Swimming with manatees in Florida

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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.

The Florida manatees are a subspecies of the West Indian manatees and are protected under federal law by three acts: the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973) and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act (1978). These laws mean it’s illegal to capture, hunt, harass or kill marine mammals. any marine mammal. Thankfully, these laws have allowed the manatee population to increase but it’s still illegal to approach or have physical contact with a wild manatee anywhere in the state, except for one special place called Crystal River in King’s Bay where people are allowed to swim with manatees.

Swimming With Manatees in Florida

swimming with manatees
Swimming with manatees is an experience to remember. One of the best places in the world to do this is in Florida.

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.

Best Time To Swim With Manatees 

Manatees in Florida are found in Kings Bay, which is an embayment near Crystal River and one of the natural landmarks in Florida, and a number of other places year-round but the best time to swim with manatees in Florida is between mid-November and late-March when their numbers swell to around 800.

If you visit during the off peak season, say in July, you’re still likely to see some manatees in Crystal River as it is manatee heaven.

The manatees migrate to Crystal River in winter as the region’s hot springs are warmer than the water in the Gulf of Mexico.

Susceptible to hypothermia, these aquatic mammals are here seeking refuge from the chillier, potentially lethal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Manatees can be found in many places in the waters of Florida, including:

Where To Swim With Manatees in Florida

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.

While there are several places you can see manatees, Crystal River is one of the best places to swim with manatees. 

1- Three Sisters Springs, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

manatees 03
The entrance to Three Sisters Springs, which was closed when I visited.

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 of 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. 

snorkel 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.

The Three Springs Experience

10 minutes of face down floating pass, and I only see fellow snorkelers.

Then I spot a face – grey wrinkles, a prominent whiskered snout, and tiny black button eyes staring back at me, less than an arms-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.

snorkel wtih manatees for a close up view
Snorkel with manatees and you’re sure to get photos like this one!

Eventually, it propels itself slowly away with its paddle-shaped tail and disappears into the mysterious waters.

Within five minutes, another is before me, slowing circling me with a bemused expression.

manatee viewing at its best
In the water: manatee viewing at its best.

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.

The Three Sisters Springs Center is at 123 NW HWY 19, Crystal River, Florida. For information on swimming with manatees in 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. 

2- Blue Springs State Park, Orange City

A park on the St. Johns River not far from Orange City, Blue Springs State Park is a place where you don’t need a boat for manatee viewing. 

Swimming with manatees isn’t allowed in this park and in manatee season, the spring run is shut for boating but you can view manatees from viewing platforms and boardwalks. 

Other activities in the park include fishing, hiking, paddling, scuba diving, boat tours and tubing. 

Blue Springs State Park is at 2100 W French Avenue, Orange City, Florida. 

3- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville

Head to Haulover Canal on Florida’s east coast to see manatees at Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge has its roots in the early development of NASA’s space programme when the land was acquired next to Cape Canaveral for the John F. Kennedy Space Center.

After the NASA launch complex was built, in 1963, the government established a nature refuge around the area to support endangered species. 

Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge is a two-hour drive south of Jacksonville’s best beaches.  

4 – Manatee Lagoon, West Palm Beach

Manatee Lagoon is a family-friendly place to see Florida manatees that gather here in the winter months.

The manatee centre is an educational facility and discovery centre for the Florida Power and Light Company (FPL) as manatees are attracted by the warm water discharged by the energy centre.  

Other activities include art classes for kids, storytelling and crafts sessions.  

Manatee Lagoon is a landmark in the USA at 6000 N. Flagler Drive, West Palm Beach, Florida.

5- Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park

Edward Ball Wakulla Springs has one of the deepest freshwater springs in the world.

A riverboat trip is an opportunity to spot manatees, alligators and other wildlife.

Manatees hang out here in winter.

Edward Ball Wakulla Springs is at 465 Wakulla Park Drive, Wakulla Springs, Wakulla County, Florida. 

Swimming with manatees etiquette

manatee viewing
  • 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.
  • Crystal River is a protected zone and you’re not allowed to coerce manatees wtih food.
  • Manatees are short sighted and young manatees are curious, so they may swim up to you.
Swimming with manatees in Florida
Swimming with manatees in Florida
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Kara Murphy
I’m a travel photojournalist, based on Brisbane’s bayside in Queensland, Australia, and specialising in underwater and other outdoor adventures. Some of my favourite underwater experiences have happened close to home – on Moreton Bay and, a bit further north, on the southern Great Barrier Reef.You can find my work in publications such as ShowBoats International, Australian Geographic, Dockwalk, and Go Camping & 4WD Adventures, and I also create short videos for my YouTube channel. Awards 2014 winner Diver(s) category, Cairns Underwater Film Festival 2013 Australian Society of Travel Writers finalist for Best Australian Story Under 1000 Words