How To Swim With Manatees in Florida
Did you know that the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, in Florida is the only place in the USA where you can legally swim with manatees?
Every winter, Crystal River, Florida transforms into ‘The Manatee Capital of the World,’ when the gentle giants reach the warm, spring waters of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Incredibly you can book a tour to swim among these charismatic, endangered creatures.
If you’re planning to visit Florida, there is no reason to pass up this amazing and unforgettable experience. Here is what you need to know on how to swim with manatees in Florida.
When to Swim With the Manatees
The best time to swim with manatees is “manatee season” — between the months of November through mid-March. The colder winter weather in the Gulf of Mexico drives the manatees inland to the warmer rivers and springs.
Be sure to check the weather forcast before scheduling your swim with the manatees. There are times during the winter months in Florida where temperatures can still soar. Warmer weather means that fewer manatess will be present in the rivers and springs.
A good rule of thumb for swimming with manatees is this: the colder the temperature outside, the better! We swam with the manatees when it was 44º F (6º C) outside and we were fortunate because we saw a bunch of manatees.
Where to Swim With the Manatees
One of the best (and only) place to swim with the manatees is in Crystal River, Florida. Crystal River is home to the Crystal River National Wildlife Reguge and has many rivers and inlets that provide safe havens for manatees.
Crystal River is also home to Three Sisters Spring, a crystal clear natural pool that stays a constant temperature of 72º F (22º C). The warmer water provides a haven for manatees who can be prone to frostbite.
You can visit Three Sisters Springs by land and view the manatees from a boardwalk trail which surrounds the pools. But if you want to swim with the manatees, you’ll want to book through a reputable tour company (see below).
Passes for the trails and boardwalk are available year round, and costs vary depending on the time of visit. Passes during manatee season are $15 per adult, with discounts for seniors, military, and children.
How to Book a Tour
There are dozens of tour companies in Crystal River who offer manatee tours, but we chose the Adventure Center at the Plantation on Crystal River. They offer 3-hour tours three times each day: 7:00 AM, 10:00 AM, and 2:00 PM. We chose the 7:00 AM tour since early mornings are when manatees are more likely to be active rather than sleeping.
Tours booked through the Adventure Center include 5 mil wetsuits (thicker wetsuits provide extra warmth and bouyancy), a mask and snorkel, towels, and hot chocolate. In addition, each tour includes your boat captain and an in-water guide. All captains and dive professionals at the Adventure Center are trained in first aid, CPR, and are rescue certified. Our boat captain was Bob and our dive professional was John. Both were engaging, informative, and very professional.
The Adventure Center tour boats are enclosed to help combat cold temperatures. Each boat accomodates 11 to 14 people. Private tours can also be arranged.
Swimming with Manatees
Manatees can be very curious and playful when guests are quiet and allow them to initiate interaction. Before we set out, the Adventure Center gave us a briefing on how to swim with manatees. Obeying proper etiquette ensures the safety of the animals and increases the chances that the manatees will interact with nearby humans.
During our swim with the manatees in Three Sisters Spring, curious manatess would often inspect their visitors. If you are lucky, you may even get a manatee hug, or better yet, a kiss! It’s a surreal experience to have a manatee wrap its flippers around you in an embrace, or to paw at the top of your head with its mouth.
Portions of the rivers and springs are roped off as sanctuaries for the manatees. These safety areas allow the manatees to sleep or mate without being disturbed. Visitors can view the manatees from the edge of the sanctuary, but are not allowed to enter.
What to Bring
Waterproof camera gear. We took our iPhones in waterproof pouches, which is by far the cheapest route for underwater pictures. The downside to that approach is that sometimes the touchscreen doesn’t work well under water. Also due to the flexibility of the plastic on the bag, getting a clear picture can be a challenge. You have to be diligent to make sure your camera is tight against the transparent plastic or you’ll end up with blurry footage. I was definitely wishing I had a GoPro with a floating hand grip with me, as it would have allowed us to take underwater photos and video with a lot less hassle. For those who don’t care to do their own photography, your in-water guide will be taking videos and pictures of your manatee experience, which is available for purchase at the dive shop after the tour.
Bathing suit and towel. A wetsuit is included in your tour package. If you’ve never worn a wetsuit before, they are tight! (You’ll want them tight to trap in heat.) Be sure to wear a bathing suit that will allow you to squeeze into the wetsuit. Towels were provided on the boat for drying off after emerging from the water, but they were fairly small. You may want to bring something larger for warmth and further drying. After all, it may be cold once you exit the water! We brought along our travel towels and they were sufficient.
Optional mask and snorkel. A mask and snorkel are included in your tour package, so there’s no need to purchase one. Some people prefer to bring their own mask and snorkel, however, especially since not all masks fit all faces. There is no need for fins, since they aren’t allowed on the tour anyway (except by the in-water guides).
Where to Stay
We chose to stay at the Plantation at Crystal River, an aging but charming southern-style plantation hotel with plenty of character and tons of amenities. The Plantation at Crystal River isn’t the cheapest option in town — there are plenty of alternative hotels just minutes away — but it is definitely the most convenient when booking your tour through the Plantation Adventure Center. The dive shop was just a few yards from the hotel, which meant we didn’t have to get up too early for our 7 AM tour. Having the hotel close is also super convenient after the tour when you’re wet and cold and you just want to get clean and warm.
I wish we could say we took advantage of all of the other amenities that the hotel had to offer, but in the end we were just there for the manatees. Should you decide to extend your stay at the Plantation, however, you can treat yourself to the heated pool and hot tub, tiki bar, a round of golf, the game room, fitness center, giant chess or checkers, beach volleyball, and much more.