What It Is Like To Swim With Manatees In Florida

Plus, when and where to go, and what to know.

West Indian Manatees

My preferred water temperature for swimming here in Florida hovers around 85°F, but when winter rolls around, I suck it up and suck it in to shimmy into a 3mm wetsuit for an experience that’s unique to the Sunshine State: swimming with manatees.

Crystal River, about 70 miles north of Tampa on Florida’s west coast, is one of the only places in the world—and the only place in Florida—where it’s legally permissible to swim with manatees. It’s no wonder, then, that Crystal River is known as the Manatee Capital of the World.

When I had my first opportunity to swim with manatees a handful of years ago, I must admit that I was hesitant—not because I was scared, but out of concern for the manatees. In the mid-1990s I lived in Orlando and worked part-time for the Save the Manatee Club, and I’m very aware of the impact we as humans have on not only these gentle animals, but their habitats, too. 

In talking with the team at Plantation Adventure Center, based at the Plantation on Crystal River, I felt very confident in their practices of not only providing an incredible experience to their guests, but in keeping the manatees’ wellbeing at the forefront of everything else. Prior to every manatee outing, would-be swimmers go through a brief orientation during which they watch a video detailing the practice of passive observation and respecting the manatees’ space; the adventure center team ensures that passive observation is practiced in the water. I was all in.

After orientation, our group of eight boarded a pontoon boat and motored into Kings Bay that feeds into Three Sisters Springs, part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge that is closely monitored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The The FWC and FWS have the discretion to open and close the springs to snorkelers, keeping the manatees’ well-being at the forefront of everything. The two authorities also designate manatee sanctuaries that are entirely off limits to people—manatees only!

Once the boat stopped, I slipped into the cold (for me) 73°F water, donned my mask and snorkel and started swimming, following the guide through the crystal-clear springs. The wetsuit not only kept me warm, but acted as a buoy so that I easily floated. 

All at once, we saw manatees! They were swimming around us, resting on the sandy bottom, and the young nursing with their mamas. The springs lack enough vegetation  to satiate manatees’ hunger each day, so they come and go to forage sea grasses and other vegetation in the river and even as far out as the Gulf of Mexico. Manatees can weigh between 800 and 1200 pounds and are herbivores.

The docile creatures are as curious as they are adorable. Though we practice passive observation, the manatees don’t always! It’s not uncommon for young manatees to approach swimmers and investigate their masks and snorkels, sometimes coming face-to-face. I even got a hug from a manatee a few years ago! Certainly one of the best days of my life.

After about an hour or so, we swam back to the boat and bid farewell to the manatees. Once onboard, we poured hot water down our wetsuits to warm up and laughed as we shared our experiences with the manatees. 

Swimming with these animals that have been in Florida’s waterways for more than a million years is certainly the experience of a lifetime.

When and Where To Snorkel With Manatees in Florida

Manatees make their annual migration from their homes in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina—even as far away as Texas and Virginia—to Florida’s warmer waters and natural springs each winter, typically November through March. Like snowbirds, once manatees find their spot, they return to the same place each year.

Swimming with the manatees is only legally permitted in Crystal River, but there are plenty of natural spots around Florida to observe the animals from above the water’s surface.

What To Know Before You Go

  • Practice passive observation: Look, but do not touch.
  • Never enter designated manatee sanctuaries.
  • Stay quiet: Avoid splashing or making noise when manatees are nearby.
  • Use snorkeling gear when observing manatees; SCUBA equipment may scare them.
  • Never feed manatees or give them water. They are wild animals.
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