I’ve been lucky enough to have some incredible moments with Florida wildlife in the last few months but nothing will ever beat swimming with manatees in Florida! We spent last weekend braving the 45 degree temperatures (hey that’s cold for Florida!) to spend an hour floating around with these gentle giants, and it was incredible.
I’ve put together as much information as I can think of about our experience swimming with manatees in Florida so read ahead!
Is it legal swim with manatees in Florida?
The short answer is yes, it is legal to swim with manatees in Florida, but there are restrictions. Manatees are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Most of the laws protecting manatees are common sense. Don’t touch, chase, feed, kick or harass manatees – basically don’t do anything you wouldn’t do with any other wild animal.
You can only touch a manatee if it touches you first (which usually means they’ll just plough right into you) and even then, it’s a one hand touch only.
Even though it is legal to swim with manatees in Florida, there are still designated “no enter manatee refuge” areas where people are not permitted to go.
These areas are decided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and are clearly marked.
Violating the guidelines set in place to protect the manatees can lead to a fine and even imprisonment. But really, it’s best to follow the guidelines because they’re there to tell you how to interact with the animals safely.
Manatees come to the relatively warm waters of the springs to escape the cold water of the ocean and if they don’t feel safe and comfortable, they might leave.
Since manatees need water temperatures of at least 68 degrees to survive, if they go back out to the ocean before it’s safe for them then it could kill them. That’s why it’s so important to make sure they’re not disturbed.
Where is the best place for swimming with manatees in Florida?
Crystal River and King’s Bay are the best places to swim with manatees in Florida. They are the only places in Florida where swimming with manatees is monitored, and that was important to us as we wanted to make sure the manatees we interacted with were in a safe environment.
Crystal River is about an hour and 30 minutes drive from Orlando. It would make for a great day trip from Orlando and would be an opportunity to explore some of the real Florida outside of the theme parks.
It would also be a great part of a socially distant Florida vacation since you’ll mostly just be coming into contact with manatees!
What is the best time of year to swim with manatees in Florida?
Florida is the only state in the U.S that has a year round manatee population, so there’s a chance of spotting manatees all year round. But the best time to swim with manatees in Florida is in the winter months.
November through April will give you the best chance of finding the most manatees to swim with. During these months the manatees come in from the ocean to bask in the relatively warmer temperatures of Florida’s natural springs, which maintain a temperature of about 72 degrees.
The colder the day, the more likely you are to find manatees to swim with. This does of course mean getting into the water in cold weather, but the springs feel quite warm in comparison and it gives you the best shot of finding as many manatees as possible.
Can kids swim with manatees in Florida?
Absolutely! Harrison is eight years old and the excursion to swim with manatees was a birthday present for him. He loved the experience and has already asked when he can go again.
There are some restrictions when it comes to kids swimming with manatees.
Firstly, they should be comfortable in the water. You’re not really swimming with the manatees exactly; it’s more like floating and actual splashing and kicking is discouraged (it could frighten or hurt the manatees, plus it causes poor visibility in the water).
You will use a snorkel during the manatee swim so if you’re planning a trip with a child that has never snorkeled before, it might an idea to have them practice. I have some kids snorkel tips here.
Harrison has been snorkeling for about six months and didn’t have too much trouble with his, but if he hadn’t had the experience then we would have practiced beforehand.
The biggest thing to consider is whether your child will be able to follow the guidelines for interacting with the manatees.
I know that my four year old would be too excited and forget to be quiet or not to touch; he wouldn’t do it on purpose but it would spoilt the experience for him and potentially for others around him (plus it might be harmful for the manatees).
Harrison did a great job following the rules (better than some adults we saw, I might add!) He kept really still when manatees went by him and backed off if they seemed like they wanted to be left alone.
Who to book a Crystal River manatee tour with?
There are quite a few tour companies that offer guided experiences for swimming with manatees. I had looked at them all but ultimately I found it hard to decide and wished I had a personal recommendation to go off.
Then in December Harrison and I went kayaking in Crystal River and the guide (from the same company as our bioluminescent kayaking trip last summer, Get Up and Go) told us we should go with Explorida.
She said they had the best reputation for being respectful of the manatees, even using manatee friendly anchors on their boats. That was enough to sell me on the experience and we booked that same day.
I can thoroughly recommend Explorida. Our kayaking guide was right; they were incredibly respectful of the manatees, making sure every guest on the tour understood and followed the rules at all times.
They were also friendly and knowledgeable, giving us all kinds of information on the manatees and Crystal River itself.
They provided wetsuits and snorkel gear (and showed us how to use it properly) as well as the pool noodles to float on in the water.
Our guide made sure we were all in the best spots to see as many manatees as possible, and paid special attention to the kids in the group to make sure they were doing OK.
Our guide also took some amazing photos, of the group and of the manatees themselves. The photos weren’t included in the price of the tour and purchasing them was optional, but I was really glad to have such a perfect souvenir from the trip.
It’s worth doing your research to find a company you feel comfortable with, but if you’re looking for a personal recommendation, then Explorida is it! We had a fantastic trip with them and I honestly think everyone else will too!
Our experience swimming with manatees in Crystal River
Our experience started with an hour and a half drive from Orlando out to Crystal River, where we easily found the Explorida store from the directions in their confirmation email.
The building is half store, half adventure center where you begin your tour. Once we had checked in we were directed to the back of the building to wait for the rest of our group.
There were bathrooms and drinks available (hot chocolate, coffee, tea, and water – the hot drinks were very welcome with the cold temperatures outside!)
Once everyone had arrived, we sat and watched a short video explaining the regulations in place to protect manatees, and the dos and don’ts of swimming with them.
Then we changed into our wetsuits (they had sizes ranging from toddler to 5X so it’s easy to find one that fits well, and you want them to be tight to keep you warm).
We then took a van down to the dock where our boat would launch. I had debated how much stuff to bring with us versus leaving it in the car, but in end I bought our whole bag which included towels, a change of clothes each, and warm jackets.
I was given a trash bag to put my bag in since it wasn’t waterproof, and I am so glad I bought it with me – those towels and jackets were very much needed when we got out of the water back into the 45 degree weather! I would highly recommend bringing towels and even blankets on the boat if the weather is cold – you’ll need them!
On the way from the boat dock out to the manatees at the head of Three Sisters Springs, our captain told us a bit about the area and what to expect when we got into the water with the manatees.
We saw numerous manatees in the water just on the drive out and Harrison was so excited!
We were each given our face mask and snorkel and shown how to tighten them to make sure they fit – our guide then came around making sure everyone had done a good job! Our masks were then sprayed with anti-fog and we were allowed to get in the water!
I’ll admit that I was really skeptical about the temperature. I know it might sound crazy to people used to colder temperatures but 45 degrees is very cold for Floridians!
I was nervous about how cold the water might feel but when I dipped my mask in to rinse it off, I was surprised that it was so much warmer than the air outside!
We climbed down a ladder into the water and were given our pool noodles to float on – there is no way to do this elegantly while wearing a wetsuit!
The water felt chilly but nowhere near as bad as I’d been expecting, and once we’d acclimatized we were ready to go!
I kept a really close eye on Harrison as we floated towards the manatees. I was nervous about him snorkeling in cold water for the first time, plus he tends to feel the cold a lot and I was worried he’d be freezing.
He needed a few minutes to adjust but then was ready to go and I was really proud of how brave he was! He was obviously cold, his teeth chattering from the start, but he listened well to instructions from our guide on how to float to keep himself as warm as possible.
Once we saw the manatees, any hint of being cold was instantly forgotten! I’ve only ever seen manatees from above before and thought they looked pretty big, but really I had no idea – these guys were huge!
Manatees can be up to 10 feet long and they looked like huge gray barrels. More than once I mistook one for a rock!
We found that the mouth of the springs was the best place to see them. Here the water was the clearest and the warmest; this meant we were more comfortable and the manatees themselves seemed happier since they were warmer too.
We must have seen over 50 manatees just in the one spot! We saw mothers and babies, including a nursing calf.
We saw huge manatees that just ploughed straight past you, and smaller ones that were more inquisitive. I tried so hard not to swim over them or get too close but they seemed perfectly happy to have us there.
One of the coolest things was listening to the manatees talk to each other, something I didn’t really know they did. There was a quiet chirping noise that was apparently the babies talking to their mothers and it was the cutest thing.
Every now and then a manatee would just come swimming towards you and we were told that if that happened, to do nothing and just stay still. Manatees have very poor vision and really feel their surroundings due to the hairs on their back.
More than once a manatee swam straight into me and I just stayed as still as possible – even though they were very much touching me I decided not to reach out and touch them with the one hand as we’d been instructed. I was happy just to be that close!
I took my waterproof camera and got some great shots. If you have a waterproof camera I would definitely take it, but make sure it’s secure – if you drop it, it would be very hard to retrieve without disturbing the manatees.
After a while, Harrison had seen enough manatees (I could have stayed in the water all day) and was really starting to feel the cold. He asked if he could go back to the boat so we swam back.
There was already a teenager from one of the other families bundled up under a blanket so we weren’t the only ones!
After taking his wetsuit off and being bundled under towels, he felt better. I could have gone back in the water since the boat captain kindly offered to keep an eye on him, but he asked me to stay and since I was pretty cold after getting out of the water, I decided to stay (I also had my eye on the hot chocolate they had on board!)
Everyone else eventually joined us and we headed back. You could tell that everyone was cold and exhausted – but absolutely exhilarated!
People were talking about their experience and the best moments; we saw even more manatees on the way back to shore and I realized just how lucky we’d been to actually go in the water with them!
Back at the store we changed out of our wetsuits, put dry clothes on and looked at the photos. I also drank my weight in hot chocolate – it really is the best way to warm up!
We bought a couple of other souvenirs, including a manatee Christmas ornament and of course a stuffed manatee for Harrison, as well as the photos.
There is also the option to leave a gratuity for your guide, which of course we did. This can be done in cash or on a card at the store, which is really convenient.
Our guide and our boat captain and everyone else at the store had been so friendly and welcoming, we really enjoyed our time with them.
Looking back at the photos, I still can’t quite believe we got to do this! Swimming with these gentle giants has been something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember and being surrounded by them in the water was absolutely incredible!
If you’re in Florida, whether you live here or you’re on vacation, I cannot recommend this experience enough.
Yes, the Orlando theme parks are fun and yes, the beaches are beautiful, but getting to see the real Florida in nature is not to be missed. Our wildlife here is amazing and you should definitely come and see it!