Kayaking in Crystal River, Florida: The Search for Manatees

Growing up in Florida, I tend to take for granted the natural beauty my home state has to offer. Though I love traveling to new places around the world, I’m trying to do more exploring closer to home. That’s why my boyfriend and I headed 90 minutes north of Tampa to kayak in Crystal River this past weekend in celebration of my 30th birthday.

Well, technically, we planned to kayak in Weeki Wachee. But, Weeki Wachee has gotten quite popular since we were kids, and it seems you now need to make reservations in advance. We arrived around 10:30 AM and all the rental shops were already sold out of kayaks for the day.

After I had a quick cry in the car over our foiled plans (it’s my birthday and I can cry if I want to!), we began improvising. Where to next? In this area of Florida, there are quite a few natural springs and state parks. We tossed around several ideas, and decided that nearby Crystal River would be our best chance for kayaking and seeing manatees.

Another 30 minutes of driving north took us to Captain Mike’s where we rented a tandem kayak for $55. No reservations required (or taken!).

Captain Mike's Kayak and Bike Rentals in Crystal River, Florida
Captain Mike’s Rentals in Crystal River, Florida

The good people at Captain Mike’s take wildlife preservation seriously, and before you can get out on the water, you have to watch a 7-minute video that tells you what you can and can’t do if you encounter manatees.

Finally on the water, we battled the wind, current, and a slew of pontoon boats to get to a small channel that led us to Three Sisters Springs. Approaching the spring, we saw a mama manatee and her calf gliding through the canal. The water became clearer and clearer the closer we got to the springs.

We paddled into the springs and saw it wasn’t too crowded despite it being a Saturday with perfect weather. Apparently, there are times when you can swim into the springs and see dozens of manatees. We didn’t have that much luck, but it is still a breathtaking place. Since it was a little chilly outside, we stayed in our little yellow kayak to take in the views.

Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida
Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida
Clear blue water three sisters springs crystal river florida
Water so blue I promise it’s not a pool

Kayaking crystal river florida

We spent a couple of hours kayaking around the springs and up and down a few nearby canals trying to find more manatees. We knew we were at the tail end of the season, which runs from November through early April, but we’d heard there were quite a few manatees still in the area.

Feeling a bit tired after three hours of paddling against the current, we decided to head back to Captain Mikes. Once we were back in open water, we made a ton of new friends of the sea-cow variety.

This big guy kept coming up to us to see what we were up to even though we were trying to leave him alone.

manatee crystal river
Manatee in Crystal River

It was so much fun spotting these gentle creatures, and now I hope to do it more often during the next winter. Visit Florida has a great article with 5 places to see manatees around the state, so all these spots have quickly made their way on my “Florida Bucket List.” That should keep me from taking this wonderful place for granted.

A guide to kayaking in Crystal River, Florida and Three Sisters Springs with tips on the best times to see manatees.


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Meg Roberts
Meg Roberts is an avid runner, travel fiend, and content strategist based in Tampa, Florida. She enjoys exploring new places on foot, mile by mile. Follow along as she writes about making time to run, travel, and dabble with other hobbies, all while holding down a full-time office job that she loves.


  1. Belated Happy Birthday.Beautiful pictures of the crystal river.And you have the best gift of your birthday doing Kayaking and spotting a manatee too.The river looks so clear as crystal.Is the River named so as looked so clear??

  2. What a perfect place for a kayak trip! I live on the east coast of Florida and we have dozens of manatees all over the place. I love going to see them and always take visitors to see these gentle giants. 😉 Never heard of Crystal River so I learned something new. 😉

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