Today I want to share an experience with you that is both easy to do and truly unique: swimming with manatees in Crystal River, Florida. Deal Girl and I recently spent a morning with Bird’s Underwater and fell in love with the gentle giants’ antics.
Where on earth is Crystal River?
That was certainly my first question when a reader told me about a swimming with manatees tour during our MacGyvered Spring Break trip to Tampa. Crystal River is about an hour north of Tampa and an hour west of Orlando. Crystal River is home to a number of springs that create prime conditions for manatees.
As the best tours leave at 6:30AM (more in a minute) you’ll want to spend the night in Crystal River. The best points option is probably the Holiday Inn Express just five minutes from the marina. The hotel is new, clean, has friendly service and serves breakfast starting at 6AM- clearly they’re used to early risers. Even better, I was able to submit a successful BRG so our stay was free!
Swimming with Manatees
Once you learn about swimming with manatees you’ll quickly also learn that a number of companies advertise what appears to be the same trip. I contacted Bird’s Underwater due to their experience (being open since 1979) and their emphasis on manatee protection. Bird’s invited us along on a tour to see firsthand what the experience is like.
We went in late April which is not supposed to be “manatee season”. Even so our expert guide Rik easily found two separate pods for us to visit. Bird’s limits groups to 8 or so which makes a HUGE difference- especially in off-season when fewer manatees swim the waters of Crystal River and nearby King’s Bay.
Rik had many decades of experience and knew just where to go and how to instruct us to best appreciate the manatees. The best advice he gave was to let them come to us- and come they did! I always thought manatees were shy- and when they’re bothered they will move in a hurry- but if you don’t seem like a threat they’ll come right up to you.
And I mean RIGHT UP TO YOU. Check out this video of Deal Girl getting a “kiss”:
Not something she’s gonna forget!
I will say that swimming with manatees in off-season meant that in addition to fewer of them being around the water was murkier. I can’t wait to go in the winter when they populate the springs by the hundreds.
Some tips and random thoughts
- Time of day matters! Manatees are most active early in the morning. Fortunately, most humans aren’t so a 6:30AM tour will beat most other tours that start at 7 or 7:30AM. On our way back we came across five boats checking out the same pod. With that many people I’m not sure how you could feel up close like we did.
- Size of the tour matters as well. I wouldn’t go out with more than 10, especially off season when fewer manatees are about.
- The tour was totally kid-friendly, but they should be old enough to follow directions and of course know how to swim.
- Manatees are no longer endangered but should still be treated with respect. If you do you will be rewarded!
- I had no idea how much manatee skin looked like elephant skin until I got within an inch of it.
Have you had a chance to swim with manatees? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments.
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