I might as well hibernate for the rest of my life because I’ve already achieved my ultimate goal – I recently got to sustainably swim with manatees in Florida. I’ve gone to Florida almost every year since I was born (to visit my grandparents), so the opportunity to sustainably swim with manatees in Florida has been a long time coming!
Where did my love of manatees come from? As a child, I once spent my entire allowance savings on printing 20+ letters to the governor of Florida, regarding keeping manatees on the endangered species list. I know the best manatee viewing spots for miles around my grandparents’ coastal home – by the warm power plant in the winter, in the open bay in the summer. I’ve stood on the dock, soaked to my skin in down pouring rain, lightning crackling in the distance, laughing at dozens of manatees rolling around in the water, feeling the rain on their bellies.
Given my life long love of manatees, you might be surprised that I’d never swum with manatees before. Well, that’s because there is only one place in Florida where it is legal to swim with manatees – Crystal River. If you are also interested in how to sustainably swim with manatees in Florida, read on for my thoughts, experience, and recommendations!
Is swimming with manatees safe / sustainable?
Swimming with wild manatees is very safe… for you. When it comes to the manatees’ safety, things get more complicated. Manatees’ gentle disposition puts them at great risk from humans. Many manatees are scored with scars from boat propellors (the reason there are now “manatee zones” in most Florida waters). They are very curious and so can be easily taken advantage of by humans.
This is one reason that Crystal River is the only place it is legal to swim with manatees in Florida. In Crystal River, tour guides must register with the Environmental Agency, and they are trained in how to safely swim with manatees and pass this training on to you. Because of that, to sustainably swim with manatees in Florida, you must go with a tour company. We went with River Ventures, one of the longest standing tour companies in Crystal River, which I highly recommend.
Nevertheless, there is still contention over whether it is possible to sustainably swim with manatees in Florida. In 2015, there was a lawsuit which attempted to ban all swimming with manatee tours, but it was unsuccessful. Since then, manatees have been downlisted from the endangered species list to the threatened species list (much to the chagrin of my 8-year-old politically active self and current self!). Manatee activist agencies argue that despite manatee population growth, this was a dangerous move as it will make it more difficult to ensure water sanctuaries and secure warm water habitats in the face of climate change and recent natural disasters.
So… does that mean it is not possible to sustainably swim with manatees in Florida? That’s not necessarily the case. A Save The Manatees club position statement from 2009 says they think it is acceptable to swim with manatees, as long as certain behavior is followed (read on for that!).
From my own personal perspective, the key to sustainability lies with having a strict and knowledgeable tour guide who will enforce safe behavior. If this is done properly, and tourists are educated on manatee sustainability, just think of the huge impact it could have on spreading awareness of keeping these wonderful animals safe! So yes, it is possible to sustainably swim with manatees, but much of the responsibility will lie with you to be respectful of these amazing gentle giants.
How to swim
If you choose a reputable tour company, such as River Ventures, you will receive an education session about how to swim with manatees. We were instructed to float on the water (we were given “noodle” floats to help with this) and not let our feet drop and stir up mud. There was no talking or noise allowed. We were also instructed not to touch a manatee, unless the manatee had come up to us and touched us first. We were supposed to be passive in every way possible.
The Save the Manatees club goes one step further in their position statement, and urges absolutely no touching, and that you should remain at least 10 feet from manatees in the water. Whilst I see their point, I can also imagine this being quite difficult as manatees are so curious and friendly, they were coming up and nudging us which makes it very difficult not to touch them!
Just make sure to follow your guide’s instructions.
When to swim
Manatees are most active in Crystal River from November – March. They do not fare well in cold water, so in the cold months they congregate inland near the warmer springs such as the Three Sisters Spring in Crystal River. We visited in late March and the season was already winding down. You can still sustainably swim with manatees in Florida in the summer months, but it will be more hit and miss as to how many manatees you see.
I also recommend choosing a morning tour. Ours began around 6am, and after wet suits and education, we were in the water by 7am. As it’s colder in the morning, more manatees will be about. Likewise, there are less people on the river making it a more private experience.
After looking around at all the tour companies in Crystal River, my parents and I chose River Ventures. There were a few reasons to this: they seemed to be the most established tour company, they had the most tour options, and the guide takes underwater photos for you. This last one was important for me because I wanted to have photos from our experience, but I really really really did not want to be distracted with a camera and miss out on my dream experience of swimming with manatees. I wanted to be in the moment, so this addition was perfect for us.
We drove to the River Ventures store front bright and early, where we had complimentary hot chocolate and coffee, squeezed into some wet suits (provided in the tour cost) and had an educational session about how to swim with manatees. From there, our guide drove us to the dock where we boarded our boat and met our captain!
As we went in late March, we were warned that they hadn’t been seeing many manatees lately. Luckily, there had been a cold snap the night before so it only took us about ten minutes in the river before we spotted a manatee! We quickly put on our snorkels (also included in the tour price) and grabbed floatation noodles, and silently slipped into the river…
This first manatee we saw was much more interested in her breakfast than us. We floated in the water above her huge body. She slowly moved along, and we listened to her munch away on the grasses. She was completely uninterested in us and did not approach us, but also didn’t shy away either. She nudged against me a few times as she surfaced to breathe air. We spent probably 45 minutes in the water with her!
After our first swimming with manatees experience, we climbed back into the boat. I became very thankful for the towels we brought as the morning air was chilly, and wetsuits are apparently much more insulating underwater than above it! We poured ourselves hot chocolates and settled into our seats as the boat slowly moved to our next spot.
Soon enough, we’d spotted another manatee and were ready to climb back into the water!
Our next experience was completely wild. There were at least a dozen manatees in the water. A few of them were getting “frisky” as our guide tactfully put it. Manatees were literally leaping out of the water, splashing around. I’d never seen anything like it. We stayed away from those manatees and swam with the calmer ones having their elevenses.
My favorite was this little baby manatee who was so so curious! It followed us and nudged us and poked its snout in the camera, and even grabbed our hands with its flippers. I looked straight into its old-soul eyes and I have to say it was one of the most magical experiences of my life.
The four hours went by so quickly, and soon enough we were back in the boat, driving home. We did the Semi-Private VIP tour, which is the most expensive swimming with manatees tour offered by River Venture at $84. However, even as a budget traveler, I do think it was worth it as it included heating, free snacks and drinks, an extra hour, a toilet, and only five people on the tour which made the experience much more intimate and calm. For this kind of once in a lifetime experience, and especially if you love manatees as much as I clearly do, it was worth the cost.
How can you help manatees?
I want to thank Soufiane El Hamidi and the United Nations for reaching out to me regarding the UN Biodiversity Day. This year’s theme is sustainable tourism, and I have written this post in collaboration with them! As always, all opinions are my own. If you would like to get involved with the UN Biodiversity Day, you can join the cause here.
If you are looking to become involved with manatee sustainability, you can keep up to date on the battle regarding manatee species status here. You can also join the Save the Manatee club, adopt a manatee and get a free gift here, or run a 5k in support of the gentle giants.
And if you are planning on swimming with manatees, choose a reputable and sustainable tour company such as River Ventures (I have no affiliation with them, just pure good experience!)
How YOU can sustainably swim with manatees in Florida
Where: Crystal River, Florida
Recommended tour: River Ventures, Semi-Private VIP Manatee Tour
Stay: King’s Bay Lodge, or use my code for an Airbnb discount
When: November – March, before 8am
Have you ever swum with manatees? Would you ever do it? What’s your childhood dream and have you met it through your travels? Let me know in the comments!
Pin it for later…
**Photos taken by our guide Gloria from River Ventures**
Love this post, Sarah! And how cute are you with your parents?! I don’t know if I’d like to do this or if I’d get really freaked out! Manatees are SO cute, though – I might be more into observing them from a distance, haha! I don’t know, but your post has got me thinking about it now. Love that you shared a sustainable way of swimming with them.
Honestly I was waaaay more freaked out when I went snorkeling in the Bahamas a couple years ago. The water is really shallow and the manatees are sooooo gentle that I wasn’t too scared. It was definitely a little intimidating to start with when I realized how absolutely huge they are, but I felt so comfortable with them!
LOVE this post. I got goosebumps reading it. Looks like you had a blast. 😀
Ugh goosebumps = ultimate goal! Totally recommend this experience 🙂
sweet manatee babies! Loved your breakdown on the environmental safety of swimming with them. definitely a life goal!
it was aamaaaaaazing Paige <3
This is incredible! 🙂 So wonderful to read about something that you have dreamt about for so long!
I’m already dreaming of the next time I can do it!!!
OMG – I LOVE, LOVE manatees. Would love to do this!! I’ve been super sad that the past 2 times I’ve gone diving, the dugongs (their cousins) haven’t been around. Gah, they’re my fav!! <3 <3 <3
The dugongs are next on my list 😉 Then elephants. I must interact with all manatee evolutionary relatives ;P
This looks amazing Sarah! So cool that you were able to fulfil your dream and it must have been so special to be so close to such wonderful animals! Love that you did it sustainably and shared how you did – so important with wildlife tourism 🙂
It was absolutely special. Yeah I’ve only in the last few years really realized how important sustainable tourism is… hearing about all the baby animal tourist interactions where the animals are drugged and abused just breaks my heart. And having a conservation biologist housemate last year definitely raised my awareness of how important sustainability is!
Those manatees are so friggin’ cute! I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to swim with those gentle giants. I’ve seen a few of them lurking in the water before on past trips to Florida, but swimming with them would be an absolute dream!
It was MAGICAL.
What a great post! I’d love to swim with manatees one day (if it is still allowed at that point), and think you’ve done a great job of sharing precautions, tips, and history! #wanderfulwednesday.
I really hope it is still allowed!! I think as long as they maintain the current controls and even increase them, maybe limiting the number of tour companies or people allowed in the river each day, it should definitely hold up in the future!
What an amazing experience! I would love to swim with those amazing creatures. Thanks for sharing all the informations and tips. #WanderfulWednesday
Maybe it will help you in the future!!
Your family is so adventurous. What a memoral trip!! I would love to do a tour like this, so glad you got informed with these issues. Great post!
Hahahah they would definitely get a kick out of being called adventurous. I guess in a way we are! But we are also homebodies ;P I hope your little family can do a manatee tour someday soon!!
This is SO cool!!! I love the expressions of the manatees. They are so cute!! And yeah, that fish looks like a baby shark. Or maybe I’m just overreacting!
Hahaha yes they are for sure masters of expressions. It was a snook a believe!! So not as scary as a shark but I still didn’t like it haha
Oh wow! Crystal River is the place I first saw them in the wild (my Mother in Law lives in Clearwater), we were kayaking and a little nose popped up next to me and I gently touched it to say hello. I had no idea you weren’t allowed to touch them, and got really told off for it, so it’s nice you can swim with them sustainably now! 🙂 #wanderfulwednesday
Haha it probably didn’t mind being touched to be honest… they are so so curious! It is almost hard not to touch them as they just want to see what is going on 🙂
Oh my gosh, I would LOVE to swim with manatees.. they are SO cute. And how cute that they’re so curious and come and nudge you. I LOVE that picture with the mother and baby manatee… it’s the cutest ever! I’m so glad to hear that there are tours who offer to swim with them sustainably.
Yessss they are adorable!! That picture is from another tour that my guide took, not the one that we were on. I’d love to go back in December/January as apparently there are tons of moms and babies and the water is so much clearer for photos!
It’s adorable how much your 8 year old self and current self love manatees!! I agree, it sounds like you’ve achieved your ultimate goal in life. It’s great to hear that you can swim with them sustainably 🙂
Hahaa just imagine how much my 80 year old self will love them!!
AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!! Manatees are so cute!! I would love love love to swim with them but I agree that you have to look for a tour company who actually understands and respects the animals. Here in Tromso, whales have recently started to spend the winters and there were so many companies popping out offering whale watching trips without having any knowledge of the animals. it’s terrible and totally should be avoided!
Defo agree, any animal-related tourism should really be researched into because there are so many risks! I’ve definitely done things in the past (like feeding monkeys in Morocco) that I really regret because at the time I had no idea about whether or not what I was doing was appropriate, and the guides didn’t know either. I’ve done whale watching in the past with REALLY good guides and it makes SUCH a difference because you learn so so so much about the animals and that’s half the point of the tour!!
Your love of Manatees is incredibly adorable!! I really like them as well! My grandparents are also in Florida so I used to visit all the time as a kid and we would always go to watch the Manatees. They are such big, gentle beasts. I always felt so bad for them, as like you said they can get so hurt by human activities, and they’re just so stinkin cute! So happy you got to live out your dream and got to do it responsibly!! 😀
Hahaha thank youuuu <3 they are the best!! Yes, I spent my childhood watching them from afar with the gparents as well 🙂 Swimming with them was a dream come true!
What a fantastic opportunity! They are such gentle-looking creatures and I have always wanted to see them for myself. Thanks for the awesome photos.
No problem, Betty! Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂 Hope you get the chance some day!
I was going to do this last year but gen read about the petition and movement to ban it and so I didn’t . It sounds like you were responsible but I still have concerns. How would bad behavior by a tourist be enforced? What limits if any are there for the number of people permitted in the water? Anyway thanks for sharing. I am very curious about this.
From what I can tell, tourist behavior is only controlled and enforced by the tour guides. However the tour guides I came in contact with were quite strict, and obviously they have a stake in it as well because 1) they care about the manatees as that’s why they’re devoting their life to it and 2) the local tourism agency polices this and can revoke touring rights if a company is permitting unsafe behavior from tourists. I’m not sure about limits in place for people permitted in the water! Our tour only had five people on it which was such a good size, but other tours were a bit larger (10-15). I definitely would support putting limits in place regarding how many people can join tours and how many tours can go out at any one time. I have to say that the river was not congested by tourists when we went, which was nice to see as I feared the worst!
I also swam with manatees in crystal river and went with river ventures as well. (I wrote a post very similar to yours!) I forget our tour guide’s name but he was great, and we had an awesome time. He went over all the rules and told us how to be respectful of them (which made me happy). They really are such gentle giants, and I was on cloud nine after wards! 🙂
This post makes me so happy. I love that you discuss different sides to whether or not it’s ethical/sustainable. I think it’s important to see both sides of it. And to discuss what exactly is the reasoning behind it not being good to swim with them. And that people are trained on how to properly do it without disturbing their habitat and their lives. I am a huge advocate for ethical animal tourism and this makes me so happy to read!
I was all smiles reading this post! So glad you got to accomplish one of your dreams! I have always wanted to swim with the manatees too! I’ve actually traveled to Florida quite a bit, but it never seems to be the right season! I pinned your post to keep it as a guide! Thank you!
Look at these giant adorable cuddlemuffins! They’re so silly looking and I just adore them. Totally going to check this out – we go to Florida all the time and I would LOVE to do this!
I cannot believe this! You have lived my dream! I would adore to see manatees in the wild. I have this notion that they must be my spirit animal. I was at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia once, where they can also be found, but I didn’t spot them. If I ever make it to Florida I know what to do now.
Aww this is amazing! I am so happy you were able to live out your dream and doing in a sustainable way. I have a love for cheetahs the way you do for manatees and I am going to Africa this fall to see them in the wild! I also want to do an encounter experience, but in a way to where it is not harmful to the cheetahs. This is very hard and Africa has stopped encounters in many places no, so I am bummed I may not live out my dream. I like your reasoning behind picking your tour company. I always face the problem of being behind the camera instead of enjoying the experience thoroughly. Having the guide take photos for you is a really nice touch. Again, I enjoyed your post you did a lovely job!
This is so amazing! I’m so glad you were able to live your dream, and in such a safe and sustainable way. It sounds like a wonderful experience! They’re such adorable animals!
Although I’m jealous that you could swim with manatees, I’m glad that you could do it! It was definitely a great experience. I would love to do the same in one day 🙂
This looks like such an amazing experience! I had no idea they offered tours like this, I had a bad experience snorkeling once, but the manatees like so cool.
Cool. It’s really an amazing experience. Happy to know about these kinds of opportunities. Excellent images add more value to your post.
I have a couple of vacation days to burn and I saw cheap tickets to Tampa and I totally looked into this! Can we still see these cuties in July?
I think July and August are the worst month for swimming with manatees sadly 🙁 They are the warmest months in Florida so unless there’s a cold snap the manatees will mostly be out in the ocean rather than in the rivers and springs! You might see a few but it’s quite hit or miss in the summer… To be honest as it’s a little pricy and takes up at least half a day I might skip it until you can visit in the winter!! They do have scalloping tours and things like that though which are better in the summer!
I would die of happiness. I’ve done this when I was very little. I’ve been obsessed with manatees (and cows on land) since! I almost burst into tears when the news showed the manatees stuck with the negative storm surge that happened down in Florida with the hurricane. I’m so glad people were able to rescue them.
I had no idea you could swim with manatees in Florida OMG! I was saying to my boyfriend that I’d really love to go to Florida to see manatees, so when we eventually go I’ll most definitely be taking your advice on where to go!
This is incredible!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is my dream. Manatees are so cute. I’ve always thought of them sort of as the sloths of the water. Just so graceful and calm and cute. What an amazing opportunity!
Hahaha I know right, it’s my forever dream too. I want to go back so badly! They are deeefffff the sloths of the water lol!