Swimming with manatees in Florida is, hands down, a profound, unforgettable, and once-in-a-lifetime travel experience. Known as “sea cows”, these leathery and wrinkled gentle giants can tip the scales at around 1,000 to 3,400 pounds. Of course, these creatures are incredibly adorable, cute, charming, and friendly.
And guess what? You can easily find them grazing along the aquatic meadows and grass flats in Florida. What’s more, Florida is the only place in the US where you can swim with manatees legally.
So, want to see and have a close encounter with these majestic giants? Make sure to check out our guide on how and where to swim with manatees in Florida.
While exploring Florida we suggest you have the Fodor’s Florida Travel Guide
Swimming with Manatees in Florida
What time of year can you swim with manatees?
Places like Crystal River have several resident manatees year-round. But for a memorable experience, swim with manatees in Florida in the winter. During these months, tons of manatees travel to the state to take advantage of the warm spring waters gushing out.
With scores of sea cows flocking in the state’s waterways, you’ll surely have a blast swimming with manatees in Florida in winter.
Book your own swimming with the manatee’s adventure today on these recommended tours:
Where is the best place in Florida to see manatees?
Crystal River is the only place in Florida and North America where you can swim with manatees legally. Sitting on Florida’s west coast, this area has consistent water temperatures of 72 degrees throughout the year.
In winter, over 200 sea cows migrate to Crystal River to escape the Gulf of Mexico’s freezing waters. Some of them stay through summer in the bay.
These resident and migrating manatees make the area a prime spot for anyone who wants to get up and personal with these creatures.
The best and most notable manatee swimming area in Crystal Springs is Kings Bay. Here, you’ll find around 10% of Florida’s overall manatee population. Furthermore, it’s home to the Three Sisters Spring, a refreshing natural spring where sea cows flock during the year’s coldest months.
When is the best time to go?
Start your aquatic adventure early. These creatures wake up pretty early, search for breakfast, and trying to find where their other manatee pals are hanging out. After that, they do anything else to jump start their day.
After everything is settled, manatees spend almost the whole afternoon just sleeping. That’s why you should avoid taking an afternoon manatee excursion. Sure, you’ll still catch sight of them as they sleep in the water.
But, trust me, it’s way more exciting to see them moving and playing around.
How to swim with manatees in Florida
While it’s legal to swim with these creatures in Crystal River, a visitor has likely no clue on how to find manatees or where to go. Not to mention, visitors probably don’t have the right set of equipment to swim with manatees.
The Kings Bay Manatee Refuge and Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge are extremely large areas too with limited access. That means finding your way around can be overwhelming, especially for first-time visitors.
So spend the extra buck and go with a dependable operator to make your trip safer, easier, and more efficient.
Some of our recommended operators in Crystal River and Citrus County include:
- Plantation on Crystal River Adventure Center (Who we went with in Crystal River!)
- Homosassa Manatee Snorkeling Center (100% Women-owned and operated, who we went with in Homosassa)
- Crystal River Watersports
- Manatee Tour and Dive
- River Ventures
Additional Advice for your Manatee Experience
Itching to travel to Crystal River? Before you start packing your bags, make sure to spend a moment reading these tips and suggestions.
Bring or rent a wetsuit
The water around Crystal Spring is warmer when you compare it to the Gulf of Mexico. Even so, it’s pretty cold, meaning you need to wear a wetsuit. If you don’t have one, you may rent one from the operator you pick.
With a wetsuit, you’ll become more buoyant and stay in the spring water longer.
Book your own swimming with the manatee’s adventure today on these recommended tours:
Wear aqua shoes
Aqua shoes will help prevent your feet from getting cold. Also, flippers are a no-no here since swimmers might accidentally kick or poke a manatee.
Don’t swim with manatees alone if it’s your first time
An experienced guide or captain will make sure that you don’t accidentally violate any laws. Additionally, a guide will help you avoid paying unnecessary hefty fines.
Although the sight of a sea cow seems exciting and overwhelming, always stay calm and still in the water. The truth is, manatees are likely to approach you if you look motionless.
In fact, they will become curious and may even approach you for a little kiss or hug. As we’ve said earlier, they are adorable and charming.
Rules to Follow When Swimming with Manatees
Always keep in the mind the three rules when swimming with a manatee – move slow, reduce splash noise, and don’t touch a manatee with two hands at a time. There are also other rules that you have to remember as you meet these gorgeous sea cows.
To avoid a massive headache and a whopping fine, heed these pointers.
Follow the passive observation rule
Don’t lure or chase these sea cows. Don’t disturb them when they are taking a nap on the river bottom. Just float on the surface and wait for them to go near you.
Manatees are incredibly curious about their human visitors. Heck, they will even roll over as if they are asking for a belly rub once they are drawn to you.
Just float and chill like a boss. And who knows? You might get a kiss and a flipper hug from a friendly sea cow.
Stick with your snorkeling gear
The noise created by scuba equipment can bother these giants. Snorkels, on the other hand, cause less disruption or commotion in the water. Plus, snorkels keep you close to the surface, which is crucial to the passive observation rule.
Speaking of gear, swimmers should not wear flippers here. Besides causing excessive splashing, it also stirs up the river’s sandy bottom, which in turn reduces water visibility. You don’t want to swim in murky waters, do you?
Don’t be a moron
Don’t poke, pinch, or corner the sea cows. More importantly, never stand on these animals. It’s downright mean, and it’s the type of behavior that will drive them away. If you want to hang out with them, be nice to the manatees.
Stay off their lawn
The roped off areas of the springs are actually dedicated sanctuaries for manatees. These are manatee havens where they socialize and sleep without human distractions.
Since ropes and buoys clearly define these sanctuaries, you definitely won’t get away with telling an official that you unintentionally drifted into these areas.
Swimming with the Manatees FAQs
Are there other creatures you’ll see?
You’ll see plenty of birds, snook, and tarpon on your swimming adventure. You won’t see alligators in these springs and areas due to the water temperatures and salinity level.
Are manatees dangerous?
It’s safe to swim with manatees in Florida. Although they look rather intimidating and menacing, manatees are, in general, harmless and passive creatures.
Still, they are wild animals, and some have unpredictable behavior. So always be mindful and respectful as you swim with manatees. Also, avoid swimming between a mother manatee and her calf.
Like most animals, mother manatees are fairly protective of their little ones.
Do manatees bite?
Manatees have teeth, so that means that they can bite. That said, being bitten in a harmful way by a manatee is extremely rare and really, unheard of. Don’t be surprised though if one of them bites onto your wetsuit straps!
Do I have to be an expert swimmer to enjoy it?
You don’t have to be a prolific swimmer to enjoy this aquatic escapade. After all, the tour operators will provide life vests and noodles for the less experienced swimmers.
Plan Your Crystal River Manatee Swim
Where to stay in Crystal River
There are tons of superb options when it comes to accommodations in Crystal River. For a cozy and convenient stay, take note of these recommended hotels in Crystal River.
Best restaurants in Crystal River
Feeling hungry after hours of non-stop swimming with the manatees in Florida? Why not drop by any of these restaurants, and sample their hearty and mouth-watering goodies?
From sweet treats to juicy barbecues, these restaurants will satisfy your taste buds in a myriad of ways.
Kayaking with Manatees
If being in the water just isn’t your thing but you still want to experience these gentle giants, then kayaking with manatees is an excellent option.
This can be done in Crystal River, Homosassa and at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, to name a few places.
Explore the other attractions
Need to take a break from the outdoors? For a little art therapy, visit Coastal Art Gallery, and admire exquisite works by local artists. Afterwards, cross the street, and head to the Franklin Anderson Gallery of Arts.
Also, you might want to spend a few hours exploring the fascinating Crystal River Wildlife Refuge.
Other places to see manatees in Florida
Crystal River isn’t the only place in Florida where you can catch sight of manatees. From November to March, these fabulous creatures are commonly spotted in the waterways of Florida.
Here’s a short list of some of the top places to see manatees in Florida.
- Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park – Wakulla Springs
- Lovers Key State Park – Fort Myers
- Manatee Observation and Educational Center – Fort Pierce
- Manatee Lagoon – West Palm Beach
- Manatee Viewing Center – Tampa Electric, Apollo Beach
- Weeki Wachee Springs State Park – Spring Hill
- Lee County Manatee Park – Fort Myers
- Manatee Springs State Park – Chiefland
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge – Titusville
- Blue Spring State Park – Orange City
Is swimming with these gentle giants on your travel bucket list? Ever tried swimming with manatees in Florida before? How did it go? We’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts on this activity.
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