Swimming with Manatees

One of the many advantages of spending time with other people who travel full-time is finding out about places to see and things to do that we wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Swimming with manatees at Crystal River in Florida was one of these things for us.

We met another family during our stay at Peace River who told us about this amazing place where you can go and swim with manatees. About two months later, we found ourselves passing through that part of Florida, so we planned it into our itinerary.

The idea of swimming with manatees conjured up a lot of expectations for all of us, which is dangerous because even though it was a fun day, the experience didn’t quite live up to our expectations of it. We gave Emelie (age 7) the opportunity to write about her experiences to contribute to this post and this was what she wrote:

Miraculous Manatees
What Emelie thought about manatees.
It was cool. I was a little disappointed because we didn’t get to touch them and I couldn’t see clearly. But it was still fun. We saw two of them!


The Specifics

Equipment: pontoon boat, masks and snorkels rented from Crystal Lodge Dive Center
Cost: $25 per hour for the boat, minimum 2 hrs. $8 for 2 masks and 2 snorkels
When: Saturday March 4 2017. The best season for seeing manatees is October-March

pontoon boat Crystal River
Driving the pontoon boat across King’s Bay to Crystal River

A visit to Crystal River is well worth it, but learn from our experience so you approach it with reasonable expectations and avoid some of the mistakes we made.

What to Expect

The area: The river was more narrow and shallow than I expected it to be. And much more crowded. It was a mistaken assumption that it wasn’t a well-known thing since we had never heard of it. Sections of it are roped off to provide a sanctuary for manatees that don’t want to be around people. It is a nature preserve and there are authorities on hand to enforce the rules.
Snorkeling: We ended up renting masks and snorkels and we used life vests for flotation to keep us near the surface. Without the snorkels and masks we would not have seen anything at all. Even so, visibility was really limited. The water was not as clear as it looked in the videos.
Protection: As in, protection for the manatees. We were required to watch a video before renting the boat which explained the rules of the preserve in general and for interacting with manatees specifically. One of the rules is not to approach or pursue the manatees, and not to touch them unless they approach you and initiate the touch. That might sound straightforward but in practice it wasn’t. Turns out it’s hard to read the intentions of a manatee, especially in a crowd of people, and none of us ended up touching any manatees.
Manatees. Manatees are big. You may think you know this already – I did. Big in a tank at an aquarium is different than big right next to you in a river. When we were bobbing along and looked down and suddenly there was a manatee swimming right below us, it was intimidating. I was afraid I’d extend my leg too far treading water and kick him. I was afraid one of the kids would do the same. To clarify, the manatees were completely gentle and didn’t bother or hurt anyone. We never feared for our safety in any way. But even a gentle giant is still a giant and they inspired a healthy degree of respect.

Again, we all had our own set of expectations, and I can’t speak for everyone. Personally, I had pictured a relaxed and serene scene where we were all but alone on the river, swimming through clear, beautiful water, being visited by curious manatees, petting them, and, you know, swimming with them. The reality, though still great, was very different.

snorkeling Crystal River
Here we go! Let’s find some manatees!


Snorkel Crystal River
We couldn’t park our big pontoon boat right in the manatee area, so it was a bit of a swim there and back.

What we learned

Do your homework. We based our decisions on the recommendations of the family who first told us about Crystal River. They were good recommendations, but not a substitute for learning about the area ourselves and exploring our options. Better research would have helped us have more reasonable expectations and may have led to different decisions.
Avoid the crowds. We went on a weekend because that was where it best fit into our travel plans. But visiting on a Saturday meant waiting for a rental boat to become available and a very congested river to attempt to navigate and explore. The number of people in the water also contributed to the poor visibility as well, as the sediment from the bottom never got a chance to settle.
Think small. We rented a pontoon boat, which was large enough for two families. We had hoped to share it with another family, but that didn’t work out. Something smaller could certainly have worked for us. The advantage with the pontoon boat was that we could keep Micah comfortably (and safely!) in his car seat on the boat and take turns swimming out with the older kids. Otherwise a canoe or a kayak would probably have been a better choice. There were certainly plenty of people paddling, which would probably be easier and cheaper to rent than the pontoon boat.
Think season. We were on the tail end of the cooler season when more manatees come inland seeking warmer, shallower water. There may have been more manatees in the river earlier in the season.

Not exactly the image we had in mind. People everywhere!


Sweetly sleeping on the boat. Micah had a pretty bad cold that weekend so we kept him out of the water and let him get lots of rest!

Someday we’d like to go back and see if we can have an even better experience swimming with manatees. If we were to do it again, we’d go earlier in the season, plan our visit for a weekday, and rent smaller boats.


Have you ever been to Crystal River or another place where you can swim with manatees? How does your experience compare to ours? Does real life ever look like the videos and pictures you see online?



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