From more than two weeks road trip all around the state, swimming with manatees was one of the most memorable days, a true Florida unique experience, despite visiting off-season! (second week of April).
Below you can find locations where to swim, paddle, and watch manatees from the boardwalks:
What is a Manatee? What does it feel like swimming with manatees?
Imagine a submarine slowly passing by underneath you while you are floating in the water. And you’re feeling 100% safe. That’s the experience of swimming with a manatee :).
The West Indian manatee or “sea cow” is an aquatic mammal about 8.9–11.5 ft long and weighs 440–1,320 lb. “Gentle Giant” or “Shy Giant” is how the manatee is characterized best. Although manatees moved from “endangered” to “threatened”, they still need our care.
In the picture below: the baby manatee has scars from watercraft on his back:
Manatee in the wild vs aquarium
On our trip to Florida, we were lucky to see a manatee living in the wild and in captivity. The difference in coloring was so impressive we couldn’t believe it at first!
In the picture below: a “clean”, sky-blue colored manatee in the aquarium:
The same species, but living in the wild: swamp-colored and algae-covered:
Being a slow-moving animal, and spending a lot of time in the sunlight, a manatee’s back is a perfect place for… growing algae. It might not seem neat but it saves the skin from harmful sun rays.
Florida Unique Experience: When and how to swim with a manatee
We came to Crystal Springs, Florida in April, knowing we are late: the season for watching manatee is over. But the tour guide promised we could watch a few and… luckily we did!
Below is an example of what you might experience in the season:
Florida Unique Experience. Where to swim with manatees legally
In the US you can legally swim with manatees in their habitat only in Citrus County, Florida. The most popular location is Crystal Springs and Homosassa next after it.
Best time to swim with a manatee
Although the manatee season is between November – April, the months December to February = the biggest concentration of animals at Crystal Springs. The mid-week tours usually have fewer visitors and morning time more active animals.
swim snorkel with manatees
Once the tour guide (we booked this) spots the animals, he stops the boat, you put on snorkeling gear (usually provided) and float near the animal. Touching manatee is prohibited, as well as chasing and feeding. In the picture below manatee comes up for air near the snorkeler:
Is it worth to take kids on a tour
Water at Florida springs stays at 72 F (22.2 C) year-round, no matter how hot is the temperature outside. Kids might not be excited about it :). Snorkeling gear gives you an opportunity to spend a long time underwater, but if your child prefers swim goggles (our kid did), it still works.
Last thing – the water at the springs might be cold, but it’s never rough, which is good for swimming with little ones.
Florida Unique Experience. What to do if I don’t like being in cold water?
If you aren’t excited about being in cold water, you might choose kayaking or paddleboarding, but it may be difficult to see the animals, partly because the water is murky.
Being in the water with manatees is the most rewarding experience. I hate being cold but I would choose snorkeling again: the emotions of being nose-to-nose with “Gentle giant” are incredible.
The last option to watch the manatee in Florida is observation platforms and boardwalks. They are located at Three Sisters Springs (Crystal River) and the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park:
One more place I came across where you can observe manatees from amazing boardwalks is in Blue Springs State Park near Orlando.
Florida Unique Experience. Safety
Manatees pose no danger to people: they are not known to harm or attack humans. But they are protected by federal law as threatened animals.
Swimming with a manatee: prices and hours
The swimming with manatee tour is around 2-3 hours long and costs around $65 per person. Snorkeling gear/wetsuits/vests are usually provided.
Where did we stay while watching manatees
While we were staying in a hotel, during a manatee tour we came across more interesting places like “waterfront castle” and waterfront condos right on Crystal River (a couple of pictures in the next post about manatees).
P.S. The movies and book about Florida for kids and families
“Dolphin Tale” is a heartwarming and inspiring movie about friendship and rescuing a dolphin; based on a true story. Don’t be surprised if your kids will ask to be homeschooled and live on a boat in Florida! 😀
Kate DiCamillo is an awards-winning children’s writer who grew up in Florida. Her book “Because of Winn-Dixie“ (and the movie as well) is a great introduction to Florida through the eyes of 10 y/o, her challenges, and her joys.
Manatees were our first wildlife interaction in Florida, but not last. Next come alligators, birds, and many other cute creatures, on the same West Coast of Florida:
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary: Florida’s Wildlife Destination
Sanibel Island: Romantic, Family-friendly Gem in the Gulf of Mexico
Thanks for reading, friends!