The #1 US Destination For Swimming With Manatees

Manatees are large aquatic mammals that can survive in both salt and freshwaters. Sometimes referred to as "sea cows" thanks to their large size, manatees are a unique animal that attracts interest from sea lovers all over the world. Manatees are herbivores, making people feel safe swimming near them. In the U.S., one destination is best for spotting these friendly creatures and swimming with them: Crystal River, Florida.

Located on the west coast of Florida, about an hour north of Tampa, Crystal River is one of the best places to swim with manatees, not only in The Sunshine State but the country as a whole. Crystal River wraps around King's Bay and gets water from over 70 warm springs. Because of this, the water in Crystal River is, on average, about 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Between the warm water, the convenient location, and the likelihood of spotting a manatee, Crystal River is a great destination for those obsessed with animals.

How to swim with manatees

The best way to swim with manatees is by booking a tour. Tour operators can be found all over Crystal River, but it's best to research and go with a reputable one, like Explorida. Before your tour officially begins, you'll be required to take part in a 30-minute or so presentation about the manatees. These presentations will cover proper protocol for swimming with the sea cows and include safety rituals swimmers need to take. You'll also learn that touching them is prohibited due to preservation efforts and environmental protections.

Once the presentation is over, it's time to get out on the water. For most tours, swimmers will be given a snorkel and mask. In many cases, swimmers will be required to wear a wetsuit because, though the water is typically technically warm, wetsuits are recommended when temperatures are between 65 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. You'll head out on the water on a boat and try to spot manatees. As soon as you see some, you'll jump in the water and swim alongside them. Spotting several manatees in one tour is quite common, and swimming alongside them in the grassy waters of Crystal River is a unique, humbling experience for most travelers. Tours typically last a few hours, and many tour operators will include photos of your experience either within the price of the tour or for an additional fee.

Environmental laws for manatees

One of the most important factors to keep in mind when swimming with manatees is their legally protected status. Manatees are covered by three federal laws: the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. These laws state that it is illegal to, among other things, kill, feed, harass, injure, hunt, or molest manatees. This includes the prohibition of touching manatees, disturbing a sleeping manatee, giving water to manatees, using food and-or water to attract manatees, blocking a manatee's pathway for swimming, and more. 

Violating either of these laws can lead to hefty fines of up to $100,000 and imprisonment of up to 60 days. Hopefully, it doesn't take the fear of being criminally punished to leave the manatees alone, but it's safe to say these gentle giants are well protected. When in doubt, avoid all contact with the manatees other than swimming peacefully alongside them. Additionally, though typically gentle and docile, if a manatee approaches you, it is advisable to avoid eye contact.