Swimming with manatees is by far one of the best wild animal encounters you can ever have, and the nature coast of Florida is the only place you can do so legally.
Some people equate the winter season with fun in the snow, skiing, sledding, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and all of the other activities people who live in colder climates look forward to in the winter months.
However, as a Floridian, this means I get to do some of my favorite outdoor adventures in the winter without the disrespectful heat and humidity.
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. They need water warmer than 68 degrees Fahrenheit for survival.
The constant 72 – 74 degree temperature of the springs makes it the perfect environment for a manatee party.
A very popular location where the manatees converge year after year is the Crystal River and Homosassa Springs area.
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 into the channels.
Of course, the best activity to do during manatee season is booking a session to swim with manatees.
What to expect when you swim with manatees?
Expect the best freaking day of your life. No really.
- Book your session ahead of time with your tour operator.
- You should be provided a wetsuit, snorkel equipment, and a flotation device by your tour operator.
- You will be instructed to watch a short video that explains how to properly interact with manatees because they are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Manatee harassment is actually against the law and you can be fined for breaking the rules. All of our interactions were through passive observation.
- You will take a boat ride out to one of the designated spring areas where swimming is allowed.
- A good tour operator provides an in-water guide. It helps to have someone pointing things out to you while you’re in the water.
- Depending on where you are taken, the water quality is going to vary. The more people, the more churned up the water may become which isn’t optimal.
- Most tours provide anywhere from 1 to 2 hours in the water.
- Tours usually will take pics and video of your experience for an extra fee. You can also bring your own underwater camera.
- Expect these massive animals to check you out if you are being calm and quiet. They will graze you, nudge you, and look you right in the eyes. If you’re lucky, you may even get a kiss! Babies tend to be the most curious!
My Personal Experience Swimming with Manatees
I swam with manatees once in 2016 and again in 2021. The first time was really cool but this most recent experience was unforgettable and one of the top 5 adventures of my life.
We were hosted by Fun 2 Dive in Crystal River, FL with a private VIP experience and our guide Dani was the absolute best. Dani genuinely loves these animals and goes out of the way to provide really great information and make sure you have a memorable experience.
The private VIP experience is a closed pontoon boat so you won’t freeze as much when you get out of the water. Your tour is limited to your group, and not strangers. You are also provided with hot chocolate and snacks. We had some extra time so we also cruised through King’s Bay to see some of the other springs and more manatee.
We were originally heading to Three Sisters Springs but one of the other captains gave our captain a heads up that the water was churned up so we headed to the main spring, King Spring.
We were greeted by manatees before we even entered the water! This was definitely a sign that this would be a great day.
Dani lead us over to the designated swimming area near the head spring and it was instant magic! There were so many manatees that at one point I couldn’t move without being nudged. It wasn’t dangerous but it was nothing like this on our first manatee swim experience.
I was privileged to watch a baby nursing on its mother. (Squee!!!) That was the sweetest thing to watch ever.
So many of them came right up and looked me in my eyes and one of them even grabbed my arm with his flipper trying to bring me with him. It was the sweetest thing. They swam around us and twirled and flipped, truly showing why they are the original mermaids.
It was 2 hours of bliss to watch these gorgeous, majestic creatures in their natural habitat.
Dani explained that we saw many manatees with barnacles still on them which means they are migrants and have spent most of their time in the Gulf. Those manatees probably haven’t been in the channels and rivers in many months so they are genuinely happy to see people and come investigate you.
The highlight of the day was when it was time to head in, as I swam away I felt a little nudge alongside me. I looked over and it was my manatee buddy. There was one particular manatee that kept coming back to me in the spring and when he saw me leaving he swam after me and caught up to me.
He escorted me all the way back to the boat until I got out of the water.
Tips for Swimming with Manatees
1. Have a bathing suit to wear beneath your wetsuit.
2. Wear water shoes for swimming in the water to keep your feet from being cold. You aren’t provided flippers because they don’t want you to stir up the bottom or accidentally poke or kick a manatee.
3. Bring 2 towels; one to dry off your body and one to wrap your head because it will be cold when you get out of the water.
4. Once you get out of the water you will be cold. You can either keep your wet suit on and just pull down the top or you can change into dry clothes on the boat on top of your bathing suit.
5. Have a plastic bag for your bathing suit and any other wet clothing.
6. You will want to have a dry outfit once you get back and change out of your bathing suit.
Frequently Asked Questions About Swimming With Manatees
1. Question: Is it safe to swim with manatees?
Answer: Yes, it is safe in terms of the animals themselves. Manatees are not aggressive animals. However, these are wild animals with unpredictable behavior and you must respect them and be mindful.
2. Question: Do I need to know how to swim in order to swim with manatees?
Answer: A noodle is provided or a life vest by your tour, however, the water is too deep to stand in. This is a water activity and you should be comfortable in the water. If you have snorkeled before, you will probably be fine.
3. Question: When is the best time to reserve a swim with manatees experience?
Answer: Manatee season is from November to April. The best time of day is the 7 or 7:30 tour. There will be the most manatee activity when water temperatures in the Gulf are below 68 degrees.
4. Question: What precautions are taken for swimming with manatees for Covid?
Answer: Fun2Dive uses medical-grade cleaning products to clean all equipment at the end of every day. Everything is one time a day use. Staff wear masks when in close contact. You are encouraged to wear your mask while inside and while in close proximity on the boat.
5. Question: Are there other animals and wildlife in the water with the manatees?
Answer: Yes. We actually saw a couple of tarpon, snook, and birds. You are not likely to see an alligator in these areas due to the amount of salinity and water temperatures.
Plan to spend a little extra time exploring the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge. It’s $20 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.
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 to swim with manatees.
Is swimming with manatees in Florida on your adventure list? Have you done this adventure before? How was your experience? I love to hear from you!