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The first time I saw a manatee in the water, I mistook it for a rock. I first saw the manatee from the beach at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida. It had been surfacing for air at the edge of the swimming area, so eventually I put on my fins and snorkel and swam out for a closer look. Unfortunately, it had moved closer, and I found myself floating in the murky water about 12 feet above a walrus-shaped rock, beside another smaller rock… and quickly realized it was a female manatee and calf! But then I panicked. Did mama manatees get territorial? She was ENORMOUS! The pair slowly swam off, but I vowed to learn more about these creatures. I wanted to find out where in Florida was the best place to swim with manatees, and even if I could pet a manatee without going to jail!
Where to See Manatees in Florida
Since that trip, I’ve learned that manatees are just as gentle and slow as they look – essentially big, swimming, adorable potatoes. After that brief encounter, I decided to return for another trip to Crystal River and Homosassa Springs, Florida, one of the best places to see manatees in the United States. Read on for my tips for planning your own trip to swim with manatees: how to find a boat tour company, where to stay, and yes, the rules on how to pet a manatee without going to jail!
Warning: you’ll have to wear a wetsuit, and you will look funny and lumpy, but so will the manatees!
Manatee Petting Haphazard Rating: 2 of 5. Be sure to let the manatees approach you; definitely wear a wetsuit because it will be cold!
Where: Crystal River and Homosassa Springs, Florida
To See: Snorkeling with manatees, state parks, local wildlife
To Eat: Dan’s Clam Stand, Island Outpost, Monkey Bar
When to Go: Late fall – early spring is “Manatee Season.” The best time of year to swim with manatees is November – March. Basically, the colder the better – as the Gulf of Mexico waters warm, you will see less manatees in the springs
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Best Place to Swim With Manatees: Crystal River, Florida
Located in Florida about 75 miles north of Tampa, Crystal River is a seven-mile long waterway fed by more than 30 underground hot springs. It connects Kings Bay with the Gulf of Mexico, and its cluster of hot springs keep the water temperature at a constant 72°F (22°C) year-round. Because of this, Kings Bay and Crystal River can be home to up to 600 manatees who migrate there during the winter, when the waters cool in the Gulf of Mexico. Together with neighboring Homosassa Springs, Crystal River is the site of the largest gathering of manatees in North America.
Many boat tour companies operate in this part of Florida, so you can easily book an excursion here to snorkel with manatees.
Facts About Manatees, AKA Sea Cows, AKA Your New BFFs
Some fun facts about manatees to get things started:
- There are three species of manatee, named for the area where they live: the Amazonian manatee, the West Indian manatee, and the African manatee. West Indian Manatees are the ones found in Florida’s waters and the Gulf of Mexico.
- Manatees prefer shallow coastal areas and rivers where they feed on seagrass, mangrove leaves, and algae. Adult manatees weigh 800-1200 pounds and can eat up to 10% of their body weight each day!
- Because of their low metabolic rates and minimal fat protection, manatees can’t handle prolonged exposure to water temperatures below 68°F (20°C). They can develop a condition called cold-stress syndrome, which can be fatal.
- Manatees surface every 3-5 minutes to breathe. When they sleep, they surface every 15 minutes or so for air, then return to their resting position without waking!
- Manatees are believed to have inspired mermaid legends. Upon seeing one himself, Christopher Columbus purportedly declared them to be “not as beautiful in person.”
- The closest living relatives of manatees are elephants.
- Manatees have no natural predators, however their buoyant bodies and slow speed put them at great risk for boat collisions.
- The gestation period for manatees is 12 months, and calves stay with their mothers for up to 2 years. They nurse from nipples located in the mama’s armpits (flipper pits?).
- In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service downgraded the West Indian manatees’ status from endangered to threatened. Both significant increases in the manatee population numbers and habitat improvements led to the downlisting, according to the FWS.
- Manatees can live up to 40-60 years in the wild.
- Conservationists recommend against feeding wild manatees, or even giving them drinks of fresh water from garden hoses. (Sometimes you see people doing this from their boat docks.) Most importantly, you don’t want manatees to become dependent on humans.
Rules for Interacting with Manatees
The right way to interact with manatees is called “passive observation”: float in the water a safe distance from any manatees, and wait to see if they approach you. Avoid excessive splashing or noise. If they initiate contact – which some of them do, having gotten used to tourists – you can gently pet them with one flat hand on the back, side or tummy.
The best way to swim with manatees is with a tour company. They will tell you all the rules, provide the necessary equipment like wetsuits and snorkels, and know the best manatee-spotting areas.
Usually, your tour will begin with watching a video on interacting responsibly with the manatees. Above all, they are still a threatened species, so chasing, poking, feeding, hugging or riding manatees will get you kicked out of the tour, and possibly a fine or even jail time. According to one of our captains, he had called the fish and wildlife warden on a misbehaving boater the week we visited.
The Best Time to See Manatees
The best time of year to swim with manatees in Crystal River is November – March. Basically, the colder the water, the more manatees you will see, since they stay close to the river’s underground hot springs to keep warm. At the end of March, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico begin to warm, and the manatees will begin moving out into the Gulf more each day.
We did two manatee encounters – an afternoon tour in Crystal River, and an early-morning excursion in Homosassa Springs. We went at the end of the season, in early March, so the waters of the Gulf were already warming. Based on this, I would definitely recommend morning tours if you’re there early or late in the season. Also, weekdays have less water traffic overall from other boaters, so you might get a better experience. I definitely recommend staying a few days so that you have some flexibility in case of bad weather.
Crystal River Trip with River Ventures
Our afternoon Crystal River trip was with River Ventures. They’re a pretty big outfit – with a large gift shop, lots of booking options, and add-ons you can buy like photos taken by their guides. Overall, the trip was great, but the afternoon time meant we didn’t see as many manatees. I also felt like our group size was a little large, when we were all clustered around one manatee in the water because it was one of the few we saw.
According to their website, River Ventures allows kids 3 and older to participate in swimming with manatees.
Homosassa Springs Excursion with Snorkel With The Manatees
Our morning Homosassa excursion was with Snorkel With The Manatees. They were recommended by our vacation rental office, and what I liked best about them was their small group size: 6 people is the maximum for their tours. They also were super friendly and really seemed to care about the manatees and local conservation. While the water in Homosassa wasn’t as clear, we were able to hang out in one area where manatees were passing through. We probably saw around 25 manatees during our 3-hour excursion, and the only other folks around were private boaters (not leading tours).
Snorkel with the manatees allows kids 2 and older to swim with the manatees (per their website).
The true story: I didn’t actually pet any manatees. I was happy just to hang out with them, but a few swam up to my mom and she did pet one (video below!). She said it was slimy from the algae growth on its skin.
Tripadvisor has many options for tour companies in the area with good reviews. I think it’s most important to find one with reviews that show they operate responsibly, and with spots available that fit your schedule.
Is it Responsible to Swim With Manatees?
I worried about this before my trip. I’m against most animal-encounter tourism like SeaWorld, elephant rides, dolphin swims, and tiger petting. (Years ago I found I myself at what I thought was a botanical garden in Thailand, only to find out they had cheetahs chained up for photos and an elephant show. Now I do better research!)
After having a manatee experience, I think it’s better for people to encounter manatees in a supervised setting, with education on how to interact in their natural environment. Most importantly, I believe manatee tourism has brought more awareness and conservation efforts than we might see otherwise.
Other Things to See Near Crystal River
- Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. A 60’s attraction turned into a state park. Start out with a boat ride on the Homosassa River, then check out manatee feeding time and other animals within the park.
- Weeki Watchee Springs State Park. Offering a waterpark, kayaking and legendary mermaid performance!
- Three Sisters Springs
- Crystal River Springs State Park
Getting There & Where To Stay
For your trip to swim with manatees, the closest airports to Crystal River are Tampa and Orlando, and it’s best to rent a car to get around. In case of bad weather, I recommend staying a few days so that you have options for rescheduling tours.
Hotels in Crystal River seem to book out very far in advance! We reserved a vacation rental through Lakeside Vacations in Inverness, about 20 minutes away. If you’re traveling with friends or family, I think it’s a great option. The rentals have 3-4 bedrooms and some even have pools.
Other recommended hotels:
- Plantation on Crystal River – hotel, marina and golf course, with restaurants on site.
- Retreat at Crystal Manatee – great reviews for this recently renovated hotel in a convenient location to area sights and restaurants.
- Crystal River vacation rental: Moss Rose Vacation Home Great for families or groups!
- Homosassa Vacation rental: Riverfront Treetop Bungalow More space for your getaway, including a full kitchen and living area.
- Dan’s Clam Stand – a perfect stop after a manatee tour.
- Island Outpost – friendly local charm and great eats.
- Monkey Bar – food, drinks and local music, with an outdoor patio overlooking the Homosassa River. This spot is super convenient after a manatee tour, but lately their reviews are so-so.
- Starting Gate – a great local breakfast place, open only on weekend mornings.
- A dry bag for your phone, keys and anything else you don’t want to lose track of or get wet.
- A towel, sweatpants and sweatshirt for the ride back (maybe a coat – it can get pretty cold on the return boat trip!).
- An underwater camera, or you can often rent one from your tour company. In that case, you’ll need to buy or bring your own memory card. Ask when you book.
- A prescription dive mask if you wear glasses. You don’t want to miss seeing these cuties! Otherwise, equipment including a wetsuit is provided (confirm with your tour operator).
- If you’re looking for related reading, try The Florida Manatee: Biology and Conservation