Since my aspiration in life is to become a mermaid, it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of my favourite animals is the manatee. With a loving but unglamorous nickname of ‘sea cow’, these creatures might not always get the most press, but they are delightful, friendly and funny (scroll down to see the classic manatee squash video). While others may have had teenage dreams of swimming with dolphins, I’ve always wanted to swim with manatees, and on my third trip to Florida I was finally able to tick it off my bucket list.
Manatees are found in the tropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico, along with X. Florida is a great place to see them up close because they are drawn to the fresh water springs across the state. There are also strong preservation laws to protect these sweet but potentially too trusting gentle giants, which means that swimming with them here should guarantee your experience is ethical.
We were only in Orlando for two days and hadn’t properly booked the manatee excursion, but luckily if you are as last minute as us Manatee swimming is possible every day. Crystal River is the only place you are allowed to swim with manatees and where seeing them is pretty much guaranteed – there’s open water tours at Cocoa Beach while other national parks limit you to kayaks or boats. So this is where you want to go for the best experience.
If you are staying in Orlando you have the option of booking a full day trip with pick up or putting it together diy style. Full tours are available on these days only:
If your scheduling or just personal preference means you want to package up the excursion yourself, you’ll need to pick your transport preferences and book a morning or afternoon boat trip with a local dive shop.
Renting a car, like getting around in most of Florida, is the easiest option to get to Crystal River. Orlando is full of car rental options or you can book ahead online.
If you can’t drive or are unable to rent, Crystal River doesn’t have any direct local transport with Orlando but it’s still possible.
Uber is extremely prevalent in Orlando, especially around I-drive where a lot of the budget hotels are located. We stayed at Econo Lodge International Drive and never waited more than 8 minutes for pick up. Uber drivers don’t know what trip they have until after the fare is accepted, so while Crystal River is 87 miles / 140 km away, you should be able to get an Uber there like we did with plenty of ease. Expect the journey one way to coast around $80. Getting back is more difficult as Ubers are fairly rare on the other side – you can use the live fare checker to see for yourself. So you are left with four options
None of these methods are super reliable, so you may wish to combine Crystal River with a night in Tampa, which does have some connecting buses with Crystal River itself. There are plenty of hotels in Crystal River along with house rentals by the water.
We were lucky to arrive to a group of three manatees (adult, teen and baby) at the dock but usually you’ll need to go out on the water before spotting any. You must be with a registered tour to swim with manatees, and it’s important to not actively to anything once you’re in the water. Wet suits are worn and you are given noodles to increase buoyancy and decrease the chance you’ll splash or swim.
We booked our tour with Bird’s Underwater Dive Centre – they took us out in a group of 6 around the bay stopping nearby the manatees and again later on to swim by the springs. You’re free to bring underwater cameras, and Bird’s has a shop containing all the best gadgets and gizmos including waterproof cases, but you can also buy photos taken by your guide for $35 – which is better because you get to be in the photos! Another reason I loved Bird’s was because the store was stocked with the biggest collection of manatee themed products I’ve seen in one place – I picked up some cute earrings, a keyring and bottle opener (I really do love manatees).
I highly recommend Bird’s but in the off chance they are fully booked you can try these other local tour operators:
And now for the manatee squash!