NOTES: South of the town of Crystal River, the snorkeling in the Homosassa River springs is known for the encounters with West Indian Manatees. During the winter months, the manatees head up from the estuaries to the springs to find warmer water. Since the springs are a constant 72F, the combined day/night air temperatures need to be below 72F to reduce the average river temperature to drive the manatees to the springs for warmth. So, those beautiful sunny Florida 80F days are not great for swimming with manatees at the Homosassa springs. In addition, keep in mind that manatees like waters at least five feet deep.
In the headwaters of the Homosassa River where the springs are located, the water clarity ranges from 3 to 10 feet of visibility during periods without rain. While you may have seen photos and videos of crystal clear water, that is very unusual. When you get in the river, be mentally prepared for murky water which may make you feel a little claustrophobic.
The Homosassa River is very popular for a manatee snorkeling swim in January and February. If you are planning a manatee snorkeling experience, you will want to come early on a weekday (the 7am trips are usually the best). The best dive sites are usually quite crowded with boats and snorkelers by 10am. In order to snorkel with the manatees on the Homosassa, you will most likely need a boat. While you could rent a kayak and try to snorkel off the kayak, the best experience will be to use one of the numerous charter dive boat operators. For most of these guided tours, it is highly recommended to make a reservation far in advance and try for the first trip of the day on a weekday. Make sure to reconfirm your reservation the afternoon prior to the trip since the boat tours usually require a minumum number of passengers to go out. Ask how many reservations they have and what the minimum number is required. They are known to cancel without any notice or a phone call. Based on past experience, we have never had a scheduled charter dive go off without canceling and rescheduling.
Before snorkeling with manatees on the Homosassa, make sure to watch the Florida Fish And Wildlife video about manatees (available on YouTube). When you encounter a manatee, it is recommended to wait for them to initiate contact; only touch them if you are touched first to avoid scaring them off. Do not hold, feed or chase manatees. While you may see others grabbing a manatee to take a selfie, this is definitely discouraged.
If you have previously snorkeled with manatees and have a wet suit, you can try a self-guided Homosassa manatee swim by parking at the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park and enter the water at the Fishbowl Road Bridge just south of the park. Snorkel to the north to quickly find the springs and manatees. The self-guided snorkel is suggested only for experienced snorkelers with past manatee encounters, and also only very early in the morning before there is heavy boat traffic. A diver down flag is suggested.
To reach the manatee snorkeling swim on the Homosassa River, the nearest large airport is in Tampa. From the Tampa airport, it is a quick drive due north on SR589 to SR19 into Crystal River.
TIP: the water temperture is usually in the low-70's, so a wet suit is highly recommended.
Additional printed reading material on Homosassa River snorkeling
can be found in Snorkeling Florida
by from Brad Bertelli.