Swimming with manatees in Florida had been on my bucket list for years. I’ve low key loved the gentle water creatures since I was a kid and the thought of getting to see them up close in the water was a dream come true. Whether you call them chubby mermaids, floaty potatoes, sea cows, or just manatees, don’t miss a chance to see them up close. Their cute little whiskered faces are sure to make you smile.
Manatees can be found all along the Florida coast, but Crystal River is one of the best spots for viewing them – and it’s the only area where you can legally swim with them. These adorable water-dwelling mammals are federally protected and approaching them anywhere else can lead to fines. But in Crystal River, visitors are allowed to get in the water with them. If you’re really lucky, you might even find yourself nose to nose with one munching on some seagrass just like I did.
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What to expect when swimming with manatees in Florida
We chose to book a swimming with manatees tour because we didn’t have any gear of our own or a boat. We wanted to be able to get suited up and have an experienced guide take us out to areas where manatees were likely to be since none of us had been in that area before.
Different tour providers offer different amenities, but you should at minimum expect snorkel gear and wetsuits to be provided. Some of them had fancier offerings like on board hot chocolate, but we went with a pretty basic option on account of being hearty northerners used to the cold. We showed up about 45 minutes before our scheduled departure (you should arrive early, but it’s not necessary to be quite that early – we just expected there to be more traffic) to get outfitted. We were sized up for wetsuits and were able to change in the bathrooms there and grabbed our masks and snorkels – no fins. We had to watch a safety and expectations video that covered what to do in the water and what kind of interactions were permissible while swimming with the manatees, and then we were off.
It took 20-30 minutes out on the boat to get to the first area that we spotted a manatee. This one was off in a canal and once the boat was positioned and we were given the ok, we were able to hop into the water. The water temp was a bit chilly, but after a couple seconds the wetsuit did its thing and kept me nice and warm. Our tour guide had a GoPro camera with him that recorded photos and clips of our group in the water for purchase later, which was great because I forgot my own GoPro at the hotel that day. This area didn’t have the best visibility, but we got a great look at this manatee as it was content to just chill there. This is the one that I ended up almost nose to nose with as it rose to the surface for a bite of seagrass and it was amazing. We also caught a glimpse of what we thought was a mother and calf cruising by, but it was hard to tell in the murky area.
After a little while, we hopped back on the boat and moved on to another area. This was a lot more open and the water was clearer so we could see a bit better. Another manatee was chilling out by some docked boats and it swam right underneath me. Nearby, in a deep, very clear cove, there were several just sort of hovering on the bottom. There were multiple different groups from other operators in this area, but it was good to see that everyone kept their distance and was respectful of the manatees even if it was a little more crowded with humans than I would’ve preferred.
After that, we were called back to the boat and we made our way back to the dock. We returned our gear, sprayed off in the shower, and got changed back into our regular clothes. We may have also hit the gift shop for some manatee souvenirs and our GoPro files – adorably presented on a manatee shaped USB key.
When is the best time to swim with manatees in Florida?
Manatees can be seen in Crystal River year round, but winter is the peak season. Despite their pudgy appearance, manatees aren’t actually built to handle the cold very well. When water temperatures start to drop as tends to happen during winter, higher numbers of manatees congregate in Crystal River to enjoy warmer water from natural springs there. December-February is said to be the peak season so put swimming with manatees on your to do list if you find yourself in Florida during this time. Of course, we were there during a stretch of pretty warm days with temps in the 80s, which was great for getting a break from our Michigan winter but meant that there weren’t quite as many manatees at Crystal River as you’d normally see during late December.
Planning your visit in the morning is also recommended as that’s when the manatees tend to be more active. If you can plan your visit on a weekday, you’ll also experience lower crowds as more locals will be working.
What to pack for swimming with the manatees
There are a few essentials for swimming with the manatees in Florida, but many of these are optional and will just help make your experience more pleasant. Definitely bring the first 3-4 of these items with you and pick and choose from the rest. Keep in mind that there’s a decent chance anything you bring on the boat with you will get wet, so come prepared with waterproof cases or leave valuables at home.
- Bathing suit (I own this one in black and am kind of obsessed with it)
- Beach towel
- Boat shoes, water shoes, or flip flops
- Sunscreen (preferably reef safe kind)
- GoPro or other underwater camera
- Waterproof pouch for your phone
- Dry bag for anything else you want to keep dry
- Windbreaker or sweatshirt for cooler days (Might I suggest this Save the Manatees hoodie?)
How to get to Crystal River
Crystal River is on Florida’s west coast. It’s about an hour and twenty minutes north of Tampa and an hour and a half west of Orlando. You’ll almost certainly need a vehicle to get there, but it’s a totally doable day trip from either area. We did ours on a mid-trip break from the Disney parks. There are several tour companies operating in the area so price them out and check availability to see which one works best for you.
Do you need to be a strong swimmer to get in the water with manatees?
None of the areas we left the boat in had a noticeable current, nor were they terribly deep, but I wouldn’t recommend this activity if you can’t swim. Some of the other tour boats out there had pool noodles for all their participants and there were plenty of kids, including one I’d peg at about 9 years old on our boat, so you don’t have to be a swimming machine to enjoy it. The wetsuits everyone was wearing also provided a little bit of extra buoyancy to keep you afloat and we had a guide in the water with us at all times.
Other ways to see manatees at Crystal Springs
If you don’t want to get in the water, there are numerous other ways to view my beloved manatees in the Crystal River area. Kayak and paddle board rentals are popular and allow you to get close to manatees out in the water in a non-intrusive way. Nearby Homossassa Springs Wildlife State Park offers a chance to see a variety of animals, but its star attraction is an underwater observatory in one of the springs where you can see manatees up close without ever getting wet.
The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge protects much of the area and has a visitor center with hands on exhibits about manatees. Most of the refuge area is accessible only by boat, but the Three Sisters Spring area has viewing platforms and a boardwalk.
Some fun manatee facts because I adore them!
- It’s thought that many reported mermaid sightings were actually manatees in shallow water. I think those sailors had been at sea too long.
- Manatees have no natural predators so humans are primarily responsible for their risk as a species. Most human caused deaths are due to boat strikes and most of the adult manatees you’ll be able to see have scars on their backs from propellers.
- Despite their chubby appearance, manatees don’t actually have a lot of body fat. This is partially why they’re reliant on warmer waters to maintain their body heat.
- Manatees’ closest living land mammal relative is the elephant! You can see a similarity in the toenails on their flippers.
- The type of manatees found in Florida can live in both saltwater and freshwater. You’ll be able to see them in freshwater springs like those in Crystal River as well as out in the Gulf or Atlantic Ocean.
- Manatees are nearsighted and only see in grey, blue, and green, which makes sense for the environment in which they live. Makes you want to reconsider those hue-manatee pun shirts, right?
Stuck at home? Don’t worry. You can watch manatee webcams here every day.
Huge thanks to my mom for taking most of these photos since, as I mentioned, I forgot my GoPro that day.