Swimming With Wild Manatees

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.

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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.

swimming-with-manatees.jpgIn 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”.

swimming-with-manatees.jpgBetween 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.

swimming-with-manatee.jpgBefore 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.

swimming-with-manatees.jpgAfter 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.

swimming-with-manatees.jpgBecause 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.

swimming-with-manatees.jpgBecause 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.

swimming-with-manatee.jpgManatees 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.

swimming-with-manatees.jpgManatees 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.

swimming-with-manatees.jpgMost 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.

swimming-with-manatees.jpgManatees 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!

swimming-with-manatees.jpgIf 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!

swimming-with-manatees.jpgIdeally, 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.

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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

Crystal River, Florida is the one of the only places in Florida you can legally swim with wild manatees. You won't want to miss the experience swimming with these gentle giants.

Have you ever swam with manatees? If not, would you like to?

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  • Mackenzie Hautala

    This brings back so many great memories! Such a neat experience. Makes me smile.

  • Sarah Elizabeth

    Seriously a dream of mine to swim with manatees! SO cool!

  • 1200 lbs?!!!! omg. holy moly. i am not sure i could get past the freaked out stage lol but this really is cool. did you like swimming with nurse sharks? we are going home to Oz next year and I know my husband would love to swim with sharks. there are only a couple of places you can do it – somewhere close to Adelaide with great whites (not guaranteed and VERY expensive) and the other option is grey nurse sharks at a aquarium/sanctuary type place. i worried it wouldn’t be as exciting for him, but it’s close and cheaper.. so yeah lol

    • Ok, so I didn’t KNOW we were swimming with nurse sharks at the time. I’m pretty freaked out of sharks and my brother “forgot” to tell me the place we were getting off the boat to snorkel was called “shark point”. Once I got in the water he forbid me from getting back in the boat before i snorkeled for 5 minutes. I was pissed at first and could only hear the jaws music in my head, but just like with the manatees, once i got over the shock factor, I realized how cool it really was 🙂

      • um, that is crazy!!! i would have smacked my brother for sure haha

  • That’s seriously one of the most awesome experiences ever! I can’t imagine swimming with manatees and having them flip over to have them rub your belly! Definitely need to do this when we visit that part of Florida!

    • the manatee that flipped over for the belly rubs basically made my life. I was a little nervous because every one of my friends in the group i was with has different styles of what is “fun” to do while traveling, but at the end of the trip we all agreed it was the coolest experience!

  • No. Way. I love manatees, and it’s my dream to see one never mind swim with one! I’d be so keen to do this, seriously. How cute that one wanted a belly rub?! Adorable, and I’m so glad they didn’t seem bothered by humans. I hate animal type tours where you feel like they just don’t want you to be there, or worse. Now I’ve just got to get to Florida first…

    • I was pretty entertained just looking at them float above the water too! but when i heard you could swim with them somewhere I knew I had to do it. I really hope you get to do it someday, because it was such an awesome experience!

  • That is so awesome! I didn’t even know there was a place you could do this in Florida. I’m sure it’s something you will never forget! 🙂

    • I didn’t know there was a place to do this in florida either. A few months ago I stumbled on a blog post from a fellow travel blogger and I knew it was something I had to do!

  • Jessica Ryles

    Love this! It can be really hard trying to find experiences like this that don’t harm or exploit the animals. Looks like you found a great tour! Love the manatee kiss photo!

    • I completely agree about trying to find animal activities that are ethical. I am a huge animal advocate, but at the same time i love experiences that give me a chance to learn and get close to some amazing animals. It can be hard to find something that I can in good conscious support.

  • Carrie, I think you did not see my post of whale watching in Baja California but the rules are pretty similar to what you have described here for the manatees (in the case of the whales, you cannot get in the water). Experience with big animals like these are incredible. In addition, the experience help you to learn more about these unique mammals and be an advocate for them. I will like to see manatees (and I say see because I cannot swim).

    • Incredible is the perfect word to describe it, Ruth! This experience definitely gave me the opportunity to learn and respect manatees so much more!

  • Wander Mum

    What an amazing experience. So glad you found a good, well run tour to swim with these amazing creatures. So interesting to see them close up. Thanks for linking to #citytripping

    • A good tour and a good tour guide can really make your experience and it definitely did for me! thanks so much for hosting the link-up! 🙂

  • Oh this looks absolutely amazing – I was wowed by the manatees when we first came across them in a different part of Florida, but I would love to swim with them. The tour sounds wonderful, so well run and great that it’s protecting and raising awareness of the manatees at the same time, so sad that such gentle creatures are now endangered. #citytripping

    • I was pretty impressed with them just by looking at them too, Cathy! It’s sad they’re endangered, but in the last 20 years or so their population has continued to grow, and although there’s a lot more of them now the laws protecting them are still extremely strict, which is something I’m glad to see. thanks for hosting the link-up! 🙂

  • Carrie, this is so awesome! I don’t think I knew manatees were so huge, and I laughed out loud on your line about when the first one came up close to you! HA! Thank you also for talking about the ethics of it; so many animal-related posts are just like, “it’s great!” and no real information is given about the safety and protection of the animals. Love all your posts. Don’t ever stop!! 😀

    • Thanks so much for your kind words Swags! It means the world to me! 🙂

  • Bernard Tan

    This is awesome! I have never been up close with manatees. Thanks for addressing the ethical part, I always believe that as travellers, we should never affect the mother nature or others culture.

    • Thanks, Bernard! I completely agree that as travelers we have a responsibility to treat the animals and nature we encounter respectfully.

  • Okay I’m sold. This looks absolutely amazing, and I love that you looked into the ethics of the activity as well. Loved the smooching manatee photo. How chill are they?? Wow….

    • they were like huge underwater teddy bears! it was the coolest thing I have ever done.

  • Juliana Wynkoop

    During my last trip to florida I was really wanting to swim with manatees, but I was weary of going through certain tour companies because of their ethics. It’s good to hear that Riverventures is focused on informing its guests about animal treatment. This is definitely something I want to do!

    • i found it to be top notch on the ethics front. Which is huge for me. there was no way I could have done it had it been ethically questionable. If you get a chance to do it I’m positive you’ll love it. 🙂

  • Veronica Pototska

    I would love to swim with manatees! It is an incredible experience of being a guest in someone else’s world!

    • such a good way to put it! it was incredible being that up close and personal with such huge gentle giants.

  • Beautiful! I love that you touched on the ethics of swimming with the manatees (how cute is the one on her back!?)… there’s always a fine line between abuse and acceptable. It does inspire people to care about the creatures they see and the manatees are allowed to swim in their natural environment. I can’t believe THOUSANDS come by the region! That’s incredible. I love them 🙂

    • It’s my goal to come back next winter and see the Three Rives Spring when there’s thousands of them there! I’ve seen pictures online and it is absolutely unreal looking!

  • ANN LIN

    Wow, just wow. What an amazing experience! Your photos are beautiful as well. I also loved how you talked about the ethics of activities such as this. As travelers, we need to think about the impact we’re having on the place as well.

  • Wow, it had to be an amazing experience!

  • Shiv Blogs

    This looks like an ideal combination of fun and adventure!

    • spot on! my favorite combination when it comes to travel 🙂

  • Nikki Celine

    Wow! What an amazing experience. I’ve swam with dolphins and done a cage dive with sharks. I’d never heard of swimming with manatees but now it’s on my list 🙂 amazing pics.

    • I’d love to cage dive sometime! what an adrenaline rush that would be.

  • sanketdhume

    haha, they look like adorable creatures. One more of those instances where I wish I could swim 🙁

    • haha! luckily, we all had floaty noodles so no real swimming was necessary. perfect win-win 🙂

  • Kaja Mann

    I have always been loving manatees so much, quite as much as dolphins which were my favorite animals when i was a little girl. I have been to swimming with dolphins and it was one of the most incredible experiences in my life. Thats so great you had this wonderful opportunity to ‘meet’ manatees in their natural habitat!

    • it really did feel like we were “meeting” them. especially the one who rolled over for belly rubs from us. i felt like we were buds after that, haha 🙂

  • Danielle Markley

    Fun!!! I grew up in Florida and spent so much time at the springs that I thought swimming with manatees was a normal experience. Definitely appreciate the uniqueness now. Sea cows are so cute 😜

    • how cool to grow up in such a unique area! I know what you mean about it seeming “normal” because it’s what you’ve always known, but trust me it’s far from normal and so cool! 🙂

  • This looks like such a fun activity! The manatees look so cute and sweet! 🙂 I’m glad that the company you went with found an ethical way of offering this experience to travelers. 🙂

    • Me too Lizzy! there’s no way i could have, in good conscious, enjoyed myself (or even took part) if ethically it was off to me.

  • Wow what an experiences! I’d love to do that myself! I am sure you had the best time!

    • I luckily went with some good friends of mine, which always makes the experience twice as good 🙂

  • I have always wanted to do this! Looks incredible, they sound like amazing animals! I am glad you found a company that is quiet ethical in the running of this activity! Will look them up when I am in Florida <3

  • Earth’s Attractions

    What an amazing experience! i loved the photos and the story! I’d want to enjoy this once – though due to my knee experience I won’t be able to.

    • even just to hop on the boat and see them float right above the water would be such a cool experience!

  • Katie Karambelas

    I had no idea this was a thing! Thank you, Carrie. I’m bookmarking this post and going to look into going back to Florida sometime this winter to try and swim.

    • so great to hear that, Katie!! I know you’ll have a blast if you get a chance to do it. I’m already planning my return trip 🙂

  • These photos are amazing! I had no idea you could do this – I hope I get the chance to swim with manatees in the future! I’m glad the rules are strictly enforced and it sounds like your experience was perfectly respectful of the animals 🙂

    • the rules are VERY strict! and i’m so happy about it. it’s so nice to know we can get so close to them and their habitat without harming them or causing them stress in any way.

  • Ahammed

    I only know that you can swim with with dolphin and all this is first time i am hearing about swimming with manatees .Hope you had beautiful moments and great experience

  • Cai

    Woooww! Thats quite huge.. It would be so exciting to swim with them 🙂 I just wonder why its allowed to touch with one hand and not by 2 hands? Hmm any explanation? Thanks!

    • our guide just told us that any kind of hugging or grabbing is strictly prohibited so I just think to be safe they tell people just use 1 hand to touch them. then no one can question weather or not you were hugging or grabbing at them. great question!

  • I also went with River Ventures 🙂 The best day EVER!

    • We had the BEST time! I’m so glad you enjoyed it to! I have such a greater appreciation for manatees after the experience.