Disclosure: Swimming with manatees and visiting Crystal River, Florida was hosted by Discover Crystal River. As always, all opinions are my own.
Citrus County, Florida is the only place in the US that you can go swimming with manatees legally. When manatees became a protected species, it became illegal to interact with wild manatees. Citrus County was the only place were such interaction was still allowed. Manatees are HUGE in Citrus County. In fact, it is considered the manatee capital of the world. Residents love and are very protective of the manatees who visit during winter months. Want to start a conversation with a local? Ask them about manatees. Everyone has a story about how manatees affect their lives. Everyone.
One of the best ways to understand why is to get up close and personal with a manatee. We headed out into King’s Bay with Manatee Tour & Dive. Twelve, mostly international, tourists climbed aboard a small tour boat. Our captain, Alex, was joined by our guide, Brody. Both were Crystal River locals. It didn’t take long to realize that both knew Kings Bay like the back of their hands. First, we headed over to Three Sisters Springs. Since the weather was quite cold, the actual springs were roped off and closed to swimmers. This allows the manatees in the springs to hang out in large numbers without swimmers in there too.
Each swimmer was outfitted with a wet suit, a mask, a snorkel and a pool noodle. You see, the way to see manatees is to just float. Kicking and thrashing about makes the manatees say “Adios” and head in the opposite direction. They much prefer calm, quiet people that they can approach IF they want. Swimmers are not allowed to chase or force themselves upon the manatees. Do that and you will QUICKLY be asked to stop or leave by either a local or Fish & Wildlife. Everyone takes the healthy and happiness of the wild manatees very seriously. In fact, guides are specifically trained to protect the manatees well being and swimmers are asked to watch this Manatee Manners video before they ever enter the water.
Everyone just hung out and hoped to see a manatee. Unfortunately, a mating pod of manatees had come through Three Sisters right before we arrived. Their huge paddle shaped tails can really stir up the sediment from the bottom of the river. After seeing a few manatees in very cloudy water, our captain and guide called it and decided to move to another area.
We headed over to another are that locals call House. It is a spring inside a little enclave between homes. Manatees seemed curious to visit House to see what was going on. More often than not, they realized that it was pretty boring and left again. We got to see quite a few of these curious giants while they had a look around.
After visiting with the manatees at House, it was time to head back. Our two hour tour FLEW by. I really appreciated that our captain and guide worked hard to make sure we got to see manatees on our tour. When you are dealing with wild animals in an uncontrolled environment, you can’t guarantee interaction. However, their knowledge of the area and their care to show their clients the best tour possible, really came through.
The Manatee Swim with Manatee Tour & Dive is perfect for people visiting Crystal River who want to see manatees but don’t have a ton of time. You be suited up, swim and return in under 4 hours. It’s also great for those who are less able to do more physical options like kayaking the Chassahowitzka. It’s easy, relatively quick and awesome.
Once you get up close and personal with these gentle giants, you realize how truly beautiful they are. How many other wild animals can you swim near without worry of aggression or danger? Manatees share their calm, simple existence with the humans who swim with them. It is hard to explain but their peace and tranquility is infectious. It is one of the most magical things I have experienced. Oh and kids love it too. Visiting Crystal River is Evan’s favourite thing we’ve done on our entire trip…it beat White Sands, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone! That says a lot.
36 N.E. 4th Street
Crystal River, Florida 34429
Open 7 days a week & holidays with a reservation