We watched from shore as a manatee’s snout popped up above the surface of the water for a breath of air. Over and over again, the manatee surfaced, but we were too far away to get a good look. My mom and I were at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida, and it was the last day of our trip to the Keys. I started chatting with other visitors returning to the beach who had communed with the manatee in the water for a while. Finally, I couldn’t resist and decided to swim out for a peep too. This was the first manatee we had spotted, but the water was particularly choppy, so my mom decided to stay on shore.
I donned my snorkel and fins and swam out, but it was hard to see anything in the murky water. I tried to swim in a straight line and gauge how close I was to the right spot. Pausing for a second to be sure my GoPro was on, I noticed I was hovering over a large rock about 10 feet below. “Wow, what a walrus-y shaped rock,” I thought. “Huh, look at that smaller walrus-y shaped rock next to it. WAIT, THOSE ARE MANATEES!” I realized that I was directly above the manatee, and that it wasn’t just one – but a mother and a calf together. This is why we had seen so many breaths of air: it was actually two alternating snouts surfacing. But then I panicked. Did mama manatees get territorial? She was giant! I flailed a little and tried to swim backwards so I wasn’t crowding their space. The mama ignored me and swam off, with her baby trailing behind.
Since then, I’ve learned that manatees are just as gentle and slow as they look – essentially big, swimming, adorable potatoes. But I shouldn’t have gotten as close as I did. At the time, I didn’t know any better. After that brief encounter, we decided to return for another trip to Crystal River, Florida, one of the best U.S. manatee-spotting locations. Read on for my tips for planning your own trip – 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!
How To Pet A Manatee Without Going To Jail
Manatee Petting Haphazard Rating: 2 of 5. Use a noodle if you’re not a strong swimmer; let the manatees approach you; good luck getting in and out of the wetsuit
To See: Manatees, state parks, local wildlife
To Eat: Dan’s Clam Stand, Island Outpost, Monkey Bar
When to Go: The best time of year to swim with manatees is November – March. Basically, the colder the better
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Crystal River is a seven-mile long waterway fed by more than 30 springs, and connects Kings Bay with the Gulf of Mexico. Its cluster of underground hot springs keeps 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.
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.
Rules for Manatee Encounters
Usually, your tour company will begin with watching a video on interacting responsibly with the manatees. 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.
What you are allowed to do is called “passive observation”: floating in the water a safe distance from any manatees, and waiting 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.
Spoiler: 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.
Tips On Booking An Encounter
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.
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. The trip overall 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.
Swimming with a manatee in Crystal River.
Our morning Homosassa excursion was with Snorkel With The Manatees. (Warning: their website isn’t fancy.) 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).
A mama manatee and calf in Homosassa Springs. Watch until the end – the mama manatee swims up to let my mom pet it! You can also hear faint vocalizations of the baby.
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 Swimming With Manatees Responsible?
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. Also, I believe manatee tourism has brought more awareness and conservation efforts than we might see otherwise.
Other Things to See
- 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
We flew into Tampa and rented a car. Orlando is just a bit further if that works better for flights from your city. I recommend staying a few days so that you have options for rescheduling tours in case you run into bad weather.
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.
- Kings Bay Lodge – guestrooms with kitchenettes.
- Lakeside Golf Resort Rentals – more vacation rentals, some with pools, in Inverness.
- Holiday Inn Express Crystal River.
- 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.
- 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 parka – you’ll be freezing).
- 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