Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida
I felt the manatee even before I turned my eyes, wide behind my mask, to meet its marble-like ones squished into its cute, gray, wrinkled-up face in the chilly waters of Crystal River.
“Never touch or approach the animals,” my group of early-morning snorkelers had been told before slipping off the pontoon boat into the gin-clear water for the experience of snorkeling with manatees in their natural habitat. The Crystal River region is about an hour north of Tampa along Central Florida’s Gulf Coast, and it’s the only place in North America where you can legally swim with these curious herbivore marine mammals.
Hovering in the shallow waters behind me, the young calf—its mother longer than my own six-foot-tall frame, at least four times as wide and closing in on the two of us, not perhaps fast but firmly—was nuzzling my wetsuit-clad arm with an insistent prodding that felt a lot like my kindergartner poking me for a word edgewise when I’m deeply engaged in an adult conversation.
The sound of water sloshed around my ears, and I chortled bubbles of air through my snorkel, so surprised was I by the adorable spectacle of being prodded (for what I wasn’t sure) by the young one’s prehensile lips. Then, as quick as the little one had appeared by my side, it sank down with its mother toward the river’s sandy bottom a few feet below.
“They may come up, give you a kiss,” Captain Paul Cross of the Plantation Resort on Crystal River Adventure Center said. “But remember, we are just observing their natural behaviors. Not changing them.”
The Crystal River National Wildlife is the only refuge in the US that was created to protect the West Indian manatee’s habitat. Seven sanctuaries within it are designated off-limits for human activity (beyond observation from distant boardwalks, in some spots) during manatee season, which runs between Nov. 15 and March 31, to give the animals protected “safe zones.” A subspecies of the West Indian manatee, Florida manatees are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and are at risk due to a loss of habitat as well as injury and mortality events due to boat collisions in Florida’s busy waters.
And while people cannot swim with manatees in the protected sanctuaries, areas within Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs, which are outside of the official sanctuaries area, are open for encounters.
All tours in the waters where humans are permitted to snorkel and swim with manatees begin with watching an official video by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that includes instructions on passive observation techniques, later reinforced out on the water by guides.
I keep my arms buoyant at the surface behind me, listening to my breaths through the snorkel and basking in the afterglow of being the recipient of a one-way manatee snuggle—even if I got ditched for mama in the end. Then I snorkel on a few yards to an area where other snorkelers are gathered, and suddenly there aren’t only two manatees; there are something like twenty hovering like so many logs jammed just above the riverbed close to a springhead in water the color of spearmint Listerine.
For as big as the animals are, their movements seem so deliberately minimal, and there is so much serenity just in breathing in and out underwater with them and observing their Zen.
During the winter months in Florida, when the air chills and causes water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico to dip below about 68 degrees Fahrenheit, manatees arrive in large numbers in the waters of the Crystal River region that include Three Sisters Springs, Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Kings Bay, and the Homosassa River.
They arrive to survive, basking in the relative warmth of waters that pour forth from spring heads at a constant—and relatively balmy—72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round (manatees can get hypothermia, which can be fatal, in waters below 68 degrees).
Operators like Plantation Resort on Crystal River Adventure Center take snorkelers out several times a day on pontoon boat tours. You’ll don a mask, fins, snorkel, and a wetsuit and gently enter the waters to observe these gentle giants that can weigh up to 1,200 pounds and spend up to seven hours per day eating.
“Those cold mornings are typically when we have the most manatees around, with anywhere from 500 to 1,000 in Kings Bay on a really cold day in winter,” says Cross.
It’s worth waking up early to be the first group out onto the water at around 6am, he says.
“There’s usually a little bit of fog rolling off the surface of the water when you get out there before the sun’s coming up. It’s magical,” he says.
When you enter the water from the boat, it’s important to let the manatees dictate the experience by just floating quietly on the surface, Cross says.
“That’s what passive observation looks like,” he says, adding to avoid standing on the bottom and kicking up dirt and sand that can muddle the views for everyone and cause the manatees to retreat.
Close encounters are common.
“The spring in Kings Bay that’s part of Crystal River is usually full of juveniles. They’re very curious and might look you in the face and grab hold of your flipper,” Cross says. “You cannot disturb a manatee. If it comes up to you and grabs ahold of your leg, you just let that manatee do its thing.”
What you get from the experience might be something you’ll never forget.
“The whole reason we do this experience is so we can send guests away from here that will respect and protect our manatees,” Cross says. “When you get eye to eye with them, it’s almost like they connect with your soul.”
Even now, seasons later, I still think of the baby manatee that picked my eyes to look into and my arm to nuzzle on that day—and the fleeting connection we made in a beautiful Florida spring.
A few things to remember before you swim with manatees:
- Whether observing them from the water or above it, only passive observation of manatees is allowed—never approach or touch a manatee.
- Avoid using sunscreen on your body when swimming with manatees, relying on your wetsuit to protect you from the sun. Mineral-based sunscreen can be applied to your face.
- Air temperatures are often cooler than the water on cold winter mornings, so be sure to bring a hoodie or something to bundle up in once you strip down from your wetsuit after snorkeling.
- Self-guided tours by kayak or other boats are possible (be sure to bring a diver-down flag to use while snorkeling). But go with a guide to get the best experience, knowledge, and education about this threatened species.
How to do it
Best time to go: It’s possible to view manatees year-round in Florida’s springs, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic waters, but the best time to see them and snorkel with them in the Crystal River region is from Nov. 15 to March 31. That’s when temperatures dip in the Gulf of Mexico, luring the animals in large numbers for the relative warmth of the spring-fed waters.
Cost: Rooms at the Plantation Resort on Crystal River start at $149 per night. Three-hour guided group trips to swim with the manatees, including all gear plus warm drinks (coffee and hot chocolate), water, and towels, cost $75 per person ($40 extra for the underwater photo package).
The nearest major airport to Crystal River is Tampa International Airport (TPA), which is approximately 75 miles (just over an hour) away. Orlando International Airport is about 100 miles from Crystal River. It’s recommended to rent your own vehicle to reach Crystal River.
Average price of a Going flight to Tampa: $150 RT
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Published December 12, 2023
Last updated December 19, 2023
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