To be able to swim with manatees was a dream come true! And we did it in the “Manatee Capital of the World” which makes it even more special!
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The Crystal River area of Florida is known for having a high concentration of manatees during the winter months. From November to March, manatees travel to the Kings Bay area in Citrus County because of it’s warmer waters. What most people don’t realize (I didn’t) is that manatees don’t actually have a lot of fat on them. Their body mass is primarily made up of their stomach and intestines. So without sufficient blubber, they need to stay in water at least above 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 degrees Celsius). The waters that bubble up from the springs in Kings Bay create a kind of manatee jacuzzi, perfect for staying warm!
Growing up in Florida, manatees were always around. Every once in awhile we’d see one in the canal by our house. We learned about them in school. We saw them at the Miami Seaquarium, where injured manatees are rehabilitated and then put back in the wild. Our most recent experience with manatees was seeing them while we were kayaking in Miami. But to be able to swim with the manatees was something completely new and we couldn’t wait to see these amazing creatures up close.
Pro Tip: Check out this post for more things to do in Crystal River.
We started our day at Plantation Adventure Center at 7 am. They’re a part of Plantation on Crystal River, the hotel where we were staying for the weekend. You don’t have to be a hotel guest to book a tour with them though.
It was a bit chilly (by Florida standards) with temperatures in the low 60s. I was a little concerned about getting in the water, but Plantation Adventure Center provides everyone with wet suits. And not just any wet suits either; 5 mm wet suits! They’re the only tour company in the area that uses them (everyone else uses 3 mm) which means you’ll stay warmer and you’ll be able to float better. You can change into your wet suit outside on the deck or in the bathrooms off to the side of the main building.
After wiggling into our wet suits, we went back inside to see a video on “passive observation.” Unlike other parts of Florida, the Federal Government has allowed for passive observation in the waters of Kings Bay. This means that people can come face to face with manatees, literally. More on passive observation in a bit…
After the video, our group got on the boat. Once we were settled and had started the quick journey to King Spring, Captain Ross again told us about the do’s and don’ts of being in the water with manatees.
In what seemed like just a few minutes, we had reached our destination. There were already some other tour companies there and people in the water. We could see the morning fog lifting and were excited to get in the water. After rinsing our snorkels and masks (which were provided) we slowly got in the water.
The first thing I did was check to see if my phone was working properly. I recently bought a new waterproof case for my phone so that I’d be able to take pictures underwater.
If you’re curious, below is the exact waterproof case that we bought. We decided not to go with a more well-known (and more expensive) brand just to see how it went and we thought it worked out great. It came with instructions on how to open and close the case and how to test it to make sure it sealed properly.
Once we made sure we could take pictures, we all slowly started to make our way towards Captain Ross, who was already in the water a few meters away. When I say slowly, I mean almost glacial. One of the most important things to remember when swimming with manatees is not to splash around or make noise. So we were basically doggy paddling with only our hands, no kicking around with our feet.
Other tour companies give their guests fins, but Plantation Adventure Center does not, as it causes too much splashing. Splashes and noises scare the manatees, so you always want to avoid it. There are roped off areas as well that you should never swim into. These areas are manatee sanctuaries and there are signs that strictly warn about trespassing into those waters.
So we floated and slowly swam around. I was trying to make my way towards Captain Ross since he said there was a manatee near him, when I felt my hand bump against something. I’d had my head above water, so I quickly looked below me. There was a manatee swimming right under me!!
I’m not gonna lie… I slightly panicked. I mean, these suckers are huge! But I remembered what we were told and just froze so that the manatee could continue on it’s way, undisturbed. Letting out the breath I realized I’d been holding in, I continued towards Captain Ross. This time I was a little bit more prepared for a close encounter and had my phone ready as the next manatee swam towards me.
For almost 2 hours we stayed in the water while the manatees came and went. Some came so close I could see the hairs on their back. Some ignored us completely and swam along in the deeper water (we were only allowed to float on top of the water, no diving in). And some really seemed to enjoy our company and kept coming back. It seemed they liked getting their belly rubbed. There was one big fellow in particular that would literally swim up and roll over in front of us.
What surprised me was that Captain Ross was able to recognize some of the manatees. Although there are literally hundreds of manatees that come to the springs to stay warm during the winter, there are some that he and others are able to recognize by their markings, personality, and (unfortunately) scars. One playful baby manatee that kept coming back for cuddles was affectionately called Wrinkles.
Eventually we all started making our way back towards the boat. The wet suits had kept us surprisingly warm, but once we were out of the water the chill in the air got to us. Luckily, there was hot chocolate waiting for us on the boat! Everyone in the group excitedly talked about what they had seen and experienced as we headed back.
If you’re thinking of swimming with manatees, here is more information on passive observation:
Swimming with manatees in Crystal River is an experience we will never forget. It was great to see these gentle giants up close and to learn more about them and their natural habitat.
Have you ever been up close to a manatee or been to Crystal River? We’d love to read your comments below! 🙂
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**A big thank you to Discover Crystal River Florida for arranging our swim. Although the tour was complimentary, as always, all opinions are our own.**