I’ve always been fascinated by sea mammals – dolphins, whales, and yes, manatee! I’ve had many encounters over the years with dolphins – both in the wild and in captivity. I’ve been on a whale watching cruise in Hawaii. I’ve seen manatee in the wild while kayaking. But I’ve always felt conflicted about swimming with these beautiful animals.
After my experience swimming with manatee in Crystal River, Florida I am no longer conflicted – but I do have some opinions!
Swimming with manatee is only legal in Crystal River – nowhere else in the United States is it legal to swim with manatee. The animals are endangered and it is very important to care for their wellbeing. They can be easily harmed by accident and on purpose (let’s not even get started on the Trump manatee) because they are such docile animals. I’m happy to say that every one of the tour companies in Crystal River that we encountered have a genuine care for protecting these animals and educating the public. We used the Adventure Center at Plantation on Crystal River for our tour and would recommend them highly! Our tour was complimentary in exchange for sharing my experience with you.
Crystal River is just north of Tampa Bay on the gulf coast of Florida and is home to hundreds of manatee each year. In the winter months when the ocean temperatures drop, the manatee migrate to the warmer waters of Crystal River, Homasassa Springs, and surrounding areas. The natural spring water maintains a temperature of 70 degrees (F) year-round making it the perfect winter getaway for manatees. Manatee require water temperatures above 68 degrees (F) to survive. Our tour guide explained that manatee will come inland overnight when the gulf temperatures drop and will be seen going back out to the gulf during the warmer days – while staying in the warm springs on cooler days. This back and forth behavior is common between Nov. 15-Mar. 31 in Crystal River – and is the prime viewing time for manatee in the area.
Do you need a tour company to swim with manatee? No! Many visitors will kayak, boat, or paddle in Crystal River (including Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs) on their own to see the manatee. I do highly recommend using a tour company if you plan to get in the water with manatee because there are some very strict rules about what you can and cannot do! The tour companies take you to the best locations and will keep an eye on the guests and the manatee to ensure everyones safety. The tour companies will also provide you with (very much needed) wet suits!!
Are all tour companies the same? NO! Not even close! While I only have personal experience with the Adventure Center at Plantation Crystal River – the tour guides are very experienced and professional. They explained how other tour companies use a thinner wet suit (2 ml) compared to their 5 ml wet suits. I’m not a wet suit expert – this was my first time wearing one – but the thicker wet suits actually keep you buoyant (floating) in the water. That’s why you’ll find other tour companies using floatation devices to keep their guests afloat. Our tour guides explained that they also work closely with the Fish & Wildlife Service for manatee rescues and protection. Do your homework – ask questions – and check reviews! I give the Adventure Center team 5-stars!!
Is it safe to swim with manatee? Yes! While they are large animals (up to 14 feet in length and over 3,000 lbs) they are incredibly gentle animals. They are herbivores so they eat sea grass and other vegetation. They are large and wild animals though so you do want to be comfortable in the water and be aware of your surroundings! I was surprised by how interested manatee were with humans. They approached us on several occasions. I’ve heard from other friends that some are quite playful and can swim very fast – so always be prepared for the unexpected. I’m glad that our tour guides warned us about the tarpon! I never realized how scary and large these fish looked underwater. They are harmless though and just swim around.
Are the manatee safe? This is the most important part for visitors – you have to remember these are endangered animals. There are rules and restrictions that are enforced!! There are areas that are roped off and closed to keep the manatee safe. Swimmers and boaters are not allowed in these areas. Obey the signs – they are there for a reason! Know the rules – another important reason to go with a tour company – they are required to educate all guests on how to behave in the water. You are not allowed to ride manatee! You are not allowed to approach them! The guides call this passive observation – meaning you remain still when a manatee approaches you – and allow the interaction to happen organically and on their terms! They are playful – almost like puppies – and will bump into you on purpose! They will roll over like puppies hoping to rub their belly against polls, hands, and other people! While you cannot reach out to touch them – they can rub against you!! It’s VERY easy to want to reach out to them – but to keep the manatee safe you MUST practice passive observation!! The number one danger to manatee are boats. Most of the injured manatee are injured by boat propellors. While our boat was anchored waiting for us manatee were swimming between the boats and curious to see why there were so many boats in the area. You must be aware of your surroundings because with that many guests and boats the water can be murky and hard to see the manatee. Another reason that I will only use the Adventure Center when we take another tour!!
We went in mid-February and it was a very COLD weekend!! Three Sisters Springs was actually closed because of the volume of manatee in the springs. We were allowed to be in the water leading into Kings Bay and one of the spring heads. Our tour started really early in the day – we had to check-in at 6:30 am! I’m so glad that we were staying at the Plantation on Crystal River because we could walk to the Adventure Center from our hotel room. The earlier tours are smaller, there are less tourists in the water, and a better chance to see manatee early in the day. The outdoor temperature on the morning we went was in the high 30’s – a very cold weekend for Florida! My family was not excited about getting into the water BUT surprisingly the water was much warmer than the air temperature and felt great (another reason for the 5 ml wet suits – warmth). While their viewing season is Nov – March, I would highly recommend Jan-March for visiting! Bonus perk – our tour guides had coffee and hot cocoa waiting on us when we got back to the boat. The perfect way to warm up cold wet guests!!
Manatee tours are open to all ages – young and old! My only recommendation would be that you be comfortable in the water. You cannot touch the bottom in most areas – and you really shouldn’t anyways. The wet suits keep you floating but if you aren’t a strong swimmer the tour guide will give you a float. I didn’t use one but both of my kids did (and they are tweens/teens). The current is very strong near the spring head so you will need to gently paddle to keep yourself in the safe zones. We were all exhausted from “floating” after about an hour in the water.
The water on our morning was slightly murky and it was hard to see the manatee until they were right next to you – under you – or directly in front of you. They bumped into everyone in our family – except me – but they were so close I could have touched them if I didn’t practice passive observation. It was absolutely amazing to see them that close and in their habitat. They are very curious and wanted to investigate to see what we were. What an amazing feeling to be face to face with these animals. It will give you a new respect for them and a new reason to want to protect them.
I mean look at this adorable animal! They are so unique and interesting! It’s a great time to go visit them and jump into their habitat for a few hours. If you decide to book a tour with the Adventure Center – let them know that you heard about them through me!
To learn more about manatee: https://myfwc.com/education/wildlife/manatee/
To book a tour at the Adventure Center: https://plantationoncrystalriver.rezdy.com/
To stay at the Plantation on Crystal River: https://www.plantationoncrystalriver.com/manatee-tours.htm