Swimming with Manatees, Florida’s Gentle Giants

Is swimming with manatees on your bucket list? You can swim with these gentle giants in their natural habitat in Crystal River, Florida. These curious creatures 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. Here’s why and how to swim with wild manatees in Florida.

swim with manatees florida
Swimming with manatees in an incredible life experience (Photo credit: Depositphotos.com)

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Manatee Capital of the World

Crystal River is known as the manatee capital of the world. It is located in Citrus County on the west coast of Florida, in the heart of the Nature Coast.

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.

Manatees at Crystal River
Manatees at Crystal River (Photo credit: thediver123. Depositphotos.com)

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

Snorkelers, divers, and swimmers come from all over the world for a chance to swim 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.

According to Discover Crystal River Florida, “The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge consists of 20 islands in and around Kings Bay. The 80-acre refuge (only accessible by boat) was established in 1983, to protect the West Indian Manatee.”

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

Crystal River, Florida
Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida (Photo credit: JohnHancockPhoto, Depositphotos.com)

Crystal River Manatee Tour

Our days started in the early morning. This is the perfect time of day to snorkel with the manatees before they tire of visitors.

My daughter and I 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 these wild animals.


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.”

Unfortunately, these large aquatic mammals are on the Endangered Species List. The Endangered Species Act forbids touching a manatee unless it touches you first, and they will let you know. Two hands are illegal.

The rules are strict in Homosassa, and the protection of the resident manatees is taken very seriously. It is illegal to chase, ride, or harass these large aquatic animals. But these rules won’t diminish your experience in the least bit. Most of the manatees are very social and will come to you.

State law forbids 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.

Two endangered Florida Manatee nose to nose
Two endangered Florida Manatee nose to nose (Photo credit: YAYImages, Depositphotos.com)

Children Can Swim with Manatees

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 slowly paddling around.

Thankfully, these curious creatures often enjoy human interaction. Swimming with the manatees is not at all difficult or intimidating. There were children younger than my daughter, Ilse (who was 10), as well as seniors in the water. There was an abundant feeling of energy and curiosity among us all. (Children must be age 3+ to participate in group tours.)

These gentle creatures 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, then swam alongside and nibbled at us. 

Book your swimming with manatees adventure now or read on to learn more.

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

When to Swim with Manatees

The best time of year for a manatee experience is during the winter months. That’s when the largest concentration of manatees gathers here to seek refuge from the chillier waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

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 72 F degrees year-round.

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

Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park

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. This is a far cry from a modern-day aquarium.

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 headwater of the Homosassa River, a natural spring that gushes forth millions of gallons of fresh crystal clear water per hour.

Plantation on Crystal River
Plantation on Crystal River (Photo credit: Plantation on Crystal River)

Where to Stay Near the Manatees

I recommend staying at the Plantation on Crystal River for its lovely accommodations and guided wildlife excursions. This eco-friendly resort is perfectly located to view the manatees daily. Read reviews of this resort here.

A mama manatee and her calf in Crystal River, Florida
A mama manatee and her calf (Photo credit: pclark2, Depositphotos.com)

Why Swim 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 this place with unforgettable memories. We have become avid supporters of protecting and preserving these friendly, docile creatures for generations to come.

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.

Manatee in Crystal River, Florida
It would be hard not to fall in love with manatees after a visit to Crystal River (Photo credit: YAYImages, Depositphotos.com)

Book your Manatee Experience of a Lifetime

Is swimming with manatees on your bucket list?

Book a 3-hour group swim with manatees adventure! Mask, snorkel, wet suit, and bottled water are provided on this affordable tour.


To swim with less people in your tour group, choose a VIP 3-hour small-group tour! This option includes coffee, tea, hot chocolate, juice, water, and cocktails served aboard a luxury pontoon boat.

Visiting Orlando? You can book a manatees boat, snorkel, and swim tour with transportation from your Orlando hotel.

A manatee eating lettuce
A manatee eating greens (Photo credit: wrangel, Depositphotos.com)

Fun Facts About Manatees

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

Much to our surprise, this official marine mammal of Florida is also nearsighted.

The majestic manatee is sometimes referred to as a sea cow for its docile temperament and beefy body shape.

The manatee’s closest living relative is the elephant.

Manatees devour more than 4 to 9 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 sea grass, water hyacinth, hydrilla, and water lettuce.

A rescued manatee being released back into the wild by Save the Manatee Club
A rescued manatee being released back into the wild by Save the Manatee Club (Photo credit: Save the Manatee Club)

Help Save the Manatees

You can help manatee conservation efforts! Adopt a manatee for just $25 through the Save the Manatee Club. Choose from a list of adoptable manatees to support their care and survival.

Save the Manatee Club is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of manatees. It was founded in 1981 by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett and Governor of Florida (and later U.S. Senator) Bob Graham. The charity received a score of 95.79 out of 100 from Charity Navigator.

Feeding spider monkeys at Monkey Jungle in Miami
Teenager feeding spider monkeys at Monkey Jungle (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Discover Additional Animal Adventures in Florida

You can kayak with manatees and hand-feed spider monkeys in Miami. Learn about these animal encounters and more with this list of things to do in Miami.

Interacting with dolphins and deep-sea fishing are just two of the many amazing things to do at Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys.

View alligators in the wild and see a flamboyance of flamingoes with these Fort Lauderdale activities for families.

To plan your trip to the Sunshine State, be sure to read about the best Florida family vacation destinations.

How to Swim with Manatees in Florida

Keep These Tips

Dreaming of swimming with manatees? Be sure to save the image above to Pinterest. Go ahead and follow Travel Mamas on Pinterest while you’re at it!

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

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

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  1. These creatures seem so lovely. I’ll be booking a trip to see these creatures face to face soon. I just had a question on the trip. What are some things I should keep in mind while on the trip? Things like nearby places to stay, eat, and other spots to see. What might I have to keep in mind? Thanks in advance!

  2. I am going to Florida in April. Are you open? I read they are only usually there till March. This would be so fun to bring my mom to. She’d (we’d) love this!!

  3. I would love to do this but we are traveling down that way in July. From what I understand they are not in the inlet during that time?

    1. Typically the manatees are present December to March during their annual migration so it looks like you’ll miss them. Hopefully you can swim with manatees on a future trip?!

  4. Hey, are you sure we’re able to touch the manatee, if they touch us first? On the endangered species act, it says no touching. I was wondering if you just have newer information. Thanks in advance, and also for any information you can link as well! =)

    1. Hi Johathan – Thank you for your question. To get clarification on this point, I reached out to River Ventures, which offers manatee interactions in the area. They reiterated that swimmers are allowed to touch the manatees with one open hand at the surface of the water, but only if the manatee initiates contact. Apparently it is not illegal to touch the manatees but it is illegal to disturb them. That’s why guides are there to make sure participants are following the rules and not upsetting the animals in any way. River Ventures errs on the side of caution regarding any touching of the manatees.