Swimming with manatees in Florida is something I’ve dreamt of doing for a long time. The prospect of sliding quietly into Kings Bay’s spring-fed waters is a daunting one this mid-December morning. The outside air temperature is 4C – definitely not inspiring. And although I know the water temp is significantly warmer (probably 22C or so), I dread the events that will follow my snorkelling session: a 10-minute or so boat ride back to the dock in Crystal River, Florida, when my hair and full-length wetsuit will be soaking, my lips blue, toes white, and any words incomprehensible thanks to the uncontrollable chattering of my teeth.
What is a manatee?
Often referred to as a sea cow, the manatee is a large marine mammal with flippers and a flat tail and a big head shaped like an egg. They are the world’s cheekiest and gentlest mermaid. The endangered Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee.
Where are the manatees in Florida?
Although manatees in Florida are found in Kings Bay, an embayment near Crystal River, year-round, the best time to swim with manatees in Florida is between mid-November and late-March when their numbers swell to around 600.
Susceptible to hypothermia, these aquatic mammals are here seeking refuge from the chillier, potentially lethal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, the Kings Bay Manatee Protection Area, and seven federal manatee sanctuaries, all managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), help protect manatees in this critical habitat.
Preserving the manatee habitat
When I visited Three Sisters Springs, one of the most important manatee habitat and wintering havens in Kings Bay, air temps were warmer and the water crystal clear.
While plenty of manatees were in the springs – resting, travelling in and out through a channel, and, in a couple cases, nuzzling their human visitors – the springs seemed un-crowded.
But this weekend, thanks to the unseasonable cold, over 250 manatees have gathered at Three Sisters Springs. The waters are stirred, and visibility is less than three metres.
In efforts to protect these charming vegetarians and give them plenty of space, the USFWS has temporarily closed the springs – the manatees are free to come and go, of course, but humans are prohibited from entering.
In addition to the closure, USFWS has proposed a number of revised winter regulations for Three Sisters Springs.
These include continuing to implement full closures of Three Sisters during extreme cold events; prohibiting kayaks, canoes, and large floats; restricting in-water human visitation during the early morning and late afternoon; and requiring a special permit for flash photography.
Swimming with manatees
Thankfully, Three Sisters isn’t the only place in Kings Bay to observe these beautiful creatures, and plenty of other areas are open this weekend.
Still, I’m a little dubious that I’ll have a fantastic manatee encounter today. With the waters this murky, a manatee would have to swim quite close for me to see it.
10 minutes of face down floating pass, and I only see fellow snorkelers. But then I spot a face – grey wrinkles, a prominent whiskered snout, and tiny black button eyes staring back at me, less than an arm’s-length away.
Swimming with manatees is an experience I’ll always remember.
The 450-kilogram, three-metre-long creature swims near me for several minutes, occasionally rolling away and revealing its sizeable belly and then leisurely returning, presumably to investigate the camera-wielding human.
Although I’m not entirely sure what a manatee’s smile looks like, this one seems to be doing just that.
Eventually, it propels itself slowly away with its paddle-shaped tail and disappears into the mysterious waters. But within five minutes, another is before me, slowing circling me with a bemused expression.
On the journey back to the dock, my lips are definitely blue and my shivering pronounced.
However, I smile, euphoric, through chattering teeth, and I’m pretty sure everyone sitting nearby can understand my words, which I utter more than once: “That was amazing – they’re so b-b-b-beautiful!”
I would have to say that my snorkel with manatees was a thrilling experience I’ll be talking about for years to come.
Swimming with manatees etiquette
Manatees don’t visit Kings Bay to observe curious humans – they come for survival.
Visitors are required to practice passive observation, which includes not disturbing or touching a resting manatee and no chasing, riding, holding, pinching, poking, feeding, standing or stepping on, cornering, or surrounding any manatee.
Floating gently and quietly on the surface, observing manatee behaviour, is proper etiquette, and, as one operator explains, if you do this, the manatees are more likely to approach you.
For information on swimming with manatees in Florida and other attractions near Crystal River, see Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
Where to stay in Crystal River
Plantation on Crystal River is located on the water and offers garden and water view rooms, patio hotel rooms, junior suites, and golf villas. Its marina and dive shop, on the premises, offers slips, boat rentals, diving, and daily manatee snorkel tours. Phone +1 800 632 6262.
Where is the best place to see manatees in Florida?
Manatees can be found in many places in the waters of Florida and South Georgia. Here are five places to see manatees:
1- Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
2. Manatee and Fanning Springs state parks – These two Florida state parks are on the Suwannee River.
3- Blue Spring State Park – A park on the St. Johns River not far from Orange City.
4- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge – Head to Haulover Canal on Florida’s east coast.
5- Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park – Manatees hang out here in winter.
More underwater experiences