I had the pleasure of swimming with manatees in Florida thanks to a collaboration with Hunter Springs Kayaks and Moon Guides. Read on for my full review!
There is only one place in the U.S. where you can swim with manatees in the wild – Crystal River, Florida.
This is an ethical animal interaction that is worth supporting. Here’s how you can plan your experience.
Where is Crystal River?
Crystal River is located on the West Coast of Florida, near the Gulf of Mexico.
Every year, manatees come inland by the hundreds (thousands!) in search of the warmth provided by Florida’s hot springs.
There are more than 70 springs in the area, several of which are popular manatee viewing spots like Homosassa Springs.
I went to the Kings Bay area specifically. Crystal River and Kings Bay is the largest winter refuge for manatees and a huge attraction in itself. It is also a residential areas, with many homes and docks along the water.
Importantly, this is a protected area. The springs themselves are usually blocked off by buoys. You cannot go past the barriers, not even on a tour.
Your tour will take you to just beyond the ropes and borders, from which you will still see plenty.
What Tour Operator Should You Use?
There are many tour operator options, and you can always go yourself if you have knowledge of the area.
I was grateful for Moon Guides in this instance because they cover manatees extensively in their Florida and road trip books.
Specifically, The Open Road by Jessica Dunham is excellent because it details 50 of the best road trips in the United States. Also, Moon’s Florida Gulf Coast book is great for nature lovers and outdoor adventurers.
Both of these books by different authors recommend the same tour operator – Hunter Springs Kayak & Manatee Tour. So, that’s who I went with!
Thankfully, Moon Guides did not steer me wrong. One thing that stood out was that our guide brought a thermos filled with hot water on his paddleboard for us so we could warm up after our swim with tea or hot chocolate.
There were rival guides in the water, and they looked at that thermos longingly, reassuring us how rare it was for a guide to go above and beyond to bring one (and the mastery of paddleboarding required to pull that off).
Another really cool feature of our time with Hunter Springs Kayak was that our guide took underwater photos and videos on a GoPro and sent us a link after to all the files. I got the link the same day! Talk about good service.
How much does it cost to swim with manatees?
A manatee snorkel tour with Hunter Springs Kayaks costs $55 per adult ($45 for children 7 and under).
The rate includes a wetsuit, mask, and snorkel, as well as equipment rental.
There is a morning tour at 8am and afternoon tour at 2pm, you can pick the time that works for you.
Keep in mind you should arrive at the shop at least 45 minutes before your tour.
What does swimming with manatees consist of?
Before you depart, you’ll need to partake in a safety presentation to learn about how to properly interact with the manatees.
In general, manatees are very sensitive. The cilia all over their bodies allows them to sense movement from several feet away. This includes your heartbeat.
As a result, you should aim to be calm around the manatees.
This is the best way to encourage them to come towards you and play with you, otherwise they may feel overstimulated by you and swim away.
We also learned that manatees don’t particularly like having someone behind them because they can’t see back there and it’s a pain for them to have to rotate and check it out, so you’re advised to avoid being in that position.
On your tour, your guide will be on the lookout for manatees and decide what springs to take you to, depending on the traffic and activity that day.
You might be visiting 2-3 different spots. The experience lasts about 2 hours.
When you arrive at your destination, you’re going to disembark from your kayak and will be given a noodle to help you float.
You are given a noodle the moment you get in the water so you can gently float to the manatees versus walking over, since walking stirs up the sand and ruins visibility for everyone else there.
It is reassuring to know that at most points, the water is so shallow you can just about stand.
At first, it may be intimidating to be next to a manatee. They are very large and it can be scary to see a large mass coming towards you in the water.
Never fear! They are extremely gentle and don’t bite. They might chew – one mistook my brain for a rope and had a taste – but they’re not aggressive.
Quite the opposite, they’re like giant puppies.
You will see several of them together but once you relax you can enjoy the experience for the magical memories it provides instead of feeling nervous about an uncertain outcome.
What other ways can you interact with the manatees?
In addition to kayaks, you can take a standup paddleboard out on the water.
If you don’t swim and you don’t feel comfortable swimming with the noodle, you can opt to take a boat tour out instead of a kayak or paddleboard and stay on the boat.
You also have the option to view the manatees from outside the water on different walking trails and viewing platforms.
They come up every few minutes for air so you’ll see them breathing but there’s nothing like being in the water next to them to fully appreciate their scale.
When is the best time of year to go swimming with manatees?
Manatee season is in the winter months, so from end of November through March, with peak season being early February.
The colder it gets, the more manatees will be in the water. This does, however, mean it will be colder for you as well since you’re swimming.
The temperature of the water doesn’t fluctuate much, but the wind chill and speed when you emerge does.
What should you bring with you to go swimming with manatees?
I recommend bringing a complete change of clothes.
It will help to have shoes that can get wet for the walk between when you put on the wetsuit at the shop to when you reach the water.
I also had my GoPro, a protective case, a fully charged battery, and a holder so I could take selfies underwater.
I also had a dry bag where I kept my phone and a tip for the guide. You should have a bathing suit to wear under the wetsuit.
Keep it simple – the less ties and extra fabric, the more comfortable for you. I had a basic one-piece.
It also helps to have a towel so you can dry off when you’re coming out of the water. I kept this in my dry bag.
If you took a road trip to get here (most people do), Moon Guides suggests heading to Tarpon Springs after to get a traditional Greek lunch (or linner, depending on how late you finish).
Till next time, safe travels!
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