Snowbirds aren’t the only ones who flock to Florida in the winter. When the Gulf of Mexico cools, the Florida Manatees (a sub-species of West Indian Manatees) migrate inland to consistently warm springs and rivers. There are many areas and opportunities to observe manatees in the springs; from parks and boardwalks, to kayaking trips, swimming holes, and snorkeling tours.
As soon as I learned about the opportunity to swim with manatees, I knew we had to add a tour to our adventure list!
There are quite a few tour providers in the Crystal River area offering a range of tour packages to meet your needs. The biggest difference between the tour providers is how they structure your time on the river. A lot of the tours offer a “hop on/hop off” experience, where the boat will cruise the river and then once they’ve spotted a manatee everyone will jump in, snorkel with the manatees, and then climb back in the boat to continue cruising the river for manatee sightings. We heard from friends that they quickly got tired of hopping in and out of the water, especially because you get cold quickly.
This is one of the reasons we loved American Pro Diving Center. Unlike other tours, our guides brought us to one spot in the river where manatees were confirmed, and we stayed in the water for about 45 minutes. This made our experience on the river a lot more enjoyable since we were able to really spend time getting comfortable in the water with the manatees.
Regardless of the tour you take, you will be required to complete a brief training on proper etiquette while swimming with the manatees. During the instruction our captains told us that manatees are social creatures and they will come up to you in the water. Snorkelers are permitted to pat a manatee once it has engaged with you. During our time in the water, I had several manatees swim next to me, and one even followed me for a while, bumping me from behind so I couldn’t even move my feet.
John and Lucas had an especially curious visitor, a baby manatee! Unfortunately the manatee encounter spooked Lucas and we had trouble convincing him to stay in the water after his unwelcomed visitor. At 3.5 years old, I think Lucas did great in the water. Swimming with wild animals can feel intimidating (even when they are friendly) and our adventure was Lucas’s first snorkel. Although doable with a young child, this trip is best for families with older children (or more adults to take turns propping up the little ones on the river.)
Here are a few more tips to help you plan your adventure:
- Regardless of the tour you select you will be required to wear a wetsuit and snorkel. You will also be required to float on a pool noodle in the river (and minimize big movements, kicking, etc.) This is all for the manatees’ health and safety.
- Bring dry clothes, a large towel or blanket, and something warm to drink with you on the boat (our tour served us hot chocolate when we got out of the water…added bonus!)
- Most people wore masks on our boat, but be advised that social distancing is more challenging when everyone is getting in and out of the water.
- Manatees will leave the springs when the temperatures are warm or in the middle of the day in search of food, for this reason we recommended booking a morning departure for the chance to swim with the most manatees.