Swimming with the Manatees!

Up close and personal manatee!
Up close and personal manatee!

Swimming with the Manatees is a special wildlife experience and the best part is you do not have to travel far outside the U.S. or to an expensive island to do it! Crystal River, Florida is possibly the place to see the most manatees and get the real up close and personal experience. Prime time viewing season is during the winter months, November to March. We went at the end of December in the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge.

Up close and personal manatee!
Up close and personal manatee!

There are many many outfitters in Crystal River, Florida that provide the Manatee Tours. However, it is difficult to weed through them to find the best experience for you when they all look the same initially. I find that a smaller boat provides my type of experience because it is more personal. Meaning it is not as crowded in the water, the captain can take special requests, be flexible in terms of the areas to check out if there are last minute circumstantial changes and often the staff or guide are more able to answer questions and teach you about what you are seeing and doing because they are not busy attending to needs of a full boat of passengers. We did see some of these more cattle driving type operations when we were out on the water. Thankfully from afar.

Crystal River Kayak Company
Crystal River Kayak Company

When we went out a week later, we started off by seeing a manatee that was a young adult right near the dock we launched from. A young adult is still quite large! We quickly dropped in the water and swam slowly and quietly to the gentle giant. After the introductory video our operator provided, we knew not to touch the animals. We were allowed to float close and only in a semi circle or line formation so as not to make them feel trapped. Often it seemed he swam to us and all we had to do was wait and float, float and wait. He was just eating his way through the shallow waters with his huge mouth and flippers that seemed almost too small for the bulky body. When the manatee luckily ended up directly under you, it was important to just float, relax and not try to swim, especially no kicking. We actually did not even use fins so as not to kick up any of the sea bottom causing a disturbance and diminished visibility in the already murky water. Some of the other companies are not this cautious.

Swimming with the Manatees
Swimming with the Manatees

The company I found that provided exactly this was The Crystal River Kayak Company. http://crystalriverkayakcompany.com/manatee-swim-tour/

They have expanded from only kayaking to a full-blown dive center focused on the manatee tours. From the moment the company took my call I was more than satisfied. In particular, they were honest and told me that at that time there were fewer manatees in the area because the weather had warmed up substantially. Which was unlike other companies that did not want to share this information for fear you would not book a tour as most of the year the manatees hang out in much larger groups.

 

The tour was $65 each and this included mask, snorkel, 5mm wetsuit and flotation device. Plus we departed from the company’s own private dock on a boat that brought out between only 2 and 6 (max) guests.  We had to arrive at the standard 6:30 am for the first tour out. The first tour out also seems to be the best because that is when the manatees are the most active. There was transportation provided to the site and once there we met Captain Michael Birns our guide. Honestly Mike was the best part of the trip. Mike took my boyfriend, 2 nieces (12 and 16) and myself out for the requisite 3 hour tour not including the prep half hour before or after the trip. While we were snorkeling around the manatee, Mike also took video and photos of our specific experience that we were able to purchase later for $25 digitally on a jump drive back at the shop.

While out in the water, Mike was able to point out specific traits and actions of the manatees to look for including the weird hairs on the manatee’s back that act as super sensors. He also maneuvered us so that every one in our party had a close encounter from all angles while also assisting other tour companies in best practices and a calm approach to the animals.

 

The most impressive part of the experience was how close you got to the manatees. The photos show you could not possibly get any closer – mere inches away. And this is not always the case when you have an animal encounter in the wild i.e. with dolphins or sea lions. It was amazing to be able to do this without any threat to them or you.

A Personal Manatee Swim
A Personal Manatee Swim

Manatees are naturally curious creatures because they do not have any natural predators to be weary of. The increase in tourism around manatees has also helped them because of the awareness it provides as long as the animals and the rules around the interactions are followed. This has resulted in the animals being taken off the endangered species list and moved to the “threatened” list. Last year the number of manatees in this area alone exceeded 6,000, which is quite incredible.

Manatee Tail
Manatee Tail

When back on the boat, Mike taught us much about manatees in general and the characteristics they inherit from their elephant ancestors. The Crystal River Kayak Company also followed up after the trip within a week with a unique live educational opportunity for their young tourists so that kids can bring this experience to their classroom after returning home.

 

The trip concluded with a jaunt over to the Three Sisters Springs. This was a beautiful natural spring area where you could float over the springs, see tons of fish and swim in the crystal clear water. We did not see the manatees here, which was unusual, but my nieces still loved the snorkeling experience that topped off the unique Western Central Florida trip in Citrus County.

Three Sisters Springs
Three Sisters Springs
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