See, it turns out manatees in Florida are considered threatened and are now extremely protected by both states and federal laws (and rightly so!), but this means you can’t just find one – no easy task anyway – and jump in the water with it. This could get you arrested, thrown in jail or at-least a hefty fine, not to mention an unsupervised swim with manatees could put both them and yourself in danger. Luckily however, after hours of research and talking to other travellers I heard about the Crystal River Florida Manatee Swim with Birds Underwater – a sustainable tourism operator based in Crystal River which offers you the unique chance to swim with the manatees in Florida in their natural habitat. I was skeptical at first, and a little apprehensive to book, but after talking to the owner Bill ‘Bird’ and hearing about their stellar reputation for over 20 years I signed up to one of their Crystal River Manatee Tours and got ready for the experience of a life-time!
So even with manatee numbers on the rise thanks to strict state and federal protections, the manatee (Florida’s official state sea mammal!) is still highly protected and it is completely illegal to approach – or touch – a wild manatee anywhere in the state, that is except for a small area in King’s Bay, Citrus County Florida know as Crystal River. Crystal River Florida is the only place you can legally swim with Manatees in Florida thanks to a unique exception which allows interaction with these adorable creatures who choose to live here during the cold winter months as springs warm the water to significantly higher temperatures than the Gulf of Mexico downstream.
You are allowed to enter the water with manatees here following very strict guidelines, under supervision and ensuring plenty of protected areas for the manatees to rest undisturbed by curious tourists. Because of these protected zone, when you swim with manatees in Crystal River they are choosing to leave their ‘safe’ zones to interact with you out of curiosity, and are not harassed, bribed with food or co-erced in any way. An incredibly humbling and natural experience, made all the more amazing knowing these creatures are choosing to interact with you!
Crystal River gets extremely popular in peak seasons, so be sure to get the best prices for highly recommended Crystal River hotels by booking in advance now!
Of-course, even though it is legal to swim with manatees in Crystal River the manatees are still protected under both the Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act and as such there are some very specific rules you should be aware of ensure your safety and that of the manatees. These rules are very strictly enforced and must be followed at all times – but don’t worry, they are fairly obvious to most people and before I went out with Birds Underwater they showed a beautiful video to ensure everyone was clear of all guidelines for swimming with manatees before departure.
The basic’s of these rules for swimming with manatees in Florida are that, even though physical interaction with manatee’s is allowed at Crystal River – it must always be in a controlled manner, initiated by the manatee and always with a single open hand. This is nature, not a petting zoo, and honestly I think there is no reason to touch a manatee while swimming – but some manatees, especially young ones, are very curious and may come up to examine you (Manatees are very short-sighted) in which case you may put your hand out to the manatee for it to brush or inspect. However Birds Underwater encourages passive observation, which has been proven to lead to longer interactions with the manatees and is better for their long-term safety as they do not become as accustom to human’s or their boats. At all times on your Crystal River Florida manatee swim remember that you are privileged to enter the natural habitats and homes of these unique animals so please treat them with respect so this unique interaction between humans and manatees may continue into the future.
While the manatees of Crystal River are present year-round their number are significantly boosted during the cold winter months of December, January and February. In Crystal River there are around 40-45 permanent manatee residents which explodes during the cooler winter months to around 850 as the local springs provide a source of relatively warm water not available in the Gulf. If you can plan your trips around these peak times you will likely see many more Manatee, but this also results in far more tourists and travellers coming to see them.
We went in July – the lowest month – and still managed to see 5 individuals (including 2 babies!) and were therefore lucky enough to be able to spend a significant amount of time with these individuals without any other groups around. I even swam with a manatee by myself for 30-40 minutes which will be one of the greatest memories of my life! The famed Three Sisters Springs however are only inhabited by manatees during these winter months and it is extremely rare to see even one manatee in here during the summer. Birds Underwater only recorded 2 outings in all of the 2016 where they did not find Manatees so your chances of encountering manatees year-round in Crystal River are pretty high!
The first thing I discovered when exploring options for a crystal river manatee tours was that not all companies operate under the same conditions – some do not have their own piers meaning longer transfer times and less time in the water, some do not put a focus on the manatees well-being, some take too many passengers per boat and some were late to the game meaning as we left the manatees for their mid-morning snooze their boats were only just turning up. After extensive research, seeking out first hand reviews and talking to their owner – I opted with Crystal River Florida Manatee swim with Birds Underwater! This company ticked all the boxes for me: high quality gear, their own boats, dock and shop, knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff, great prices and a passion for Manatees and sustainable tourism. Everything on our trip went perfectly and I was impressed with how seriously our crew took their responsibility to the manatees, ensuring an unforgettable interaction that was safe for all participants!
Our early morning Crystal River manatee tour departed at 6am – horribly ,disgustingly early I know – but as I had been briefed prior to booking, this is to ensure we see the manatees at their most active. Luckily fresh coffee was waiting at the shop before departure where we were quickly fitted with thick Scuba Pro wetsuits, snorkeling gear and briefed on how to safely swim with the manatees. After this we were off on their custom boat – 8 guests, one jolly captain full of tales and our scarily enthusiastic guide (how she has so much passion day after day at 6am I’ll never know!) – where fresh Dunkin Donut’s were waiting to give us a quick boost of energy in the morning as we searched the river and canals for the elusive sea-creature. Shortly after departure we spotted our first manatee munching on some sea-grass, and as we dipped into the water we were delighted to discover there was actually one juvenile, two new-borns and a mother waiting for us! WOW!
Our early departure was now all the more worth while as we had these beautiful creatures to ourselves for over an hour as we watched them play, eat and suckle as the sun rose above us. The water clarity was incredible for the most part, leaving no doubt in our minds why this place was called Crystal River and was only silted up by the manatees chowing away on the sea-grass below. Being located in such shallow water we truly got to make out every detail of these majestic creatures and our guide ensured at all times we were obeying the rules and managing our swimming in order to maximise our interaction with both the older manatees and the curious new-borns who were constantly coming up and checking us out! Everyone was given a buoyancy noodle so floating above was not very strenuous and took every little energy – much like the manatees themselves!
After one of the most incredible hour’s of my life, the manatees moved away and we all headed back to the boat where fresh refreshments and much needed snacks were waiting for us, as we made our way to the Three Sisters Springs for some more snorkeling. Along the way the captain and our guide shared details and history of the area and it’s development as well as answered any and all manatee questions. Nothing has these guys stumped and by the end you will be a budding manatee expert in your own right! Manatees were not the only wildlife we spotted that day as we were also luckily enough to spot crabs, rare birds and to witness dolphins hunting in the bay which was just the cherry on-top of an already incredible experience!
Throughout the 3 hour trip our guide took plenty of snaps and videos of us below the water which are available at the end for purchase for $35 dollars including a USB stick. Normally I find these things a bit gimmicky but the photos were actually very well composed and varied, and are well-worth it to enjoy your time in the water without being worried about getting everybody in a photo or getting a un-blurry photo of the manatee at the right angle (if you even have a water-proof camera that is!). There was also easy and plentiful parking off-site, bathroom facilities, credit card accepted and diving + scalloping tours on offer for those who wanted to see more of the area! All together one of the best crystal river manatee tours around, with absolutely nothing I could find to fault – and getting to the manatees while they were active before any other operator was truly worth the early morning start!