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Swimming with Manatees, Florida’s Gentle Giants

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They may not have the strength and grace of killer whales, or the agility and good looks of dolphins, but swimming with manatees is a profound experience. For families who want to enjoy nature at its best, a wonderland is hidden behind Orlando’s amusement parks at Homosassa Springs in Citrus County. A recent trip took my daughter and me to the manatees’ home turf. This is a far cry from a modern-day aquarium. Here's why and how to go swimming with Manatees in Florida.

What It's Like to Go Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida

Getting to know the manatees

Our days started early in the morning, as this is the perfect time to snorkel with the manatees before they get tired of visitors. We boarded a pontoon boat with one of the few female captains in the area, Traci Wood from Native Vacations. Having spotted two manatees just below the water, Captain Traci stopped the boat as the duo slowly glided towards us. They used their paddle-like tails to propel themselves up and down. The manatees steered with their flippers, gracefully moving their 12-foot-long bodies through the water. Our boat was soon surrounded by this gentle species.

Rules for swimming with manatees

Soon we resumed our journey. Within a few minutes Captain Traci stopped the boat again and gave us instructions. “Whatever you do,” she said, “And it doesn’t matter how excited you are — remember the three golden rules: minimize splash noise; act with very slow movements; and when you do touch one of these friendly, gentle gray giants on the back or stomach, never touch with more than one hand at a time. Two hands are illegal. The Endangered Species Act forbids touching a manatee unless it touches you first, and they will let you know.” The rules are strict in Homosassa, and the protection of this endangered species is taken very seriously. There is absolutely no chasing, riding or harassing the manatees. But these rules won't diminish your experience in the least bit. Most of the manatees are very social and will come to you.

In Florida, waking up one of these 2,000-pound sleeping beauties will cost you a whopping fine. But it is perfectly legal to snorkel or swim with these playful, inquisitive kids of the deep when they are awake and trying to make your acquaintance.

Swimming with manatees is an incredible experience you will always remember

Swimming with manatees is an incredible experience you will always remember (Photo credit: thediver123, Depositphotos.com)

Entering the water

At Three Sisters Springs, very slowly we entered the water, trying not to disturb the manatees and also trying to keep down the amount of sediment rising from the bottom of the river. Upon our descent, some of the manatees were still sleeping while others were slow-paddling around.

Swimming with the manatees is not at all difficult or intimidating. There were children younger than my daughter, Ilse (who is 10), as well as seniors in the water. There was an abundant feeling of energy and curiosity among us all. Book your swimming with manatees adventure now.

About manatees

Manatees are very big, measuring 10- to 15-feet-long and weighing one ton. Some can be larger than 12 feet and weigh as much as 3,500 pounds.

They devour more than four to nine percent of their body weight each day. That's 200 pounds of greens, eaten five to eight hours daily to maintain their beautiful rotund shape. Manatees are strictly herbivores. They eat a great variety of aquatic plant species, including water hyacinth, hydrilla and water lettuce.

Much to our surprise this official marine mammal of Florida is also nearsighted. Manatees are wild, although when looking at one nose-to-nose you’ll have second thoughts about just how wild they are. They turned over and bared their bellies for us to rub, and swam alongside and nibbled at us. 

A great egret taking flight at Crystal River, Florida

A great egret taking flight at Crystal River, Florida (Photo credit: dmussman, Depositphotos.com)

What to do on land at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park

Since not all visitors want to get so close to the manatees, non- swimmers can also view these endangered mammals at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. The park provides refuge for captive-born manatees. It is a halfway house for rehabilitating those that will be returned to the wild. Some manatees that have been injured or orphaned will spend their lives in the park since they are unable to survive in the wild. The park also serves as a research and observation center, offering three daily educational programs to the public.

The park showcases an impressive menagerie of native Florida wildlife including alligators, birds, and bears. It is located at the headwaters of the crystal clear Homosassa River, a natural spring that gushes forth millions of gallons of fresh water per hour.

When and where to swim with manatees

From December to March, groups of manatees escape the cold winter ocean and bask in the warm waters near power plants and coastal springs. The water in Crystal River stays about 72F degrees year-round. Snorkelers, divers and swimmers come from all over the world for a chance to try swimming with manatees. Numerous dive sites, inland springs, good underwater visibility, calm water, and its wintering manatee population have made Florida's Citrus County a popular destination for nature lovers.

Abundant plant life makes the area an ideal playground for the manatees. They arrive every year by the hundreds to find warmth, food and maybe, just maybe, to visit us, the curious humans. The area is safe for these endangered mammals whose lives are often cut short by environmental factors and fatal encounters with speeding watercraft.

Crystal River is the only place in the world for snorkelers to swim with the West Indian manatee in relatively clear water. Citrus County and Crystal River is less than a 1.5-hour drive from Orlando, Tampa or Daytona. Learn more about the area on TripAdvisor.

A portrait of a baby manatee ~ swimming with manatees

A portrait of a baby manatee (Photo credit: izanbar, Depositphotos.com)

Hotel near the manatees

I recommend staying at the Plantation Inn & Golf Resort for its lovely accommodations and guided wildlife excursions. This eco-friendly resort is a proud member of the Green Hotels Association and Eco Friendly Hotels Worldwide. This hotel is perfectly located to view the manatees daily. Read reviews of this resort here.

Why go swimming with manatees

Once you have swam next to a mother manatee and her newborn calf in the wild, it is inconceivable that anyone could hurt them. Like many visitors, my daughter and I left with this place with unforgettable memories and became avid supporters of protecting and preserving these friendly, docile creatures for generations to come. We believe there is hope that the manatee may yet be saved from extinction, but the public needs to become aware of the problem. These gentle giants are so impressive in their size and manner; it would be difficult not to fall in love with them. Truth is, swimming with manatees is a life altering experience.

It'd be hard not to fall in love with manatees after swimming with them ~ Swimming with manatees

It'd be hard not to fall in love with manatees after swimming with them! (Photo credit: izanbar, Depositphotos.com)

How to help manatees

Your family can help manatee conservation efforts! Adopt a manatee for just $25 through the Save a Manatee Club. Ask your children to choose from a list of adoptable manatees and select those that match your family members' personalities.

Book your swimming with manatees adventure now

Is swimming with manatees on your bucket list? Book your adventure now!

Would you like to go swimming with manatees? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Professor Bel Kambach teaches Ecotourism and the Environment at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and brings all her Ecotourism students to teach a lesson in conservation to her daughter’s school's Saving Endangered Species program. Bel can be reached via her blog, Bel Explores or on the Bel Explores Facebook page.

About Professor Bel Kembach, Travel Mamas Guest Blogger

Professor Bel Kambach teaches Ecotourism and the Environment at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and brings all her Ecotourism students to teach a lesson in conservation to her daughter’s school's Saving Endangered Species program.

Comments

  1. The Manattee is very similar to the Dugong which we have off the coast of Queensland. There are slight differences in the species. It must be wonderful to be able to swim with these beautiful creatures. I don’t think we are allowed to do so here and they a protected as numbers are shrinking, which is pretty sad.

  2. What an amazing experience! I had no idea that swimming with manatees was allowed. I don’t swim well so I wouldn’t try but my kids would love to have an opportunity to do this.

    • Traci Wood says:

      Hi Lisa, you don’t have to be a good swimmer, anyone can do this. I’ve had customers as young as 4, up to 92. It’s very easy. Give us a call and I will be happy to explain.
      Thank you
      Captain Traci

  3. The World of Deej says:

    Homosassa Springs is a great park, especially this time of year with the manatees. I’ve lived in Central Florida my entire life, but have never swam with these awesome creatures.

    • Sean Pecker says:

      When I was in primary school, my class would go every year to Florida and swim with the manatees. It was an unbelievable experience I will never forget and will always treasure. If you ever get the chance, you should swim with the manatees. They are gentle giants fading fast and won’t be around for too much longer.

      • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

        Sean – Sounds like a wonderful experience you got to experience as a child! I hope you are wrong about the manatees dying out. 🙁

        • Traci Wood says:

          Hi guys, the manatees number is actually increasing, which is great news for a change. It is an amazing experience, and I would love to take you to see them. Give us a call at 352-601-8992 or visit our website at nativevacations.com
          Captain Traci

  4. I have bookmarked this post! Thanks for sharing! I have lived in Florida for 15 years and this has been on my list of things to do for awhile but we are waiting for our kids to get a little better at swimming.

    • Traci Wood says:

      Hi Jen, Native Vacations will be happy to take you and your family to see the manatees. Just let us know when you are ready.
      Captain Traci
      nativevacations.com
      352-601-8992

  5. Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

    Thank you, Bel, for this informative and inspiring post! I have added swimming with manatees to my bucket list!

  6. Wow swimming with Manatees is a cool experience. I want to take a photo under the sea while we are swimming in a cool water. This is one memorable thing that you must not forget.

    Ron of Disney Balloon Rides

  7. Suzanne Grey says:

    Swimming with Manatees can be a memorable experience. I have to prepare for this kind of event!

  8. I’m simply pleased I discovered this web page. Maybe you’d like to place a banner on my blogroll? How can I contact you on private?

  9. Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

    Daria – Thank you for the comment. Please see the Contact Us page for my email address.

  10. I thank you ALL for reading!
    As a single mum moments spent with my 10 year old Ilse are special like ALL mums. Travel has given us a different perspective and it is so beautiful to re-visit sites and see them through the lens of a 10 year old. Quite magical! I can only say GET OUT THERE with your kids while you can! They just grow zoo fast! Take plenty of digital pics too!

    bel

    • Hello ladies! This is Capt Traci. I cannot thank you enough for your recommendation on your blog! I have literally just found your site & I love it!!
      Best Wishes & Manatee Kisses….

  11. Hey thanks Bel for all the info I say for the times that you suggest to go its cold for that time of year and for people to go with Nature Coast Manatee Tours as they have a heated houseboat. Just food for thought they charge $50.00 per person great deal with all the amanatees 🙂

    Rose

  12. Great write up on your time with the manatees! Glad you enjoyed your trip to Citrus County. It’s an amazing place!

  13. Captain Traci Wood says:

    Thank you for the great write up, I am so happy that you and your family enjoyed your time with the lovable manatees!!

    Best Wishes & Manatee Kisses-
    Capt. Traci Wood

  14. William Fredrickson says:

    its not illegal to touch a manatee with two hands, thats an untrue statement. It is illegal to “alter the natural behavior of a manatee”. Simple as that. You chase it your altering its behavior, you disturb it while its eating, sleeping, resting, nursing etc. and you alter its behavior at the moment you’re now a criminal. Touch it with 2 hands, not a crime, sorry. Check into it. You may even contact an expert on the law such as Craig C or Ivan V with the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge complex in Crystal River Florida for cinfirmation on this two hand fable.

  15. Wow. what a perfect adventure. I would love to explore it shortly. Thanks for the details.

  16. Stacie @ Divine Lifestyle says:

    I would LOVE to swim with the manatees! I have always loved these creatures. They seem so sweet. <3

  17. I loved this post! Manatees are one of my favourite mammals and I had no idea you could swim with them!!

  18. Traci Wood says:

    Hi, we will be happy to take you to see the manatees! Just give us a call at 352-601-8992, and we will get you booked!
    Thank you
    Capt. Traci Wood
    Native Vacations

  19. What an amazing experience! Manatees are adorable and I would love an opportunity to get up close and personal with them.

  20. Oh wow, manatees are the best! I only ever really see them from the surface! They are such interesting sea animals.

  21. I want to do this! We actually went to this park once but didn’t get to swim with the manatees.

    • Traci Wood says:

      You may have visited the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Homosassa. It is a great park, and we recommend it to all of our customers. Glad you enjoyed it.
      Our manatee swimming tours are run on the Homosassa River too. You come visit next time, check us out at nativevacations.com
      Best wishes
      Captain Traci

  22. Janell Poulette says:

    I am actually from a little town about 1 hour from Homosassa and i have been swimming with the manatees before. It was so awesome, and not intimidating at all, like you said. I would recommend it to anyone!

  23. I saw one at the inlet and everyone freaked out, following along on the side for as far as we could. I’ve never hard of swimming with them though, that would be an awesome experience.

  24. Melissa Chapman says:

    We stayed at the Plantation Inn at Crystal River and it was one of our best vacations ever. We loved the manatees and got to swim with them in water that is warm year round. I second that it is a great experience for the whole family.

  25. Seattle Travel Blogger says:

    What an amazing experience! I would very much like to swim with manatees someday.
    Thanks for posting this information – the rules are interesting.
    And I thought these big guys could eat, but wow, 200 lbs of veggies a day!

  26. Louise Bishop says:

    Since i was you I have always wanted to do this. It would be so fun and relaxing!

  27. Annemarie LeBlanc says:

    Incredible experience! I wish I had a chance to do that. It saddens me that they are dwindling in number. I will try and see what I can do to help save the species.

  28. Traci Wood says:

    Hi Annemarie, thanks for your comment. I am happy to hear that you care about the manatees, they are a truly incredible creature. It a blessing for me to share them with people every day. However, the number of manatees has doubled in the past 18 years, since I have been conducting tours.
    You should come visit some time. Give us a call at 352-601-8992, or visit nativevacations.com.
    Thank you
    Captain Traci

  29. This is something I would want to experience in my lifetime. The manatee is such a beautiful and graceful creature. How thrilling it would be to swim side by side with them. I heard there are also places that offer swimming with the harmless whale sharks.

  30. Carol Cassara says:

    This sounds like an amazing experience. I can only imagine how exciting this would be. I would definitely want to experience this at least once in my life.

  31. Jocelyn @ Hip Mama's Place says:

    Manatees are amazing sea creatures. My kids would love swimming with them. Thanks for all the info on manatees!

  32. Wow this sounds incredible! i would love to do this with the kids someday!

  33. Traci Wood says:

    Hi Brianne, swimming with the manatees is a truly amazing experience, we would love to have you and your family here for a visit!
    Just give us a call at 352-601-8992, or visit our website at http://www.nativevacations.com.

    Thanks
    Captain Traci

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