A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my visit to Manatee Park. Ever since that trip, I’ve been dreaming of getting a closer look at these amazing animals.
The only place in Florida you can legally swim with manatees is in Crystal River, Florida. A few of my best friends from high school were set to come visit me from Wisconsin and I knew swimming with manatees would be the perfect group activity for all of us to do together.
Swimming with Manatees
When we first arrived to our tour building we checked in and then watched a short safety video of important things to know about swimming with the manatees. After the video we were fitted with wet suits and ready to load into the van and head to the water.
In the harsh (I kid) winter months in Florida, the water temperature in the gulf drops making manatees susceptible to hypothermia and death. Crystal River is home to natural springs, which keeps the water a nice warm temperature all year round. For this reason manatees flock to the springs, which is why Crystal River is considered the unofficial “manatee capitol of the world”.
Between the months of December-February the springs in Crystal River are often packed with thousands of manatees. Yes, thousands. By March the temperature of the water in the Gulf is warmed enough that the manatees migrate out to find food.
There are some manatees that call the Springs home year-round so manatee tours run all year, but the best time to book a tour is during the winter months.
Before getting in the water, our captain told us to be prepared for the initial shock of seeing a manatee up-close. Although they are gentle giants they can weight up to 1200 lbs and being in water with an animal that big can be freaky at first.
The first manatee we spotted was huge! I have snorkeled in the Indian ocean amongst nurse sharks, and spent a lot of time in the water, but I have to admit, when that first manatee swam up close to me, I just about lost my shit. Even though our captain just pep-talked us moments before, I have never (knowingly) been in the water with something even close to the size of a manatee.
After the initial shock factor of seeing my first manatee up-close wore off I settled in and was able to really enjoy the experience without freaking out.
Because these manatees are 100% wild animals there are certain rules that apply when being in the water with them that are strictly enforced.
We were told again and again that we are there to merely observe them, not to disrupt their everyday lives in anyway. In Crystal River, it is legal to touch the manatees gently with one hand. Touching them with 2 hands or trying to hug them is a huge no-no and can be punishable by law if you’re spotted doing it. Chasing or cornering a manatee is also a huge no-no.
Because we’re swimming with 100% wild manatees, you can never guarantee how many (or how few) manatees you will see during your tour. We lucked out and had no problem finding a few manatees.
Manatees are herbivores; So while they don’t need to hunt or chase down food, they still need to search and find plants to eat. The manatee in the photo above is munching on some plants growing on the floor of the spring, while the manatee in the photo below is chomping on some marine algae growing off the side of a wooden dock.
Manatees are mammals so they come up to the surface of the water to breathe usually every 3 to 5 minutes. When they’re swimming around and using a lot of energy they may surface as often as every 30 seconds. By the same token, when they are sleeping or resting, they can stay under water for as long as 20 minutes.
Most of the manatees we saw were actively swimming around and looking for food, but we did spot a few that were hanging at the floor of the spring appearing to be sleeping. We left them alone completely, as it is also against the law to disrupt or wake a sleeping manatee.
Manatees are known as gentle giants, but I was so surprised about how indifferent they seemed about us floating around them. They never seemed scared or annoyed, or bothered by us one bit. For me, this was great to see because it means they are used to be treated kindly by humans that come here.
The manatee below even rolled over for belly rubs from us. It was the coolest thing!
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to have a manatee come in on you for a smooch, the picture below depicts it perfectly. Also something that was incredibly cool!
Ideally, the earlier in the day you take your tour the more likely you are to see manatees. Tour times start as early as 6 am. Considering we were driving 2.5 hours north to make it to Crystal River from where I live, we rolled the dice and booked the last tour for the day at 12:30 pm.
We ended up lucking out big time because we had no problems finding manatees at all! Our guide even said our tour was the best one he’s had in the last couple of weeks, in terms of seeing plenty of manatees.
Is it ethical to Swim with Manatees?
I am a huge advocate for treating all animals (wild or domestic) with respect. I would never take part or support any cause that exploited or mistreated animals.
Yes swimming with manatees has become a tourist attraction that companies make money off of, but my experience with the company we used was so incredibly good. We were reminded again and again, that these are wild animals and we are not to disturb them for any reason or in any way. We show up, we float around, watch them, touch them gently if they come close enough and let them go about their day. The rules and laws for swimming with manatees are so strictly enforced (by our tour company and by the federal government) that any fowl play by tourists would be caught and forced to be stopped immediately.
If anything, I think this tour helped me to learn more about manatees and become more conscious of the challenges they face as a species. Never again will be I be ok riding on a boat that is speeding through “no wake” zones on the water.
I cannot recommend this experience enough to fellow travelers. It was beyond incredible. I’m already planning to take another tour next winter.
More things to know:
- We took our tour with River Ventures. Our guide, Wade, was phenomenal
- Our tour, from start to finish, was 3 hours long
- We paid $64 per person, which included a wet suit, mask, and noodle to help with floating