, and the presence of up to 1,500 snorkelers on a busy day. So what is the secret? Florida has adopted some very complex regulations for manatee interaction that obviously work.
As a photographer you are well served to be familiar with all of the rules- or risk stiff fines. A few of these will be discussed here, but Florida Fish and Game has a video that outlines proper behaviors specifically for underwater photographers. You are required to watch it before your excursion, and it can also be found online.
When to Go
Florida's springs maintain a consistent temperature of 72ºF year-round. Manatees are attracted to the springs when it is cold in the surrounding rivers and Gulf of Mexico. So if you want to see a lot of manatees, head down when it's cold outside: winter months November through February.
How to Get There
Crystal River is on the western gulf coast of Florida, just about 90 minutes drive whether you're headed north from Tampa or west from Orlando.
There are several options for going out into the springs: a group tour boat, a private boat with captain, a small boat you drive yourself, or even kayaks. The smaller the group the better- we recommend arranging a private boat with a small group of no more than 6 respectful snorkelers. Early morning will provide your best photo opportunities. As the day wears on the manatees can get shy and the bottom gets stirred up by a growing crowd.
What to Expect in the Water
Most of the snorkelers you see will not have fins on, and will use pool noodles (floats) to paddle around with. This makes surface diving impossible (in addition to being forbidden), and is key to the success of their efforts to keep these Manatee safe.
As a photographer, you will be subjected to some more specific rules, but the noodle is not required and you can use fins. If you are shooting professionally a special permit may be required, and a yellow vest issued to you. These rules can change so be sure to watch the video for information on the latest guidelines... your tour guide will fill you in.
The manatees move around freely but there are several areas where they tend to congregate, for example the mouth of Three Sisters Spring. The local guides are on the water every day so they generally have some good advice about where to look. You will notice a number of protected sanctuaries which are surrounded by ropes and buoys. These are areas where the manatees can go to relax without being disturbed by the people in the water.
On the water, park rangers in kayaks patrol the area constantly to ensure that the regulations are being followed. Be sure to thank them before you go for helping to keep the manatees happy and keep the population growing!
Nearby Dive Destinations
If you find yourself arranging a visit to Crystal River to swim with Manatee, remember that there are many other Springs you can visit. One of our favorites is Rainbow River, a drift dive in crystal clear fresh water- yes! You don't even have to rinse your gear afterwords. Rainbow River is about a half hour drive from Crystal River, and the drift dive can be done the same day if you plan it right.
Ginnie Springs is approximately 90 minutes north of Crystal River and is a great attraction for technical certified cave divers.
Alexander Springs is another crystal clear dive destination just about 2 hours to the east and could be a nice stop if you're ultimately headed back to Orlando.
Manatee are unlike most other large animals underwater and are truly wonderful to see in person. This is a photography trip you can truly enjoy with a family of all ages- divers and non-divers alike. We definitely recommend adding this trip to your underwater bucket list!