A few weeks ago, I got to complete an activity that has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember: Swimming with manatees!
I’ve always said that manatees are my spirit animal. The giant sea cows. Floating sea potatoes. Whatever endearing name you call them. They’re gentle creatures who officially have no predators and no way to defend themselves. They, unfortunately, have been an endangered species. Boats don’t see them floating in the water and drive over them, cutting into their skin. We saw a 30-day old newborn manatee who already had 2 massive scars on his back from the boats.
But this post isn’t about the sad story of the manatees. It’s about my dream experience snorkeling with them.
My family recently came to visit for spring break, and the wintertime to early spring is the best time to see the manatees before they leave the coast, so I made them go snorkeling with me. [They wanted to come, of course, but I didn’t really give them the option to say no 🙂 ]
The best place to see the manatees, I’ve heard, is Crystal River, Florida. Crystal River is along the west coast of Florida, along the Gulf, and located about an hour and a half north of Tampa. It’s known for it’s beautiful crystal waters and as “home of the manatees.” From Jacksonville, it was about a 2 hour, 45 minute drive, so it was a long drive for us but well worth it!
Prices for snorkeling with manatees depends on where you go. There are many, MANY places to book a guided tour with a company in Crystal River, or you can kayak/paddleboard/snorkel without a guide and find them yourselves if you don’t want to pay. We chose a tour because we didn’t have any snorkels or wetsuits or any clue how to find the manatees, and I’m glad that we chose it. In the winter / early spring, I think that you will need a wetsuit (unless you’re used to cold water temperatures) because the water was rather chilly and it was about 68*F outside, so once you’re wet and the wind from the boat is on you, it’s very cold. I think that it was around $65-80 per person for the entire experience, which was 3 hours of swimming with the manatees. So I would say not too expensive, but also not the cheapest. You can also find various deals on TripAdvisor and Expedia, I think.
Our adventure began driving nearly 3 hours to Crystal River and nearly missing our boat departure time. Luckily, they held the boat for us and it worked out great. We got fitted in our wetsuits, and after a short safety video, we were off to find manatees!
On top of the safety video, the tour guides gave us a rundown of safety while snorkeling, tips for snorkeling with the manatees, and fun facts about them. It’s illegal to touch the manatees, but obviously you can’t help it if they come up to you. They are very curious creatures, like dolphins, and sometimes enjoy playing with humans.
Eventually we found a few manatees. There were tons of other snorkeling tour groups out because it was spring break and prime time to see manatees, so we drove around looking for others that weren’t already being bothered by tour groups.
A few minutes later, we found something amazing…. a baby manatee! And not just a baby, it was a newborn! Our guides pointed them out to us on the boat but we didn’t get out because there’s a rule/law stating that you cannot swim with or bother mothers and their babies. Of course, not everyone observes this, but we tried. We saw them again later in our journey while we were snorkeling with other manatees because they came over to us (we didn’t touch them, just got this awesome photo!).
We found a few other manatees on our journey, too. One was sleeping in a crystal clear canal, away from other people and amongst the houses. It was so cool to be so close to such a giant gentle creature!
Manatees are masters of stealth and disguise without even knowing it – it’s one of the main issues why they get hit by boats. On the surface of the water, they completely blend in with the ground. They look like giant blobs of dirt kicked up by a boat or paddle. Or, when the water gets choppy, the dirt/sand in the water gets stirred up and the water isn’t clear anymore and they become invisible. This also means that, while you’re snorkeling, the gentle giants might magically appear below you. You’re not allowed to swim over the manatees because it could disrupt them and block them from getting air, but it can’t be helped if they swim under you. A few times, the water got a little murky so I couldn’t see as well so I would float on the surface looking for manatees, and then one would magically appear underneath me! It’s an insane experience! It was slightly terrifying the first time it happened to me because I didn’t want to disturb them, but you can’t determine where they decide to swim. The best thing to do is stay calm and wait for them to swim on or wait for the current to move you from over them.
Since my family is made up of a bunch of fish (ie., we all love swimming and being in the water), our guide let us know that there was a spring at the end of the canal if we wanted to see the bubbles. So, we swam over there and, to be honest, it was kind of underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong – it was cool, but we didn’t know what we were looking at at first. I really had to focus and look for the random bubbles coming up from the bottom of the sea floor.
We also spotted a ton of fish, and some were huge! Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of the fish, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
Eventually our time with the manatees was up and we grudgingly had to go back to shore. After rinsing off and getting warm in fresh, clean clothes, we grabbed some lunch and began the drive back home.
Overall, I would rate the experience 10/10! The drive and the price tag was totally worth it for me personally. It is a fun activity for people of all ages, no matter your fitness as well. So long as you’re a decent swimmer, you’ll be fine. They also give kids noodles to help them float, in case you’re worried about them. Please just make sure that they’re quiet and calm while snorkeling with the manatees.
If you’re in Florida, especially near the west coast, definitely go snorkeling with manatees!!
Thank you for reading! Have you ever been snorkeling with manatees or do you want to? Let me know in the comments below and like this post if you want more like it!