Close your eyes and picture a manatee. If you are familiar, their faces look a little like a cow, with the whiskers of a seal, and the personality of a puppy. They are adorable, lovable, and sadly, defenseless. Did you know you can have an experience with them, in the wild, and learn more about what you can do to support conservation efforts for their habitats? Read on so you can plan to experience swimming with manatees!
I have always valued gifting experiences rather than “things”, and as my son has grown older, the opportunities for experiences have grown exponentially. I recalled an experience I had swimming with manatees many years earlier and realized this would be a perfect way to give my son a unique experience for his birthday, and an opportunity to educate him about this endangered animal and its unique and fragile habitat. Win!
What is a manatee? Where do they live and what do they eat?
Manatees look like big, cute potatoes with paddles, cruising along, grazing slowly on seagrass, and surfacing for air every 5 to 20 minutes. They are mammals that spend all their time living in the water. Scientific research has determined that one of the closest living relatives of the manatee is the elephant, having evolved possibly from the same land-based mammal. Crazy!
They are herbivores and generally move very slowly through shallow marshy-type areas where they can feed off sea grasses and plants. Their flat teeth are used to chew these plants, but they don’t bite! Those teeth gradually wear away over time and they continue to grow new teeth throughout their whole life.
Manatees are big, growing to as much as 13 feet long and 1300 pounds, but don’t let their size intimidate you! They are curious and friendly by nature. Their gentle personalities are driven by the fact that they have no natural predators.
Various species of manatees have been found in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the Amazon basin and some areas of West Africa. Their cousin, the dugong, can be found in other areas of the Indo-Pacific basin and occasionally, the Red Sea.
This post focuses on the interaction with manatees in the Gulf area of Florida, where larger congregations (called “herds”) of the West Indian species of manatee can be found, particularly in the winter months of North America (November through March).
Why are they endangered?
Sadly, despite having no natural predators, the greatest threat to manatees are humans.
The continued destruction of their natural habitat, as well as pollution in the waterways, causes a decline in the areas they can feed and breed. Toxins and trash dumped in waterways poison the manatees directly.
Manatees only reproduce once every 2 years, and the mother is pregnant, typically with only one calf, for 12 months. With such a long reproductive cycle, creating the best chance for calves to survive is imperative to the longevity of the species. Harassment and disturbance of the mother and calf cause distress and reduce the chance of survival.
Manatees do not dive particularly deep and generally stay just a few feet below the surface – a prime location to get injured or killed by boat and ship propellers. It is not uncommon and very heartbreaking to see manatees with visible injuries from their interaction with boats.
And, just like all creatures who live in fragile aquatic ecosystems, climate change directly affects – and threatens – their existence. For example, algae bloom caused by rising water temperatures can cause an immediate threat to the manatee population.
Following The Rules – Engaging with Endangered Animals
Please note that I am very wary and particular about animal encounters. Far too often these experiences are at the expense of the animal’s well-being and safety. As you consider planning an interaction to swim with manatees, please select a tour operator that is ethical and places a premium on the safety and respect for the animals involved.
As a protected animal, there are strict rules around interacting in the manatees’ home. Prior to swimming with manatees, it is important to help your children understand why they need to be respectful of this gentle creature, in order to help keep the manatee population alive and thriving for many generations to come. Of equal importance is that you demonstrate the same good citizenship and set an example for your child.
- Do not touch the manatees! Human hands have oils that can hurt marine life. Enjoy your encounter with your eyes only.
- Never feed the manatees! This applies to all wildlife. You don’t want to make them dependent on humans for food. Furthermore, their diets are specific to their environment; feeding them alternative foods can cause great harm and even possibly kill them.
- In the age of Instagram, everyone wants a selfie while swimming with manatees. However, it is critical that you give the manatees (like any wildlife) space. Do not crowd them or chase them, in pursuit of your perfect photo.
- “Do Not Enter – Manatee Refuge!” Several sites designated for swimming with manatees will have some areas roped off which are off limits to tourists. I am so grateful these areas exist so that the manatees have a safe space to rest away from human interaction. Do not bother these manatees or attempt to chase them out of the off-limits area.
- If you see a manatee resting or sleeping, leave it alone! No one likes to be woken up from a good snooze. Additionally, if a manatee is attempting to surface for air, don’t get in the way. As mammals, they must surface for air to live.
- Never try to separate a calf from the mother. Any mother will tell you this and I’m sure the manatee mother would too!
- Leave no footprint! Don’t leave any trash or trace of your visit to the manatees. You wouldn’t want a visitor leaving trash in your house, would you?
There are large fines associated with violating these rules, but more importantly, as a mindful traveler and steward of the environment, this should be your priority. Be sure to familiarize yourself and review with your child in advance of swimming with manatees.
Planning Your Trip to Swim with Manatees
1. Where to Go
One of the only places that you can legally get in the water and swim with manatees is in Crystal River, Florida. Crystal River is about a 1 1/2 hour drive north of the Tampa area.
Additionally, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is home to the only refuge specifically established to protect the habitat of Florida manatees.
2. When to Go
While some people will randomly experience manatee sightings periodically throughout the year in the Florida area, the best time to visit is in the winter months, November through March. This is because the manatees head to warmer water areas, such as springs, and are clustered there in greater numbers. This makes an encounter more likely.
The best time of day to swim with manatees is the earliest boat slot that you can book. During the earlier morning times, manatees will be feeding and at their most active (which is still pretty slow and mellow!). Finally, if you can, go on a weekday rather than a weekend to avoid larger crowds.
3. Tour Operators for Swimming with Manatees
There are multiple reputable tour operators around the Crystal River area who will make your experience swimming with the manatees memorable while keeping the animals safe. Two that I recommend:
River Ventures’ team is fun and professional. I’ve been swimming with manatees on more than one occasion with their team. They have 2 locations of operation, Crystal River and Homosassa. The store areas have designated areas to get prepared, suited up, and learn about passive observation and the endangerment of manatees and their habitat. The team is excellent at handling visitors of all ages and capabilities. There is space to leave anything you don’t want to bring on the boat (or you can always lock it in your car). Once you are ready, you’ll head out to the boat and begin your adventure. River Ventures offers options for boats that have plastic enclosures that stay heated, which can prove more comfortable for very early tours. At the end of the tour, explore the gift shop and consider buying the photos from your trip, which will either be sent to you electronically or provided on an external portable thumb drive.
Fun2Dive has an enthusiastic and highly engaged team. I’ve loved working with them and really enjoy the energy level of their manatee experience. Operating out of Crystal River, you’ll get fitted for your wet suit and educated about manatee protocols and the conservation work being done to help them. Once you are ready to go, the team will head out to explore. As with other operators, there are cute gift store options to commemorate your swim with the manatees, as well as the option to purchase the photos taken on your trip.
Swimming with Manatees Tours generally cost between $65-$85 per person (at time of publish), depending on season, day of the week, and tour selection. This generally applies to a seat aboard a small group shared tour. There are also options to book an entire private tour boat if you are traveling with a small group.
4. Preparation for Swimming with Manatees
Swimming and Snorkeling Ability
You don’t need to be a great swimmer for this adventure, as you are mainly floating in fairly shallow water. If need be, kids can even wear a life jacket in addition to the provided floatation device (for example, a pool noodle). However, while not stated as a prerequisite, I would suggest that having some exposure to snorkeling is needed for this activity. The time spent with the manatees is limited and if this is your first time learning to use a snorkel, it could be distracting.
I would recommend getting comfortable using a mask and snorkel a few times before swimming with manatees. This is particularly important if you are bringing children, as you don’t want to spend all your time adjusting masks or losing composure and risk scaring and possibly injuring the manatees in the process. Children and adults need to be calm and comfortable in the water environment.
However, should you not have a chance to do this in advance, RiverVentures let me know that their in-water guides will help you get comfortable in the water and practice floating with your pool noodle. Children as young as four years old have had wonderful experiences swimming with the manatees
5. What to Bring
There isn’t much you need; your tour provider will bring provide most of the critical items you’ll need for your time with these sweet creatures. Additionally, depending on your operator, space on the boat may be at a premium, so you don’t want to bring a lot of unnecessary gear. That being said, there are a few items that will make your tour more enjoyable:
- Wear a swimsuit. Your tour provider will fit everyone in your group with a thick wetsuit to keep you comfortable during your time in the water. Wearing an outfit that allows you to take the wetsuit on and off more easily helps. If you want to stay warmer, you can even wear a rashguard and leggings under your wetsuit.
- A towel. This item is most necessary so you can bundle up after your time in the water. A terry towel robe works well also. Don’t forget shoes that can pull on easily once you’ve dried off are convenient, and a dry bag to keep your items from getting wet as you and others exit the water.
- Warm Drinks & Snacks: Rule number one traveling with children – ALWAYS bring the snacks. Always. In this case, I encourage you to be mindful of the packaging of any snacks and be sure to take care that nothing ends up in the water. Fresh fruit, cheese sticks, dried fruit and trail mix are great options. You may have a tour provider who will bring hot chocolate. If not, a nice warm drink in a thermos is really a pleasant touch after you have finished your time in the water and are looking to warm up.
- Snorkel & Mask: Most operators will have these available for you and will allow you to select yours before you board the boat. However, I always prefer to bring our own, as I know they will fit perfectly and not leak, which can sometimes make for a less than enjoyable underwater experience.
- Extra Cash: Please bring a little extra cash to tip your guide and boat captain. Additionally, many of the operators will have someone in the water taking photos during your manatee experience and they will provide these via USB drive or a downloadable link for an additional charge. And don’t forget the manatee gift shop afterward!
- Dry Change of Clothes. Once you are back at the dock, the operator will have an area for you to comfortably change into dry clothes for your ride home. Be mindful to keep these items in a plastic or dry bag while on the boat.
6. What to Expect
Your tour operator will let you know how much time you need to arrive in advance of the boat departure, and it is important that you are on time. This preparation time is used to fit everyone in your party in their wet suits prior to boarding the boat. In most cases, you’ll be wearing a 3mm-5mm wetsuit (inventory varies depending on the operator) and if you’ve never experienced the struggle of pulling on thick neoprene, prepare for a bit of a workout! They have ample sizes for adults as well as children.
Once everyone is dressed and ready, the operator will give a short briefing about manatees, the rules for the manatee experience, and the impact humans have on the manatee habitat. This is an important conservation lesson, and it is critical that you pay attention and set an example for any little people with you.
Depending on your tour, the boat ride out to the manatee site won’t be particularly long. Once you are there, you’ll get a flotation device (for example, a foam pool noodle) to keep you on the surface easily. Swimming with manatees is a very low-effort experience that takes place typically in freshwater. In fact, the less you kick, the better your experiences will be for 2 reasons: a) you will not kick up sediment that reduces the visibility and clarity of the water and b) you won’t cause the manatees any distress. Floating along and observing is the best way to enjoy swimming with manatees.
The water depth in the areas selected for manatee experiences is typically not more than about 8 feet. You’ll be comfortably able to relax, float, observe, enjoy and return to the boat at your convenience.
Don’t splash or shout, and remember, your kids are taking a cue from your behavior. If a manatee comes toward them, help them stay calm. Manatees don’t have great eyesight underwater and are just curious about you! If you listen very closely, you might hear a high-pitched squeak underwater. Most likely, this is a baby manatee talking to its mother and it’s adorable!
Most tour guides will bring a camera in the water and take unobtrusive pictures of your manatee encounter which can usually be purchased for an additional fee. In my experience, you can bring your own GoPro or a smartphone with underwater protection. However, your guide knows how to get the best photos, leaving you to truly be present while swimming with the manatees. I would encourage you to take advantage of this option.
7. Where to Stay
The Crystal River area offers multiple reliable and budget-friendly locations to stay in the area if you are looking to come in the night before your tour or stay for some time afterward. There are also camping and RV park options.
Alternatively, Crystal River is also an easy day trip from Tampa, provided you are willing to make the drive early in the morning, should you have the earliest booking time for boat departure.
8. Alternative Manatee Adventures
While Crystal River is the only place to legally swim with the manatees, you might be lucky enough to encounter manatees during other water activities in the Florida area. Several operators offer kayak and canoeing trips to various areas of the state that are known to be frequented by manatees. Maintain a distance, don’t chase the manatees, and continue to be respectful of the manatee’s habitat.
9. Learn More, Take Action!
There is a wealth of information on all things manatee related at www.savethemanatee.org, including ManateeTV which allows you to watch manatee behavior from wherever you are in the world! The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regularly updates information about Florida manatees and their habitat. The Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project is working to help manatee cousins in other parts of the globe. These are just a few of the many resources available to learn more about what you can do to help save the manatees.
May your manatee adventure help you develop a new love and respect for this gentle creature whose home and future are in peril. You are now a Manatee Ambassador and when we know more, we have a responsibility to do more. So, please be sure to educate those around you on how they can help protect the manatee also. If you take a tour to swim with manatees, let us know how it goes below!! Happy Roaming!
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