A Magical Morning with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida
Swimming with Florida's Chubby Mermaids
Growing up in San Diego, California, I visited Sea World on occasion and observed Florida manatees in their animal rescue tank. It was so peaceful to watch these gentle giants slowly drift along sucking up lettuce on the surface of their big tank. I was shocked to see the terrible injuries the rescued manatees had sustained from boats and I was saddened at the thought that they might never be able to return to the wild. I wanted so much for them to someday return home to the clear springs of Florida again.
On my first trip to South Florida and the Keys in 2005, I was very excited at the prospect of seeing wild manatees, but I was disappointed that I never saw any on my visit. I didn’t realize at the time that I was visiting in the wrong season to see manatees. They are generally not here in great numbers during the summer months. For years, I planned to return to vacation in Florida and hoped that perhaps I would finally see manatees in the wild. I put that trip to Florida on my nature experience must-do list.
When my family and I sold our home in 2017 and went full-time RVing for a year and a half, we drove across the U.S. from California to Florida. We loved the beautiful Florida landscapes and wildlife so much, we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave. I’m a California girl at heart and I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would live in Florida, but I fell in love with it from the moment I walked on the sugar sand beaches and dipped my feet in the warm teal-green waves. We traveled from the gorgeous Emerald coast of the Panhandle down to the tropical Gulf coast of South Florida, exploring as we went. Luckily, we found our forever home in beautiful Southwest Florida, and I’m so glad that there are so many places in my county where I can observe manatees in the wild.
The first time I saw wild manatees was at J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on beautiful Sanibel Island. I was thrilled to spot a large family of them playing and splashing their tail flukes together in the estuary.
Since then, I’ve had several incredible experiences kayaking with large groups of playful and curious manatees. I really fell for Florida’s own sweet and chubby mermaids and I wondered if there was somewhere I could swim with them face to face. I learned there is only one county in Florida where you can swim with manatees, so I added that experience to my eco-adventure bucket list. I watched videos, read blogs, books, and websites about manatees and started preparing myself for my dream trip to see them by learning about their biology, behavior, and communication.
Thousands of manatees begin their annual migration away from the frigid waters of the Northeast (they have been seen as far north as Rhode Island!) to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico every year around November. These massive marine mammals are extremely temperature sensitive and cannot tolerate water under 68 degrees for very long because they don’t have much body fat and they have low metabolism. They will begin to show signs of hypothermia and cold-stress syndrome in the form of white necrotic patches on their faces and bodies when they are in frigid water. When water temperatures drop below 68 for an extended period during winter, manatee mortality rates can be high. Manatees join the thousands of snowbirds from the north each winter in Florida, but their long migration is a matter of survival. Hundreds can be found languidly lounging and contentedly munching on sea grass in the 72 degree waters of more than seventy freshwater springs of Kings Bay every winter. They stay in Crystal River in large aggregations (that’s what you call a group of manatees) until March, but the ideal time to swim with them is December through February.
Manatees in Peril
A recent census count found around 6300 individual manatees in Florida. They are protected by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, making it illegal to chase, touch, feed, or harass them. Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission just recently downgraded them to threatened status instead of endangered. Their population has increased by around 1250 individuals since the 1990’s, when they were critically endangered. This is excellent news, but we continue to see many manatees injured by propeller boats and collisions every year. Sadly, pollution and algae-infested waters have killed the sea grass in some areas of Florida in the last year, leading to over 700 deaths in 2021 due to starvation.
Swimming with Manatees in Citrus County
Citrus County, Florida is the only county in Florida where you can legally swim with manatees. Their economy is almost entirely dependent on the tourism brought to them by manatee encounters, so the state of Florida allows their manatee swim tourism to continue with strict rules in place. The small towns of Homosassa and Crystal River both offer many opportunities for manatee swims in Kings Bay. There are dozens of companies you can choose from to take you out to swim with manatees, and it can be a bit overwhelming to choose one, but I was careful to read reviews before I made my decision. I wanted a company whose employees truly cared about the safety and welfare of the manatees, would follow the state laws, would follow Covid safety protocols to keep their employees and customers safe, and would be dedicated to providing a memorable and educational experience for our family. That is exactly what I found with River Ventures Manatee tours in Crystal River, Florida. It was easy to book our tour online and I received confirmation emails and a confirmation call before the tour. Friendly office staff (including two sweet office dogs, Grizzly and Captain) greeted our family and explained what our experience would be like and answered any questions we had. We were very appreciative that they all wore masks and we wore ours as well. They asked us to watch an informative video about “manatee manners,” safety rules, and Florida’s laws when swimming with manatees. Then we squeezed into our wetsuits and on board a van for a quick two minute drive to the dock. Our guide took some nice family pictures of us in our wetsuits on the dock before boarding for our manatee adventure. It was only 3-4 minutes to reach the springs, so we didn’t have to waste much of our precious three hour swim time with a long boat trip.
On our short trip to the Springs, we were amazed by the clarity of the lovely seafoam green water. Our captain and guide pointed out a mama and baby manatee making their way past us. Captain Troy genuinely cared about the safety of the manatees as we cautiously and slowly drifted by them, making sure to avoid any injury to them. JJ, our guide, helped the Captain by spotting manatees at the bow of the boat.
Our family of five reserved a private tour on a comfortable pontoon boat that was enclosed and heated to keep us from freezing in our wetsuits! Hot cocoa, drinks, and snacks were provided, which helped us warm up on such a cold morning. Our guide, JJ, is also a professional photographer with a kind and friendly personality and a lot of knowledge about manatees and the local area. It is obvious he really cares about their well-being. He took the wonderful photos and video featured in this blog during our guided swim, freeing me to truly and literally immerse myself in this magical manatee experience and enjoy it without extra distractions.
I knew it was going to feel very cold in the water, so the full wetsuits that River Ventures provided for us were an absolute must. Before descending the boat ladder into the springs, I kept telling myself that 72 degrees sounded pretty pleasant compared to the brisk and breezy 55 degree temperature outside. It felt even colder than I expected when we first entered the water. Painfully so. The chilly water began creeping through my wetsuit and spread until my teeth chattered. I think I gasped for a moment when I was fully immersed. It took about five minutes for me to catch my breath, relax, and get used to it. As long as I moved my arms, it helped me keep my body warm enough. We couldn’t kick our feet, so we floated on noodles and paddled with our arms, so as not to disturb the manatees or stir up silt. Flippers are not needed, as they only stir up silt and can injure manatees and other swimmers. We used our own full face masks, which was so much easier for visibility, with no leakage or fogging up. After many frustrating snorkeling trips with bad face masks that leaked and fogged up, I was so grateful to have the full face mask.
Manatee Sea Grass Restoration Project
During our three-hour swim, we visited Kings Bay and swam in Hunter Bay Springs, which can also be accessed from the shore of Hunter Springs park. The water was aqua-green and crystal clear when people were not in the immediate vicinity. As I explored the Springs, I saw waving sea grass covering the sandy-silt bed of the springs. Our guide explained how hardy and salt-resistant “Rock Star” eel grass had been replanted as part of a very successful restoration project in the springs area to replace the sea grasses that were destroyed due to high salinity during the last hurricane. Sea grass beds are the nurseries of the sea, and manatees and many other aquatic creatures must have it to thrive and survive.
Snorkeling Hunter Springs
As people entered the springs from shore of Hunter Springs park and began stirring up clouds of silt with their feet, it dramatically affected visibility and the water became murky. Our guide told us it had been absolute chaos the week before during the holiday break. I chose to visit after the holidays because I knew there would be a lot less people. If you like a more tranquil experience, plan for a non-holiday weekday morning swim. Manatees are typically most active in the early morning around sunrise.
We had a later morning tour at 10:30 am (try getting three kids ready for a 6:30 a.m. tour!), so the manatees were having their morning naps. My first view of a manatee as I swam into the shallows of Hunter Bay springs was an enormous female sleeping facedown in the sand. She looked lifeless at first because she was face-planted into the silt and still as stone.
She really looked like a big gray rock covered in moss until she suddenly levitated in slow motion from the bottom and drifted to the surface to get air. Manatees can hold their breath for up to twenty minutes when resting, and usually come up to the surface every three to five minutes when they are active. It was quite amusing to see something so massive look so effortless and light as she slowly drifted upward like a colossal blimp!
I was so engrossed in watching her that I didn’t even notice that a curious juvenile female had suddenly appeared next to me. Having the full face mask on and floating on a noodle limits your field of vision and ability to turn quickly, so I was quite surprised to see her within two feet of me! My first face-to-face manatee encounter was absolutely delightful and put an enormous smile on my face. The young female approached me with interest and began barrel-rolling and coyly looking at me upside down, which is a manatee play invitation. Having a chubby, wrinkly manatee youngster peeking at you upside down with its tiny eyes and its flippers folded on its chest is about as cute as it gets! It was amusing watching her scratch an itch with her flippers, which had toenails that looked just like an elephant’s (their closest cousin).
I was also entertained and fascinated while watching a huge adult manatee adjusting its two lip sections independently. When you don’t have hands, you need prehensile lips that move independently to help gather aquatic vegetation. It was comical to watch its flexible lip sections moving in different directions, covered in stiff and sensitive whiskers called vibrissae. I wondered if it had itchy lips. It reminded me of when I met a baby elephant as a child in the San Diego Children’s Zoo and it reached out to me with its trunk and touched my face with the prehensile tip of its trunk! It was so flexible and could gently grab at my face. Elephants are the closest relative of the manatee and use their prehensile trunk much like manatees use their lips to grab and gather aquatic plants, and to sense things in their environment.
I was delighted to see my first mama and baby together in Hunter Springs, and the baby was nursing on-the-go. After a year-long gestation, manatee calves nurse and stay with their moms for about two years. The little calf was swimming along clamped on its mama’s nipple, which is located on the bottom side of its front flipper. It was so much like watching a baby elephant nursing.
Exploring an Underground Spring
We swam away from the shallow and more crowded Hunter Bay and our visibility greatly improved as we left the boisterous groups of people behind. Our guide showed us a hidden spring with warm water flowing up and a cavern that descended deep under the floor of the springs. It was filled with fish, especially mangrove snappers, some of them swimming down through the small cavern opening. My husband and son dived down to look inside and were amazed at how far down they could see through the opening with a light from our guide’s camera. We were surprised that at this point, we had already been in the water for ninety minutes. Time flies when you are exploring a fascinating underwater world!
This halfway point in our three-hour swim was when we really began to feel the cold, and it became difficult for our three kids to endure. They are all very slender with a lot less fat than their parents! We joked that we have all the blubber and that they and the manatees do not. Manatees may look like they have blubber, but they do not. They only have an inch of fat and can become hypothermic just like us. Our kids really enjoyed seeing the manatees and fish, but decided to bail out (with blue lips and teeth chattering) at the halfway mark to visit with our captain and get warm on the boat with hot cocoa and snacks.
The Beauty of Jurassic Springs
We boarded the boat with the kids and took a short ride to our last snorkeling location, Jurassic Springs. That actually gave my husband and I the chance to have a more relaxing swim and explore Jurassic springs together with our guide JJ. It was a really bonding and memorable experience to hold hands and float above the serenity of the snoozing manatees. I love taking the kids on our adventures, but it’s always a challenge keeping an eye on all three of them in the water when we snorkel.
Jurassic Springs was my favorite part of our manatee swim experience because it was deeper, the water was incredibly clear, there were less people swimming, over a dozen manatees, and huge schools of fish. Our guide told us that there were unusually large schools of fish in the springs that morning, possibly because the weather was a bit warmer that day. As I looked down through my mask, I was dazzled by scores of mangrove snappers with their lovely purple diamond patterns flashing in the morning light, and massive schools of graceful silver Crevalle Jacks with their flowing yellow fins, spiraling in slow-motion below us. It was utterly magical and so lovely with the sunlight piercing through the water and sending shimmering rays of light up through the rotating schools to the surface. It was mesmerizing to watch, as it seemed as if the slowly spinning fish were shooting out rays of golden glittering light.
It was so serene watching the soft, rippling diamond light patterns on the backs of the manatees as they swam. I felt as though I was swimming in an underwater impressionist painting with the glowing morning light in the water making iridescent rippling patterns on everything it touched.
I also saw slender needlefish swimming near the surface, blue crabs scuttling along on the bottom, scallop shells peeking out of the swaying sea grass, and enormous silver snook lazily swimming and resting under the dock.
Floating amongst the manatees of Jurassic Spring was like visiting a garden of slumbering giants. At least a dozen ringed the circular spring area like stone statues. I felt such tranquility as I hovered above them while they slept. It was fascinating to watch the schools of cleaner fish all around them picking algae off their bodies while they snoozed. When the fish nipped at their faces, it seemed to irritate them, and they would shake their heads to chase the pesky fish away.
While manatees nap, they can hold their breath around twenty minutes. They would occasionally drift up like a blimp to take a breath and then swim past me or directly under me. Having a ten-foot long, twelve-hundred pound manatee swim directly underneath me, just two inches away without touching me, was incredible! I felt so small next to them. I was amazed that such rotund creatures could be so graceful and careful in the water. Not once during my three-hour swim did a manatee brush up against me or bump me, even when we were in very close quarters. The sensitive hairs all over their bodies help them to navigate around objects and people as they travel.
When manatees surface, they open the little valve that closes their nostrils while they are submerged and they spray water and air out of their bulbous snout with a funny snuffling and snorting sound. Their big whiskered snouts have round nostrils that open in perfect circles as they take in air.
It’s so cute, you want to boop them on the snoot! Don’t worry, I restrained myself! I reminded myself that their home is not a petting zoo and that I was there to practice passive observation in their environment. It was very tempting to want to reach out and touch the manatees, but it’s against the law except for when a manatee actively engages in an interaction with you. If they swim right up to you and nuzzle you with their nose or touch you, it’s considered an active invite to interact and gently touch them, but if they are resting or swimming by, you are not supposed to make contact. I watched several swimmers with other manatee tour companies touching the sleeping and swimming manatees. The manatees immediately left the area, which was startling for the manatees, who were trying to rest, and frustrating for those of us who wanted to enjoy quietly observing them.
I think about it this way. I was visiting their home as a guest. Would you want a guest visiting your home to touch you without permission while you were sleeping? Nope! I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and just float quietly with them. I felt so tiny floating next to their massive bodies, and the more time I spent with them, I felt completely unafraid of them. I was surprised at how quickly such a behemoth could appear almost out of nowhere next to me and glide past without a sound. They may seem totally silent, but listen carefully, because you can hear them communicating underwater! I listened with amazement to a mother and calf conversing with clicks and squeaks within a few feet of me, which was really exciting to hear. They can hear their calf’s calls up to two-hundred feet away.
Speaking of babies, I was in baby manatee heaven! I was able to peacefully float next to two different pairs of mama and baby manatees and watch the babies nurse. It was simply amazing to be so close to them during such an intimate and special moment. I place it in the top ten list of my favorite animal encounters. While one of the babies nursed, a sassy striped sheepshead fish kept nipping algae off of the calf’s face. The baby would get irritated and startled every time the fish nipped it. It was quite amusing to watch the cheeky fish in action. When calves nurse, they clamp on the nipple right under the mom’s front flipper, just like their closest relative, the elephant. The baby was chomping and pulling away on the mom’s nipple while she slept. Mama didn’t even move a muscle or wake up! It made me giggle in my mask, thinking of how my babies used to do the same thing!
The most wonderful manatee encounter of my swim was when the nursing baby and mama woke up, realized I was close by, and approached me inquisitively. I was looking directly into the tiny eyes of a manatee mama and her adorable little spud!
I could see their tiny eyes were covered by nictitating membranes to protect them when underwater. I was so close to their faces that I could see all the bristly vibrissae (whiskery hairs) covering their squishy snouts. It was so interesting to see their wrinkly skin up-close, matted in green algae, crusted with barnacles and covered with sensitive hairs that waved in the current. They came up to breathe right near me and I watched their noses breach the surface and their nostrils open to breathe.
It was a bit strange swimming in Jurassic Spring because it is surrounded by private residences with docks. I felt a bit like I was the one in a fish-bowl as people were out in their yards just lounging and watching all of us swim with the manatees. A small rust-colored dog had spotted some manatees from the dock and he was barking at them furiously. The manatees seemed completely unfazed by the dog and all of us observing them.
Now that I’ve shared all the magical parts of swimming with manatees, I suppose I should also share the parts that weren’t quite so magical! I was right behind a massive mama manatee when she decided to evacuate the contents of her bowels. Suddenly, the clear spring water was obstructed by a cloud of messy manatee poop floating back in my face. It reminded me of when hippos poop in the water! I was pushing clouds of partially digested plant material away from my mask. After years of cleaning up the poop of dozens of animal species and humans too, it didn’t phase me much, but some people might get a little grossed out by it!
Mind your Manatee Manners!
Please mind your manatee manners if you swim with them. The most frustrating aspect of our manatee swim experience was seeing tourists break the rules and ignore the guides, who kindly and patiently kept explaining that they were breaking the rules and scaring the manatees away. This was most apparent in Hunter Bay Springs, where visitors could walk into the water from the shore. They were stirring up clouds of silt by walking on the bottom instead of floating, making visibility very difficult. Many were bothering the manatees by surrounding them, touching them, and shrieking and laughing loudly. The manatees decided to leave for deeper water, and I don’t blame them one bit. I was quite annoyed, because they were trying to rest and nurse their babies, and I had been enjoying the tranquility of such a peaceful scene.
We followed the lead of the manatees and left for Jurassic Spring, hoping for a quieter experience. The first few minutes were bliss until I began hearing an incredibly annoying and repetitive loud sound while snorkeling under the water. I came up to see what it was and discovered it was a cackling lady with another snorkeling group! Does anyone remember the girl with the obnoxious laugh in the musical ‘Oklahoma!’ that was always trying to steal Curlie from Laurie? That’s how annoying the sound was. I watched several swimmers with other manatee tour companies touching the sleeping and swimming manatees. This was startling for the manatees, who were trying to rest, and frustrating for those of us who wanted to enjoy quietly observing them. The poor manatees quickly swam away from the rude guests in the springs. I fervently wish people would think more about their actions and how it affects the natural world around them. Our guide was a saint once again, kindly explaining to people how their actions affected the manatees. Hopefully his words made a difference that day! I was an animal science educator for many years, so I can appreciate the tact and patience required to repeat the same thing over and over to people who seem oblivious to the harm they are causing.
Manatee Injuries from Watercraft
One of the most eye-opening aspects of our manatee swim was seeing firsthand the terrible wounds sustained by manatees from propellers and boat strikes. It really saddened me that so many bore permanent scars and injuries. Some of their tails were absolutely shredded, with giant chunks ripped out of their flesh that had healed over and scarred. Most of the adults had rows of white streaks scarred down their backs from collisions with propeller boats. Even the little youngsters had scars from collisions, which really broke my heart. It is such an important reminder that all of us who enjoy boating and water sports need to be vigilant about our speed in the water, pay attention to the “no wake” signs, and always watch for wildlife.
Enduring the Cold
The most challenging part of the manatee swim was definitely the cold. I cannot imagine doing this experience without a full wetsuit. By the time I got through the first half of the swim, I started getting very chilled. I felt the icy cold spreading to my hands and I couldn’t feel the tips of my fingers anymore. Some adults and kids may find it quite difficult to endure the cold for a full three-hour tour. It was hard to leave the enchanting underwater world of the slumbering manatee garden, but what a relief to get back on the heated boat and feel the heat of a steaming cup of hot cocoa on my frozen fingers. It was so comforting and pleasant after being so chilled.
The Magic of Manatees
Entering the serenity of their underwater world for a few hours was such an incredible privilege and a gift, and I lost track of time as I swam with them. I’m so thrilled that my children were able to have such a memorable experience and it made me very happy to see the delight on their faces when they met manatees face-to-face for the first time. My youngest, who is absolutely obsessed with animals, exclaimed joyfully, “Mama, look! They’re right here! They’re coming to see us!” They especially loved seeing the adorable roly-poly calves. My oldest daughter nicknamed them “little spuds,” which is a pretty perfect description of a baby manatee. They really do look like floating potatoes when they are at the surface.
People from all over the world travel to Crystal River to swim with manatees. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to put on your nature trip bucket list when you visit Florida, or even if you live here and see manatees frequently. Manatees have made an extraordinary comeback from their status on the endangered species list, but they are still threatened due to human activities. Watching how gentle the manatees were with each other and the human visitors around them gave me a better understanding of how precious and rare these docile giants are, and why it’s so important that we care enough about them to preserve their habitat, the sea grasses they need to survive, and to find better ways to protect them against injury from boats. Manatees are such a critical part of Florida’s aquatic ecosystem, keeping our waterways clear as they munch on aquatic vegetation and provide the fertilizer that helps the sea grasses flourish. They aid in providing nourishment to the scores of aquatic creatures that start their life in the sea grass nurseries.
When you look into the eyes of a manatee and see their gentle curiosity and watch them cuddling and nursing their babies, it helps you identify with them. This feeling of connection helps us to care more about protecting them. Seeing the injuries on almost all the manatees I encountered had a deep impact on me and was a sober reminder of how our choices affect them and impact their lives and environment. If you love manatees as I do, or even if you’ve never thought of doing a manatee swim, I hope you have an opportunity to experience a magical manatee encounter with Florida’s very own loveable, chubby mermaids. I promise that a day spent with manatees will bring peace to your soul and a feeling of connection with nature that gives you a better understanding of why protecting wild places and creatures is so critical.