Swimming with manatees is not just something you can wake up one morning and decide to do. There is quite a bit of planning involved. Find out where you can swim with manatees legally, what gear you need, what to expect, what not to do, and my personal experience.
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When & Where you can Swim with Manatees
The only place you can legally swim with the Florida manatee is in Crystal River, Florida. Here, and only here, the Federal Government allows for “passive observation” in the water (keep reading to find out what this means). The best time to swim with manatees is in the winter. They leave the cold ocean waters and seek warmth in Florida springs. During the summer, you may still seem some, but it’s possible to see hundreds of manatees during peak season.
There are two main ways to be able to swim with manatees:
- Go on a manatee snorkel tour
- Go without a tour
Manatee Snorkel Tours
There are several companies in the area that will take you and a group out for a snorkel tour. They provide transport via pontoon boats, gear (more on that in the “Gear You Need” section), training on how to conduct yourself while on the tour, and an in-water guide. Tours are for all ages and begin at around $60.
Tours are a great way to learn and be able to participate in this wonderful experience with support. Do your research so you know what are some of the better companies out there.
DIY Snorkel Tour
It is possible to go snorkeling without tour guides. This does not mean that you get to bypass having the right gear or can conduct yourself how you please. There are still strict guidelines to follow. There are always folks out on the water and if you are seen misbehaving, you will most likely get reported and find yourself with a hefty fine, arrest, or other punishment.
The best way to go without a company is to kayak in with all your gear. You cannot launch from the Three Sisters Boardwalk and you have to know where you can dock your kayak. The best launching point is in Hunter Springs Park or Pete’s Pier (call for details). Once on the water, you will see a very small area near the boardwalk as indicated by a small sign where you can attach your kayak. Dismount in the shallows and then float over into the deeper water. If you don’t have a kayak, you can rent one at Hunter Springs (click here for details).
Gear You Need
The number one item you need before you go is a wetsuit. If you don’t own one, you can rent one for the trip. On a tour, they will provide you with a wetsuit. If you aren’t going on a tour, you can still call and rent one for your trip. If you know you will be doing additional snorkeling, you might want to invest in one. I decided to purchase one and it was about $150. If you have never shopped for one, I recommend going to a scuba shop and chatting with the sales team. Yes, you can get one online for less, but if you don’t know what you are looking for, it could end up costing you in the end. Please note, if you are renting, wear a bathing suit underneath!!!
The reason you need a wetsuit is that the water temperature in the spring and surrounding waters is anywhere from 68 – 72 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are splashing around and swimming, it isn’t that big of a deal, but when you are swimming with manatees you are basically floating and not moving much (see What to Expect). The wetsuit will also help you float.
Mask & Snorkel
In addition to a wetsuit, you will need to wear a mask and snorkel. This will ensure you can keep a constant eye on the manatees in the water while you float. If you are going out with a tour, they will have these as well. Otherwise, get your own. They are not very expensive at all. I ended up borrowing a snorkel and mask from my 10-year-old (similar to this one)!
Towels & Dry Clothes
You will need to provide towels and dry clothes for yourself whether you are going out on a tour or on your own. I would recommend bringing more than one towel and more than one set of dry clothes. Multiple towels are essential. When I got out of the water, I was so cold. I wrapped myself up with two towels and was still cold. I couldn’t change into dry clothes while out on the water, but it was wonderful to have them once I completed my experience.
Waterproof Camera (optional)
This is not a must-have item for your trip, but it might be a really nice-to-have item. If you decide to bring one, make sure you can mount it on your body somehow. I had mine in my hand and it made moving in the water super awkward. Remember, you can only move with your hands, so to have one of your hands holding something basically leaves you with one hand to maneuver around people, manatees, and against the current. This is the exact camera and bundle that we have and took on our swim.
If you go on a tour, they do take photos, but you have to pay extra for those. It may be worth it for you if you want to stay in the moment and not have to stress about keeping track of your camera.
Pool Noodle (optional)
Having a pool noodle is optional, but highly recommended. You will be floating the entire time you are in the water. After a while, you might need a break and a pool noodle is a fabulous way to keep floating with little to no effort. If you are going on a tour, they will have these for you. If not, consider spending the $2 and getting one for yourself. I had one and I was so grateful for it!!
What to Expect
The Manatees Themselves
Manatees are very large, curious, and protected mammals. Because they are curious, they may approach you and touch you. They will not hurt you. Manatees move carefully through the water. Their eyesight is terrible and humans are their only threats. Humans swimming under them freaks them out. They are also sensitive to sound. You can read more about these wonderful creatures here.
Manatees hang in warm waters, but humans find those water temperatures to be cold and uncomfortable. The waters you are sharing with the manatees are subject to low and high tides. Make sure to check the tide schedules before heading out. A manatee tour company will be monitoring that for you, but you should be aware as well.
The depth of the water varies depending on where you go. If you are in the Three Sisters Springs area, the water depth is fairly shallow – around 4 ft deep. Manatee tour companies vary where they go. Some of the areas they go to are up to 10 ft deep. Know before you go so that you can be properly prepared.
Water clarity will vary based on the depth of the water, the number of people standing in the water (please avoid doing this as it interferes with the natural movement of the manatees), and the number of manatees in the water (especially if they are feeding).
You will probably be one of many floating among the manatees. Some folks will follow all the rules regarding passive observation of the manatees, others don’t. Always demonstrate the correct way to behave around these gentle giants. If you see a ranger or a tour guide, notify them of the inappropriate behavior.
To avoid crowds, go as early as possible and during the week. If you are unable to do either, try calling tour companies or Hunter Springs Park to find out the best days to avoid crowds.
Unique Information You Need to know:
There is NO water access to Three Sisters Springs from the land and no land access from the water. So if you observe the manatees from the Three Springs boardwalk, you will not be able to launch from there. Also, if you are swimming or kayaking at Three Sisters, you will not be able to dock at the boardwalk and get on land.
The Three Sisters Spring area may be closed to kayaks and swimmers at the discretion of the US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS).
Yes, there are alligators all over. If there is a body of freshwater in Florida, there is an alligator (maybe more) living their best life.
When I went, I didn’t see one alligator. They were there though, somewhere.
The water was a balmy 72 degrees Fahrenheit and the air temperature was less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit. There were most certainly alligators in those warm waters.
However, alligators are not interested in going after people. They have more delicious foods readily available. “The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that a state resident’s odds of being seriously injured in an unprovoked alligator incident are roughly one in 2.4 million.”, National Geographic.
Moral of the story, don’t let the presence of alligators keep you from enjoying your experience. Just like you shouldn’t let sharks keep you from enjoying swimming in the ocean.
What NOT to Do
- Swim after manatees
- Touch manatees without them touching you first and then only with one hand
- Ride manatees
- Block manatees
- Tease manatees
- Swim under the water
- Kick in the water, you can only float and use your hands for navigation
- Jump into the water
- Feed manatees
- Enter roped off sections of water
- Launch kayaks from unauthorized areas
- Wear snorkel fins. You won’t be using them at all and they will only be in the way.
- Swim with manatees in unauthorized areas
“Wow”. That’s how I want to begin sharing my overall experience.
It was unlike anything I had experienced before. If you have gone snorkeling or scuba diving before, it might not be as impactful, or maybe it would. I don’t know.
For me, it was pretty life-altering and amazing. It was beautiful, exhausting, overwhelming, peaceful, stressful, energizing. It was a bunch of feelings, physical and emotional, that I wasn’t really expecting.
I worked really hard to stay calm and take it all in. I was also there working, capturing footage for someone else. So, while I was taking it all in, I was also a little removed from the experience. I’m already looking forward to going again, this time for personal reasons. I’ll still have the camera, but I’ll be wearing it.
I had a lot going on, so I was out of the water within 30 minutes. That may be something to keep in mind if you end up going out with a tour. If you finish early, you will still be waiting on the boat for everyone else to finish.
For me, 30 minutes was magnificent and I was ready to get out of the water. I was no longer able to be calm and floating and filming… It’s hard to stay in control of your body when you are only using your arms, and I only had one free due to my camera, and there is a current, people, and manatees all around you.
As soon as I felt I needed to put my feet down and feeling a bit less calm, I got out of the water. I did not want to stir up the ground or worse, float into a person or manatee. Once out of the water, I was still able to appreciate the manatees from the surface. They come up for air and where the water is clear, you can see them pretty well.
Do you feel ready to go swimming with manatees now? If you have any questions or want to share your own experience, please share them in the comments.
Looking for another place to see manatees without jumping in the water? Check out our blog post about Blue Spring.