Some people equate the winter season with fun in the snow, skiing, sledding, snow boarding, snow shoeing and all of the other activities people who live in colder climates look forward to in the winter months. Floridians…not so much. When the temperatures dip down into those disrespectful digits in the 30s and 40s, there is one thing that we get excited about. Okay two things. We do like dressing the part for winter so when we can wear boots without getting sweaty calves that’s a win. But more importantly, colder temperatures means an abundance of the unofficial Florida mascot, the manatee!!!
The manatees retreat into the Florida freshwater springs by the thousands as they escape the colder temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico waters and rivers. The constant 72 – 74 degree temperature of the springs makes them the perfect environment for a manatee family reunion. A very popular location where the manatees converge year after year is the Crystal River area. 1,042 manatee were counted in the Crystal River area during the weekend we were there just a couple of weeks ago.
Visitors come from all over the world to watch the famed sea cows in the clear waters of the numerous springs in the area. There are a number of ways you can join in the fun of manatee season. You can rent a kayak or a paddleboard and make your way through the various waterways. The spring heads in the area are all roped off as sanctuary areas during manatee season but the manatees will still swim out to investigate your kayak or SUP. You can also visit the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge area and view the manatee from a boardwalk, or you can schedule a swim with the manatees session.
The teenager and I actually had plans to take a kayak trip and see the manatees because our friends at Flip Flops and Floo Powder had just done SUPs in the area. But when we arrived at Crystal River Kayak Company, we learned that they also had an option to swim with the manatees! They actually didn’t have any tours scheduled to go out on that day but they were willing to accommodate us and take the two of us out for a swim. Lucky us!
After watching a short video on how to properly interact with the manatees during our swim, we were given our wetsuits and then we were on our way. The video explains what is allowed and what is not because manatees are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Manatee harassment is actually against the law. All of our interactions were through passive observation.
It was just a short pleasant ride to King Springs. There were a few other tour boats in the area already when we arrived but not really a large amount of people. The air temperature was about 50 degrees and it was a little breezy; to Floridians this means freezing. The 74 degree spring water felt amazing compared to this! Captain Mike served as our awesome guide in the water for the day and led us over to the boundaries of the sanctuary area which roped off a large area for the manatee to have a place to rest undisturbed.
It didn’t take long at all for Captain Mike to signal to us to stick our faces in the water and look down. We had our first manatee sighting of the day. This one was covered in barnacles. Captain Mike explained to us that the barnacles indicate that he was a new manatee to the area and had spent much of his time out in the Gulf waters and the barnacles had not had the chance to fall off of him yet. He was quite curious about us and he hung around for quite a while.
He nudged us, swam around us, and rubbed against us. It was surreal that we were here in the territory of this massive wild animal. They are known to be extremely calm and docile creatures but they are ginormous. Manatee can grow to be up to 13 feet long and weigh up to 3000 pounds. At 5 ft 8 inches long, I was dwarfed by this massive animal.
When Barnacle Bill was tired of playing with us, he slowly retreated back behind the ropes into his protected sanctuary. Captain Mike made the comparison of a manatee to a cat. They are playful on their terms. When they want to play or show you affection then they will. Once they are done with you they will simply turn and swim away. Who knew these animals had so much intelligence and personality?!
At one point I looked up and there were 2 manatee on either side of me. They appeared to come out of nowhere! When you practice the Manatee zen while you snorkel the manatee will certainly come to you. Captain Mike told us to breathe slowly and calmly and to be as relaxed as possible. More manatee came beyond the ropes to come and check us out.
Not long after our arrival the other tour groups boarded their boats to go to another location. We had the springs all to ourselves, just the 3 of us! Suddenly there was a rumble in the distance from the sanctuary area and a whole lot of splashing. Apparently the manatee decided to have a “dance” party and they don’t care who is watching. We learned that they actually dance quite frequently, for procreation as well as recreation.
With everything quiet and calm the manatee kept coming to say hello. There was one adorable little guy who locked eyes with me. Really, he swam up and looked at me very curiously in my eyes. Then he puckered up with his little mouth and he kissed me!! I got my first kiss from a manatee y’all! I was totally not expecting it. It even made a little sweet squeaking noise as he continued to rub alongside me. Swoon! It was the sweetest thing ever.
I ended up getting smooched by a couple of other manatees during the swim. Jaylon got smooched a couple of times too. After a couple of hours in the water it was time to go. More boats had started to arrive and the noisy swimmers had caused most of the manatees to retreat behind the ropes. It was such a magical experience. This was a day we will never forget. I was already a fan of these gentle creatures but now I love them and I feel invested in helping to protect them and their habitat.
This day was an epic win but unfortunately there was also an epic fail. (Hence the name of the blog, “Misadventures”) As we swam back to the boat I realized that my underwater action camera SJCAM4000, which is basically a budget gopro) had somehow come unscrewed from my extension pole,which I had looped around my wrist. It had definitely happened toward the very end of our swim. I was crestfallen. All of the awesome pics, manatee selfies, and video footage from the day were gone. The water was a bit too murky to really see the bottom clearly. Captain Mike swam back to try but it was no use. He even put out a call to some of the local scuba divers just in case. The bright spot is that Captain Mike took photos using his underwater camera which they usually sell to customers. He captured all of our most prized underwater moments so we were saved!
People always want to swim with dolphins but this experience was much more rewarding. These are animals in their wild habitat, not coaxed or trained in any way. They are interacting with you of their own free will and out of pure, genuine interest and curiosity. This is such a unique way to become one with nature. If you live in Florida or you are planning a visit, then do yourself a favor and take advantage of this really special opportunity.
Captain Mike and Captain Mary at Crystal River Kayak Company are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. They really went above and beyond to not only give us a fun and memorable experience, but also to educate us. They offer kayak/SUP rental, swimming with manatees, and scuba diving certification courses. Captain Mike also supplied us with a fact sheet and audio recordings of the various sounds that manatee make. If you book with them, ask him about their awesome program for kids to do an assisted teach back in their school. In their 11th year of business, they are one of the oldest kayak outfitters in Crystal River and they truly care about providing the best possible service.
Things to know to plan your own outdoorsy adventure:
1.The cost at Crystal River Kayak Co. to swim with manatees is $60 per person. This includes wetsuit rental and snorkel mask and mouthpiece rental. Don’t fret about size. They had a wide variety of wet suit sizes available. If you are concerned about it, contact them before you go and I’m sure they can put your fears at ease. There are frequently Groupon deals to swim with the manatees but be warned that the allowable time slots to reserve your excursion are usually very limited.
We were the only tour group with a guide in the water with us. In fact Captain Mike was nice enough to be helpful and share advice and information with some of the other snorkelers that were with other tour groups. Trust me, whatever vendor you choose you want to choose one with a “wet captain”. Having someone in the water with us made the experience so much better.
2. Take an underwater camera. Secure it tightly. Double check and check it again so you don’t end up like me!
3. It was freezing when we got out of the water back into the cold air. They had jackets for us to bundle up with. They also had hot chocolate and snacks onboard the boat.
4. Wear your swimsuit, bring a change of dry clothes, and a towel(s). It’s also a good idea to wear water shoes. Crystal River Kayak Company does not encourage you to wear fins. The water is very shallow and you’ll just end up churning up the bottom or worse kicking one of the manatee on accident if you’re wearing them. We didn’t know this ahead of time so we were barefoot.
5. Do you need to know how to swim if you are swimming with manatees? Well a noodle was provided to us and your wetsuit makes you very buoyant. However, there were places where I couldn’t touch the bottom. A noodle is not a life vest so my inclination is to say that you should be able to swim and be comfortable in the water. If you are able to wear a life vest then you will probably be fine without knowing how to swim.
6. When is the best time to go? Manatee season is officially between November and the end of March (possibly early April). Your very best option for seeing an abundance of them is when the temperatures drop. They will seek out the warmer waters during those times.
7. Plan to spend a little extra time exploring the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge. It’s $15 per person to catch a trolley from the welcome center and view the manatees from the boardwalk above Three Sisters Springs. You can also park nearby and walk into the refuge and pay at the gate. It’s about a half mile walk from the gate to the boardwalk. ** The Three Sisters Spring is closing April 1st to allow for restoration of the erosion damage according to one of the volunteers.
Is swimming with manatees on your bucketlist? Have you done this adventure before? How was your experience? I love to hear from you!
Lauren G. , Outdoorsy Diva™
“Adventure is a lifestyle.”