We check one more thing off our bucket list during our stay at Crystal River! Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to swim with dolphins. While not quite as sleek and agile, swimming with manatees is probably the next best thing!
How to Go Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida
We had heard from others that it was an amazing experience, and so we knew we had to make it happen.
Swimming with Manatees Groupon
I found a GroupOn online for a fabulous company called Manatee Tour and Dive located right on the bay. This company is very focused on giving you the best experience possible and making sure they and all their participants are respectful to the manatees. They were very knowledgeable and you could easily see that they cared deeply about these creatures, which was very important to Tom and me. I’ll come back to this point later in the article to explain this more.
When to Swim with Manatees
We’ve heard that the earlier you go the better, but couldn’t fathom get up at 5AM to be in the water at 7AM when it was only going to be 45 degrees out. BRRR! We were anticipating chilly weather as it was. We signed up for the 10AM slot, and showed up the requested 45 minutes early to get registered.
Pro Tip: Before you go swimming with manatees, make sure you know Is There Really a Risk to Swimming After Eating?
How to Swim with Manatees
Apparently, there is more etiquette to swimming with the manatees than we were originally aware. We learned everything from our guides as they prepared us for our tour.
They supplied us with wetsuits, flotation noodles, masks, and snorkels. However, they did not provide flippers.
When I asked why, they said that when swimming with manatees, you make very small moments as not to disturb the manatees. Flippers create lots of water movement and also make it difficult to move around with any sort of precision.
Rules for Swimming with Manatees
Then we went over the manners for swimming with manatees:
(you can watch all the videos for preparation at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Website)
Summary of the rules:
- Touch a manatee
- Chase a manatee
- Put your feet down as that may block the manatee’s path
- Dive down to a manatee
- Splash or make disruptive noises
- Cross the sanctuary lines
Finally, if a manatee approaches you, you freeze and let it chose how to interact, a.k.a. passive observation.
We boarded the boat and motored out into the bay. We were SO excited, and our tour guides were joyfully telling us about manatees and answering all our questions.
First Manatee Sighting
They took us first to one area with a small spring. There were already two boats there, and our captain only spotted one manatee. He turned us around and said we’d go somewhere else. We all started to worry…would it be hard to find manatees to swim with? We saw a couple manatees swimming along the channels as we boated to the next possible location. Each sighting building our anticipation, and raising our hopes!
Three Sisters Springs Manatee Sanctuary
The next place had even more boats, and lots of swimmers in the water. They had taken us to Three Sisters Springs, the most beautiful spring system in Kings Bay and the most important for wintering manatees.And there were LOTS of manatees – but they were all huddled behind the sanctuary lines.
We all unloaded from our boat in the water, and even with the wet suit on the water was a bit chilly. The West Indian Manatee can only survive in waters warmer than 68 degrees, so it wasn’t anything like Lake Superior, but it was cool enough to lower your core temperature after an extended time. Still, it was better than the 50 degree temperature of the air! The water was only about 10 feet deep here, and visibility was probably only 15 meters.
Into the Water!
We listened to some last instructions from our in-water guide about how to position our noodle just right to float parallel to the water’s surface and to keep our feet out of the water vs. hanging down and potentially being in a manatee’s way should it swim under us.
We made our way over to the edge of the sanctuary boundary, and peered through the somewhat cloudy water to the large gray blobs just out of sight about 20 meters away.
Then it was a waiting game.
Up Close with the Manatees
Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait very long at all! Within several minutes, a manatee decided to leave the sanctuary and go somewhere else, and swam right underneath us, passing within just a few feet! I cannot even describe the feeling of having something so large moving past you – under you – like that.
The urge to reach out and touch it as it went by was there, but I also didn’t want to scare it.
Manatees are covered in…hair?
Being that close, we could see that their skin is not smooth. In fact, it is covered in hairs standing on end that they use to feel vibrations in the water. These hairs – like the whiskers of a cat – are very sensitive so that they can be aware of all their surroundings and sense when something is approaching or moving near them. This is why it is extremely important to follow the passive observation rule and minimize your movements in the water.
Please, Don’t Be That Person!
Our tour guides were awesome at making sure all of us were respectful and kept our feet up. A lot of the other tour companies were not as diligent or considerate toward the manatees. We were appalled at some of the behaviors of people – chasing the manatees, putting their feet down to block the manatees’ paths, shouting, splashing, and more.
We saw several groups with flippers that were flopping around on the surface of the water.
This is the proper way to interact with a manatee passing under you – freeze and keep arms and legs ups! It is people like that who are going to take the opportunity and privilege away from others to experience these magnificent creatures.
I wouldn’t be surprised if they completely closed off Three Sisters Spring or expand the sanctuary boundary lines to keep people further away from the manatees, or make it so you can’t swim in the same waters.
Three Sisters Springs – Channel Entrance
Three Sisters Springs is a complex of three springs consisting of vents, sand boils and crystal clear spring water that help feed Kings Bay, the headwaters of the Crystal River. It has a channel from King’s Bay into the spring that manatees, swimmers, and kayakers use to access the springs by water.
When our boat arrived at the spring, the channel entrance to the spring was closed. This was because there were so many manatees in the spring that they wouldn’t allow people to go in and crowd the already crowded space.
About 15 minutes before our boat was supposed to leave, the park opened the spring! Our in-water guide seemed to be just as excited as we were, and she gathered the handful of us that wanted to go near the entrance. Note: You can only enter the spring with a trained guide.
Swimming up the Channel
We started our way up the shallow, narrow channel. It was only about 6-8 feet wide, 4-5 feet deep, and manatees were actually coming down it! That meant that they were passing by us, one after another, just inches away. In the shallower water, we used our hands and feet to propel ourselves along by pushing on the rocks until we came to the open spring area. It was unbelievably clear and colorful compared to the canal we had been in up to then.
Once in the spring area, we came upon a mother manatee nursing a baby!
Further into the spring we found a HUGE manatee that we later learned was pregnant. We slowly approached and observed her. The soon-to-be-mama manatee ignored us, by as the others turned to leave, she slowly drifted right up to my face, and looked at me with her strange, flat eyes. I could see her nostrils, her long whiskers, and her mouth all so clearly.
Time seemed to slow and my heart hammered as we regarded each other. It hit me how large she was, probably 10 times my size, and that was very humbling. While I didn’t feel fear, I was momentarily intimidated. But she just looked at me, slowly drifting by, and that intimidation just turned into awe. I resisted the urge to reach out to her as I did not wanting to spook her.
The rest of the group was calling for me to leave, but there was no way I was going to leave now when I was so close – this was what I had hoped for! A few minutes later, the manatee turned away from me, and went back to resting. I used my hands to ever so slowly turn away from her and make my way back towards the group.
Hypothermia – noun – the condition of having an abnormally low body temperature, typically one that is dangerously low. A medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat.
I think it is impossible to swim with the manatees in the winter and not get mild hypothermia. The tours are nearly 2 hours long, and being that long in 70 degree water will definitely lower your body temperature. The day we went, it happened to only be 50 degrees out of the water, too. Let’s just say we were pretty cold on our 10-minute boat ride back (not to mention the next couple of hours as our core temps returned to normal).
Thank goodness for the cup of hot cocoa that our tour crew had ready for us the second we got out of the water!
Regardless, it was totally worth it!
While we took a few of the pictures ourselves, we wouldn’t have had such amazing pictures from this trip if it wasn’t for our Manatee Tour and Dive in-water tour guide, Shellie! She took tons of great photos, which were available for purchase shortly after returning to the shore. Tip: If you stick close to the tour guide, you could get lots of pictures of you and your group to document your trip!
If you’re looking for a great swimming with manatees GroupOn deal, we highly recommend the Manatee Tour and Dive folks.
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