If swimming with manatees in Florida is on your bucket list, here’s how it might go. My heart was pounding a million miles a minute. I could feel palpitations in my chest, throat, and even in my head. If I wasn’t wet I’m sure I would feel the sweat pouring out of my glands. I could see a large gray blob in the murky water about 10 feet away, but couldn’t really identify what it was. I suddenly became aware that my teeth were clenched so hard on my snorkel that my jaw was starting to hurt.
The gray blob is on the move! Oh no, is it coming closer? My breathing became erratic. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. Oh great. I might just be hyperventilating, I thought to myself.
Phew, I think it went the other way. Now, if I could just find my husband through this cloudy river and make it to the opening of the spring without having a heart attack I’d be golden.
As I glide through the narrow concrete pillars to the mouth of Three Sisters Spring, the water starts to become clear. A school of shimmering silver fish swims by and I feel my breathing regulate and my heart slows down. My husband and aunt are just ahead which makes me feel at ease knowing they are close.
As I calm down I have a chance to really take in my surroundings. The water is exceptionally blue, such a contrast to the stirred upriver I was in just seconds ago. I realize I can see all the way down the passage of the spring.
There are more gray blobs! But they aren’t blobs anymore, I can undoubtedly see that they are scruffy, adorable manatees just bobbing in the water.
Some are lying at the bottom of the spring in a group. At first glance, they look like a bundle of moss-covered boulders. It wasn’t until one boulder floated to the surface, sticking its snout out of the water to catch a breath, that I realized they were the beautiful beasts I was here to see.
Like other marine mammals, manatees cannot stay underwater indefinitely. They come up for air on an average of every three to five minutes but can stay submerged for as long as twenty. The moss on their back is actually algae and is usually eaten by small fish.
The manatee graces us with their presence in the natural spring waters of Florida every winter around November through March, as the coastal and river waters drop with colder temperatures.
I reached the back of the spring, where it opens into a circular cul-de-sac providing a cozy sanctuary for the manatees. I was thankful our guide provided us with noodles to help make it easier to hover at the top without disturbing them.
What a sight to see! I was so mesmerized by these calm creatures that I forgot how nervous I was to be in the water with them.
As I peacefully observed from my noodle, my husband began motioning something to me so I looked sideways but didn’t see anything. I felt a slight wave and within seconds a baby manatee swam directly underneath me. I couldn’t believe it. It was so close, if I reached out my hand I could have touched it! I was lying parallel with and only a few feet away from this amazing animal.
I didn’t even finish my thought when not a few feet, but a few inches away from me the monstrous mama came swimming by as well! Her quicker movement made that slight wave turns into a stronger wave and my body sort of rocked up and down as she glided beneath me. I have never felt so small in my life!
Did you know manatees can grow up to 12 feet long and weigh up to 3,900 pounds? Don’t worry, they only eat plants. Or at least that’s what I kept repeating to myself!
The brisk spring water suddenly found its way into the opening of my wet suit. I held out a little while longer not wanting to leave. After I couldn’t take the cold any longer, I adventured back to the boat with a newfound love and respect for my oversized friends.
First Thoughts on Swimming with Manatees
My initial thoughts when my aunt asked if we wanted to go swimming with manatees went something like this: swimming in the water with a huge elephant-type animal? Are you crazy? In a dirty river, uh I don’t think so!
As you can tell, I’m not the daredevil in this partnership. My husband and I are very much so on opposite sides of the spectrum in many categories. For instance, he is a great swimmer. He loves to scuba, and snorkel and is great at anything water-related. I, however, am good at looking at the water from a distance.
I mean I LOVE walking along the ocean, hearing the waves crashing on the shore, and watching sunsets on the beach. I’m not a great swimmer so I’m not that comfortable in the water. Throw a big animal in the mix, let’s just say I was a wreck just thinking about it! I was willing to at least try and I’m so glad that I did because it was an amazing experience I will never forget.
Best Place to Swim with Manatees in Florida
There are only a handful of locations in the world where you can snorkel with manatees, and Crystal River, Florida is one of them. With the increasing population, the number of regulated tour operators, and the clear water of the springs, Crystal River may very well be the best place out there.
IF YOU VISIT CRYSTAL RIVER, CHECK OUT HOMOSASSA SPRINGS STATE PARK TOO
Best Place to See Manatees in Florida
If you do not want to jump in the water with these magnificent beasts, you can still enjoy their company by visiting one of the places below throughout the state.
- Lee County Manatee Park, Fort Myers
- Blue Spring State Park, Orange City
- Three Sisters Spring, Crystal River
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville
- Manatee Sanctuary Park, Cape Canaveral
- Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Spring Hill
- Riviera Beach, Fort Lauderdale opening 2016
- Manatee Springs State Park, Chiefland
- Manatee Observation and Education Center, Fort Pierce
- Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center, Apollo Beach
- Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Homosassa
- Sea World, Orlando
- Epcot, Orlando
- Lowry Park Zoo, Tampa
- Seaquarium, Miami
- Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium
Read here for more information on a Three Sisters Springs Manatee Swim.
*As always, some links provided on Dang Travelers are affiliate links that provide us with commissions at no additional charge to you.*
Best Time to Swim with Manatees in Florida
The best time to swim with manatees in Crystal River, Florida is in the winter and early spring months: mid-November through April. You can choose a snorkel trip other times as the river has resident manatees that stay year-round. But there are a significantly larger number of manatees during peak season when the air cools and they head inland for warm water.
Tips on Swimming with Manatees
- Different tours go to different locations, ask the operator before you book where it plans to take you. If there are too many manatees in Three Sisters Springs, you may not be allowed to snorkel there. You have a better chance of getting inside the spring outside of the busy season of mid-November through March.
- Get out early in the morning when there are fewer crowds and the animals are more playful.
- Follow the rules and DO NOT BOTHER the manatees so everyone after you has an opportunity to have this wonderful experience.
- The 72-degree water is COLD so know that no matter what time of year, you’ll have the option of wearing a wetsuit.
CHECK OUT THE BEST BEACHES IN FLORIDA TO SNORKEL
Make a Difference
Unfortunately, the manatee population is considered an endangered species. Sad to find out, that we are their only known predators. In the 18th and 19th centuries, manatees were hunted intensely for their meat, fat, and tough hides.
Update: As of 2017, manatees were taken off the endangered list and added to the threatened list. Yay manatees!
Coastal development has also affected the population by damaging the sea-grass habitat on which they depend. It is obvious that collisions with powerboats are probably the biggest threat to them now. We noticed many manatees with scars and gashes from incidents with propellers.
Looking for a unique holiday gift? Adopt a manatee! Save the Manatee Club, a program actually cofounded by the famous singer, Jimmy Buffet, has an Adopt-A-Manatee program going on for the holidays. You pick the manatee you want to adopt and they send you or the recipient an adoption certificate, photo, and biography of the manatee plus a magnet and calendar.
Although I had some reservations, in the beginning, swimming with manatees was an unforgettable memory that I will cherish forever. We may even do it again next time we are in Florida!
Have you ever had an experience with a manatee? Tell us in the comments below!
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