I love to have natural encounters with unlured wildlife, especially in the water. Swimming with manatees in Florida has long been on my bucket list, so when my brother moved to Tampa, I knew I needed to make it happen. In this post, I will give you the story of my family’s experience snorkeling with manatees in Crystal River and tips to make your manatee dreams come true.
Table of Contents
What is a Manatee?
Manatees are peaceful, aquatic, plant-eating mammals that live in warm marshy water. They can be found in the Gulf of Mexico (western Florida is on the Gulf), the Caribbean Sea, Western Africa, and the Amazon Basin. Manatees can be big- up to 13 long feet and 1,300 pounds in weight. They remind me of water sloths, slowly eating their way along the water’s floor, but are commonly known as “sea cows.”
Where and When Can I find manatees in Florida?
Manatees are found throughout Florida’s coastal areas but are more numerous in winter. They often congregate offshore at power plants because of the warm water.
They also spend their winter (November-March) in large numbers at Crystal River, where springs feed 72-degree water into its system year-round. Almost 1,000 manatee visit here each winter, but a group of around 40 manatees live here year-round. One way to recognize them is the moss growing on their backs.
In the winter, this area is a sanctuary, so manatees can go into the springs to rest, where people cannot follow, although you can still see them and interact when they leave their safe space.
What is it Like to Snorkel with Manatees in Crystal River?
We were in Florida in April, after the manatee season at Crystal River. At first, I believed the manatees were gone, but tours were still available, so I realized one could swim with manatees year-round in Crystal River. Having experienced it, I would even say there are distinct advantages to swimming with manatees out of season. It wasn’t too crowded, and the air temps were warmer.
Our Experience with Gulf Coast Expeditions
I found Gulf Coast Expeditions through a Google search and would recommend the company. You can book a tour with them here.
We chose a 1:30 pm tour since my family isn’t morning people, and my brother’s house is 2 hours away. It worked perfectly for us, but we learned that water visibility is best very early in the morning, and they start tours at 6 am.
We arrived at their building, were shown a safety video, and were fitted into wetsuits. You should wear a bathing suit and bring a towel and an extra change of clothes.
After that, our guide, Leah, and captain, Lauren, took us to the docks to meet our boat. At the docks were many birds and some tarpon fish in the water. The tour takes a max of 6 people, so our group of 5 had a private boat.
We took a very calm ride into the river until the guides found us a mother manatee and her one-year-old daughter. After putting on our masks and snorkels, we gently got into the water. We spent about an hour swimming alongside the two magnificent creatures while they munched away on grass and surfaced periodically for air. The water in the area was never more than 7 feet deep, and they gave us pool noodles to make swimming easier.
We also saw turtles, birds, mullet fish, a large aquatic snail, and a snook.
Leah took pictures and videos, which we could (and did) buy after for $40.
After hanging with the manatees, we swam in two of the natural springs without the noodles. One of them was pretty deep. The manatees were the highlight of our day, but our time on the river was also quite enjoyable.
With the wetsuit on, I was never too cold in the water, but I imagine it could be different in the winter. On the way back to the dock, the ladies gave us coffee and hot cocoa.
Other Things to Do in Crystal River, Florida
After our day with the manatee, we wanted to eat dinner and have drinks on the water, so we headed to Waterfront Social on Kings Bay.
If I return, I will stay in the area and kayak in Crystal River. I will also spend some time hiking or biking the trails at Three Sister Springs.
I am so happy I had this experience and would recommend it. Unlike shark diving in the Bahamas, it was not scary at all and much more accessible than snorkeling with whale sharks in Mexico, but it still goes on my list of Best Adventures Yet.
Have you gotten to swim with manatees? Are you ready to?