A tiny town on the Gulf coast of Florida is the only U.S. destination where you can legally swim with manatees in the wild. That is why I was at the Plantation on Crystal River dressed only in a wetsuit before dawn on the coldest day of the year in Florida, when ice crystals were actually starting to form on the docks around me. Was I crazy? No. I knew that the frigid weather could only mean one thing: Mother Nature was getting ready to put on a spectacular show.
Crystal River, Florida is home to the West Indian Manatee. Also known as sea cows, manatees are lovable, lumbering creatures who are endangered because of increased boating and marine traffic that causes harm to the slow-moving giants. It’s rare to see a manatee without gashes on its skin from boat propellers moving too fast in their protected environments.
Interaction with wild animals is usually kept to a minimum in most places. In Crystal River, though, a variety of eco-outfitters are allowed to bring you to a manatee hotspot and so you can swim with the manatees on their terms. Snorkelers can enter a protected spring and gently swim in the water, allowing manatees to come up to them for interaction—never the other way around.
Which is why I was clad in a thin wetsuit as the outside temperature started creeping towards 38 degrees. For a native Floridian, this was a serious deep-freeze environment. For the manatees, though, it’s just a great day to come out and play. Manatees cannot tolerate cold weather, but thankfully, the area around Crystal River is home to Florida’s second-largest natural springs system where the water temperature is a constant 72 degrees. So on the coldest of days, when the water temperature is frigid elsewhere, you can count on manatees flocking to the springs to regulate their body temperature.
The colder it is, the better your chances are of swimming with sea cows. October through March is considered the best time to have manatee interactions in Crystal River. They can happen anytime of the year, but when the weather is warm, manatees tend to move on to other locales.
Manatee outings start early in the morning, which makes a stay at the Plantation on Crystal River a smart bet. The property offers a great package each winter that includes accommodations, breakfast, a manatee snorkeling tour, equipment, and some fun-themed goodies. All you have to do is roll out of bed and walk down to the Adventure Center to join your tour.
We checked in the night before, walked around the canal-side property with its great pool overlooking the water and comfy rooms, and enjoyed a meal at the on-site restaurant, West 82 Bar and Grill. The Plantation on Crystal River has a Floridian, small-town charm to it, with lots of families gathering together in the common areas. It’s clear that weekend getaways for fishing, boating and manatee snorkel tours are the main reasons most people are visiting.
On the morning of our tour, we awoke and instantly checked the temperature outside. Very aware that we might be crazy, we layered on sweatpants and sweatshirts, grabbed mittens and hats and made our way to the Adventure Center. After checking in and getting our gear, the next feat was to head to the restrooms, put on slightly damp wetsuits and try to regulate our body temperatures again!
We boarded a pontoon boat—with the plastic flaps closed against the frigid wind—and motored out to Kings Bay. It was a short ride, but along the way our captain kept us informed and entertained with fun facts about manatees, their plight in the heavily motored waters and rules to follow when in the water.
Pulling up outside the roped-off protected area, it was time to take off the sweatshirts and jump right in. Thankfully, the warm 72-degree water made it a pleasant swim, as long as you stayed underwater. We swam towards the protected habitat and then…just waited.
You’ve got to stay calm and not move too rapidly when snorkeling here, and you must wait until manatees come to you. But when it happens, WOW!!!
I didn’t even realize a giant manatee had sidled up beside me until I felt a gentle nudge on my side. Then, looking down, I saw this huge creature cuddled up right beside me. Words cannot express the joy you feel when it happens. I’m pretty sure tears sprung to my eyes, but I was giddy with excitement just the same.
For about an hour, we were able to simply float along and wait until manatees came up to us. They would surface below us and they would come up beside us. The babies are the most playful and will get in your face for some loving. The manatees seem to want to be touched when they approach you. A gentle patting and stroking on their backs didn’t scare them, and they stayed for a while, seeming to enjoy the interaction. A manatee’s skin feels like a dolphin’s. The sad scars embedded on the animals’ backs from marine accidents will break your heart, though, and really fuel your desire to protect these animals.
When a manatee gets in your face and looks at you with those sweet eyes, well, it just takes your breath away. It’s amazing.
Towards the end of the hour, I was starting to get cold. Very cold. But I couldn’t tear myself away from the habitat, where gentle manatee muzzles kept surfacing to get air. Hearing the sounds as they surfaced was rhythmic. I was enchanted. But it was time to go.
Pulling ourselves out of the water, the cold was a harsh and bitter reality from the temperate springs we just shared with these incredible creatures. The captain had hot coffee and hot cocoa for us, and plenty of towels. We were soon back at the Plantation on Crystal River and indulging in really hot showers.
Crystal River is just about an hour and a half from Orlando, my hometown. I spent one night there—not even 24 hours. Yet this one-night weekend getaway has stayed with me in a way that I cannot even express. Happy memories will just pop up out of nowhere in my thoughts. It is a transformative adventure that is hard to describe, but the rare opportunity to swim with peaceful giants is likely to stay with you for a lifetime.