Whether the pigs in the Bahamas , the flamingos in Aruba or the alligators in the Everglades – somehow we get into animal adventures again and again on our travels . Well, of course it doesn’t happen by accident 😉 And so it wasn’t a coincidence that we planned a rather big dangling for one thing during our Florida road trip: We wanted to swim with the manatees . The big gray manatees are something of a symbol of Florida and, if you know where, can be found practically anywhere in Florida’s waters. Swimming with them is only officially allowed in one place in Florida , the Crystal River.
Without anticipating too much – we can already tell you that swimming with manatees is one of the kind of experiences that you won’t forget in a hurry. Touching the gentle giants or having the fattest smooch of all time pressed right in the face by a manatee is impressive (and tickles!). Our bucket list, which we don’t actually have, definitely got a big, fat hook that day.
Manatees in Florida
There are only four species of manatees left in the world. Curiously, their respective areas of distribution are very far apart; the so-called manatees live in Florida and on the Gulf of Mexico. You can see the manatees all over Florida’s waters, they do well in both salt and fresh water. There is one simple reason why you will probably not run into manatees by chance in Florida: They like it warm. The funny manatees look a bit chubby to us and we automatically assume that they have a thick layer of fat that protects them from the cold, but that’s not the case. All pure muscles (and heavy bones 😉). And so, unfortunately, the manatees freeze pretty quickly, which forces them to stay in warm waters.
Where in Florida do you find the manatees?
Manatees can be found in Florida wherever the water is cozy and warm. This is particularly the case inland in northern Florida, where numerous river springs arise. Above all the Homosassa Springs and the Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, where the water is constant all year round at 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Especially in winter, when the water outside the springs and in the sea becomes cool, the manatees are drawn to the warm springs. From November to March is peak season Manatee and they abound throughout Florida by the hundreds around the hot spots in the water. Especially the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a real manatee paradise! Here you can watch the peaceful manatees in their natural environment all day long.
A good overview of the places in Florida where you can watch manatees can be found here:
- Top manatee spots
- See wild manatees in Florida
As great as it is to watch the manatees in their natural habitat, one thing is forbidden everywhere in Florida: Diving, snorkeling and swimming with the manatees. So you can’t just jump into the water with the animals if you feel like it. The manatees belong to the endangered species and enjoy special protection in Florida, be it through the swimming ban or specially separated protection zones into which the animals can retreat. Because although the manatees have hardly any natural enemies in Florida due to their size, there is one thing that really worries them: the human being with his motorboats. We saw many manatees with scars on their backs from cuts from the screws of the boats. Unfortunately, the animals are just too cozy and leisurely on the move, to be able to avoid the fast motor boats. Therefore, especially around Crystal River, near the warm springs, some protection zones have been set up, which are not allowed to be entered by boat, kayak or swimming. You should stick to this, disregarding such a protection zone or the swimming ban can result in severe penalties.
Crystal River: Swim with the Manatees
However, there is one place in Florida where swimming with the manatees is officially allowed : Kings Bay in Crystal River. Hundreds, if not thousands, of manatees cavort here in the winter months, as the Three Sisters Springs nearby feed the bay with warm water. The warmer the surrounding waters with rising outside temperatures in summer, the less the manatees will stay in the bay. The huge animals (whose closest relatives are whales and elephants) have to eat around 15% of their body weight every day – as herbivores that feed primarily on seaweed, this is of course no easy task. The manatees leave the hot springs as soon as possible each year and move on to other bodies of water where they can find better care.
There are two ways to swim with the Manatees in Crystal River: Either you try it on your own or you join a guided tour.
A snorkeling tour with the manatees
In order to be able to experience the manatees, we decided on a guided tour. There are a number of companies in Citrus County and Crystal River that offer boat tours to the Manatees. We have chosen River Ventures , the best-known provider . We really wanted to do a tour very early in the morning at 6 or 7 a.m. , because at this time the water is a bit cooler and the manatees cavort around the warm springs – so the probability of meeting manatees is greater. Unfortunately, apart from River Ventures, no other provider offers such an early tour.
So once again we tortured ourselves out of bed at an inhumanly early hour and drove to the River Ventures visitor center very early in the morning. There, over hot coffee, there was a brief introduction to the manatees, some information about the tour and tips on how to handle the manatees correctly. The most important information: Those who move the least in the water will have the most fun! An information that should give us one of the best experiences later 😉
After the short lecture, we squeeze into our sexy wetsuits in no time and off we go by bus to Kings Bay. We take the boat out on the water, each of us is provided with a funny swimming noodle and a snorkel set. It takes a while before we discover the first typical “swirl” that a manatee makes when swimming. As a layman, a swirl like this can hardly be distinguished from a fish on the surface, but our guides have an eye for it, of course. Manatees only have to come up every few minutes to breathe and otherwise spend most of their time eating or sleeping at the bottom of the water. But since they are very curious by nature, they do not necessarily dive down again after taking a breath when they notice that it is,for example
So we hurry to get into the water when we spot the first manatee, some of the group paddle afterwards and we are in the cold water for a while looking for manatees – without success. The game repeats itself a couple of times, we go back on board, drive to another spot in the bay where a manatee makes itself felt, go into the water – the manatee is long gone by the time we are in the water. In the end, our guides decide to simply stay at the current location for a while, where two or three manatees can be seen from the boat.
The manatee kiss
I remember what I learned during the introduction: whoever does the least action in the water is the most interesting for the manatees. So I bob around pretty motionless, because I have already learned that swimming behind is not successful. Suddenly, only 1-2 meters away from me, a large gray back is visible on the surface of the water and my pulse suddenly skyrockets. I force myself to stay calm, not to kick, and tell myself not to be frightened if the manatee suddenly appears in front of my face. Then I put my face halfway under the surface of the water so that I can just see what is happening above, but also have the underwater world in view. At this moment the time has come: A manatee appears right in front of my face, nuzzling my goggles with its bulging snout that is as big as my entire head. A manatee smooch! Gnihi. The moment is over so quickly that I have no time to frighten myself, so I just stroke the manatee for a moment as it swims by before it dips again. Nothing better could have happened to me.
But be careful, you shouldn’t be too fooled about a manatee kiss: The animals just see pretty badly and just check who we are and whether you can eat our diving goggles. This has been going on in the Crystal River for decades. Learning effect on the side of the manatees = 0, let me tell you …
A guided tour with River Ventures costs around $ 65 per person , as with all providers. The big advantage: River Ventures offers a tour early in the morning and runs with comparatively small groups. Hence a clear recommendation from us.
On your own: by kayak to the manatees
If you don’t want to do a guided tour, there is a cheaper alternative: You can rent kayaks for around $ 45 (per kayak) all around Kings Bay and Crystal River . If you already know your way around Kings Bay, that’s great. But since we had no clue and, for example, did not know where the springs are, we would have been pretty lost on our own and probably wouldn’t have seen a single manatee. That is why we, as a first-time offender, decided to take a guided tour.
Rules of conduct for swimming with the manatees
To make your adventure with the Manatees a complete success, there are a few things to consider.
- Be calm in the water. Don’t pedal wildly, just snorkel quietly. A swimming noodle is great, with it you can bob around relatively motionless in the water
- Don’t swim after the manatees if you spot one. In most cases, they’re faster anyway … just don’t do it. It stresses the animals
- Stay on the surface and certainly not dive after the manatees
- When the manatees are on the ground, they sleep or eat. In both cases: do not disturb!
- Should you see a manatee with a cub, that is great luck. Enjoys it!
- A manatee comes to you and nuzzles you – don’t panic. They have bad eyesight and look for something to eat. Don’t worry, they can’t hurt you
- Whoever is the calmest will have the most fun!
Tips for the Manatee snorkeling tour
The best season for spotting manatees is winter , between November and March . Then the waters in Florida are quite cold and the manatees are drawn to the warm springs.
It is advisable to book a tour early in the morning as the chances of seeing manatees are much greater in the morning. It is therefore advisable to spend the night in Crystal River on site, then you will not have such a stress in the morning. The Plantation on Crystal River * is said to be very beautiful .
During our excursion the following was provided:
- Coffee and cocoa
- Snorkeling equipment
- Swimming noodles
- Anti-fog spray for diving goggles
Indispensable, so bring your own:
- Towels (1 per person)
- Water and maybe something to eat (the tour takes about 3 hours)
- A GoPro Hero * or other underwater action cam *
- Waterproof case for your smartphone * or waterproof case for your camera *
Swimming with the Manatees in Florida was an unforgettable experience. We hesitated beforehand whether we should really take such a long detour to the north, as our time in Florida was very limited. But it was absolutely worth it! We can only recommend each of you to get to know this part of Florida and with it the cute manatees!