Let’s be real, the main reason I went on my trip to Florida (and to escape the Boise cold) was so that I could see a manatee in real life. I did an animal report on them in 2nd grade and ever since then I wanted to swim with manatees. I’ve always thought they seemed so gentle and friendly and always reminded me of puppy dogs in the water.
So, when I found out that the manatees usually come in from the ocean in the winter in Florida, I knew I HAD to go swim with them. Let’s just say getting to swim with manatees was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, but it does take a bit of planning. So, here’s exactly what you need to know when swimming with them in Florida!
SWIM WITH MANATEES: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
via Janiel @ CultureTrekking.com
WHAT TIME OF YEAR CAN YOU SEE MANATEES?
Wintertime is the best time to swim with manatees in Florida. The reason for this is that manatees need to be in about 72 degree waters or else they can go into shock (if they are too cold). So, they come into the rivers and bays in the winter when the ocean is too cold for them. The best months to spot them in Florida is anywhere from December-February. Try going on a weekday if at all possible to have the least amount of people. We went on a holiday weekend, so it was packed with people, but we still got to see them! They say the best days to see manatees is when it’s actually somewhat colder weather. That’s because it’s too cold for manatees in the ocean, so the migrate to the rivers.
(Me at the gigantic manatee statue outside the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park)
WHERE CAN YOU GO TO SWIM WITH MANATEES?
There are a lot of great spots to see manatees in Florida and they really are all over the Crystal River area in the winter. However, it’s really important to know how to swim ethically and sustainably with manatees before you attempt to do it. There are a lot of rules you need to follow in order to passively watch them. We learned a lot about how to watch them without kicking our legs, what to do if one does come up to you, and how to not disturb them in their natural habitat. All this and more is why I recommend going on a tour to see them.
WHO SHOULD I BOOK MY MANATEE TOUR WITH?
After quite a bit of research of different Florida manatee tours, my local friends, Ed and Jenn Coleman of Coleman Concierge, were highly recommended the Bird’s Underwater manatee tours. They are known for being extremely ethical and following all of the rules while you’re swimming with manatees. I was happy to go with a company that actually cares about these animals’ well-being and aren’t just out there to make money. Shout out to Bird’s Underwater for such a great experience!
WHAT TIME SHOULD I DO THE TOUR?
I highly recommend going on the first tour your company offers. Our tour guides at Bird’s also recommended this. The earlier the better in order to spot manatees without other people around. Plus, in the mornings they are a little more active and may have just come in from the ocean, so are usually eating or just resting. Bird’s Underwater offers a 6am tour, which is the one I would try and do if I were you. Plus, they are typically the first Crystal River manatee tour boat out from the dock, so your chances of seeing them are a lot higher.
WHAT TO PACK FOR SWIMMING WITH MANATEES?
If you’re booking with a company to see the manatees then you’ll most likely be provided with a wetsuit, a noodle to float with (so you don’t kick your legs), booties, snorkel mask defog, and a snorkel mask. Our tour also provided us with snacks and drinks, which was nice after a long day of swimming. The water is colder than you might think, so I highly recommend the wet suit! If you have your own snorkel, quick-dry towel, dry-bag and underwater camera (not a long selfie stick though), I recommend bringing those.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
To get on a public group tour at Bird’s Underwater, the cost for one person is $59.95. This can go up to $65 in peak months (November-April) and the tour lasts for about 3 hours. Many tour companies can also do private group tours as well. Try and book in advance to get the earlier time slots, especially on busier weekends like President’s Day.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU SEE A MANATEE?
The key to ethically swimming with manatees is to passively watch them. You are not supposed to go up to them, touch them, get too close, or swim above them. You’re also not supposed to use your legs to swim (only your arms) in case a manatee is to swim up behind you.
Manatees can be very curious, especially baby manatees, so they might want to come up to you. We didn’t have that happen to us because there were so many people around, but it does happen occasionally. If one does come up to you, you can touch it, but only if your arm is bent. If your arm is bent that means you aren’t actively trying to reach out and touch the manatee.
MANATEE RESTING ZONES
Where we toured, there are spots that are called ‘manatee resting zones’ where the manatees know they can go and lay down without being disturbed by humans. You can look inside of these, but you aren’t allowed to go inside of these areas, so you have to respect that if you’re going to swim with them. I was fine just watching them. They come up for air every few minutes (the max they can old their breath is 20 mins), so you’re bound so see them moving, even if you find sleeping manatees.
HOW TO GET TO CRYSTAL RIVER?
Crystal River is on the west coast of Florida and can be accessed easily from Orlando (about 1.5 hour drive) and similar distance from St. Pete/Tampa area. I was with friends who had a car, but before I knew I was going with them I did some research on rental cars. It costs about $25-$40 per day for a rental, but there are also bus lines as well. I ended up flying into Orlando, driving with friends to Crystal River and then flying out of Tampa after spending a few days there and St. Pete. It’s a great little road-trip if you’re looking for something fun to do in the winter! I spent about 5 1/2 days on my road-trip and it was wonderful.
WHERE TO STAY?
We ended up staying in Homosassa at the Holiday Inn and it was the perfect location to Birds Underwater and the pontoon boat tour down the river we went on. There’s also a few other places to stay in the area, but we didn’t spend much time at the hotel so it was fine. We originally wanted to stay at a little Airbnb house, but they were sold out for the holiday weekend. If you can, try booking an Airbnb in the Crystal River or Homosassa area. Here’s a discount code for your next Airbnb stay!
Find more Florida Hotel Deals & Discounts here!
Manatees are endangered, so it’s important to be extremely cautious when swimming with them. Our guide at Bird’s doesn’t think the tour companies will be able to do what they are doing for too much longer because some people are really ruining it for people by not following the rules.
They really are amazing creatures and I could have watched them for hours and hours. It’s a bummer when you see some people trying to get too close or scare them off, but I’m so glad I got the experience because it was HIGH on my bucket list. 🙂
CHECK OUT THIS VIDEO OF OUR TRIP SWIMMING WITH THE MANATEES!
Courtesy of Janiel at Culture Trekking
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Manatees are my favorite thing about living in Florida. They are just so darn cute. The babies are the absolute cutest thing ever. Good solid list about swimming with manatees. You also make me want to go riding on a pontoon.
They really are the cutest thing ever!!! 🙂 Come ride on a pontoon with me!!
I followed your adventures on Instagram when you were doing this! I love being a lurker on these manatee adventures. I would never actually want to go into the water myself, I prefer to observe from above, but I do love the videos and the photos. They seem to be so awkwardly graceful, it is hard NOT to love them! And it is SO important to protect them!
This looks like so much fun! I didn’t realize that you can swim with them, but really like that they provide protection from the tourists – we all know how crazy they can be. Thanks for all the tips on how to avoid being aquatically awkward around them, lol.