Swimming with Manatees in Florida at Crystal River

A great Orlando day trip in winter is swimming with Manatees in Florida at Crystal River

Orlando is all about making memories that last a lifetime, well for me, this was one of those days!

But it’s still dark outside!

It was an early start on a crisp January morning – you know you are about to do something exciting when you’re on holiday and the alarm goes off when it’s still dark outside!  We set off heading for Crystal River, luckily we had a Sat Nav as without it we may have struggled, plus when it’s 5am and you need to be there for 7am you are keen to head in the right direction!

We stopped on route for a McDonalds breakfast, that’s a given at this hour.

So what are we going to see?  Answer, Manatees in the wild, but not just to look at, after all, you can do that at SeaWorld without the early start – we were going to swim with Manatees!

For those of you that don’t know what a Manatee is, and I didn’t before seeing them at SeaWorld, they are large marine mammals.  Weighing in at 800 – 1,200 pounds and averaging 10ft long they could seem intimidating when you first meet one.  They are actually herbivores meaning they only eat plants and spend 6-8 hours a day eating around 10-15% of their body weight.  During the winter months the manatees head for the shallow rivers and streams along the gulf coast, preferring the warmer spring water that stays at a constant 72 degrees, as opposed to the Gulf of Mexico that can drop to 58-66 degrees.  Understandable!

There are many manatee tour operators in the area, we went with Captain Mike and on arriving at his office, were briefed on what we could and couldn’t do, when interacting with the manatees.  Manatees are on the endangered species list so it’s essential that they are respected when you visit THERE world.

We were given a mask, snorkel, fins and wetsuit to wear, this was all within the highly reasonable price of just $45 each.  They do ask that you arrive early to make sure you can get ready and on the boat as early as possible to get ahead of other tours etc.  Plus if you are not used to getting into a wetsuit it can take a while!  I recommend that you already have on your swimsuit and if you have a rash vest to wear this as well, plus any wetsuit gloves or socks that you may have, I had on ‘The Works’ you will see why later!

From the office you are taken on a colourful rainbow school bus to the river where you board the boat.  I recommend that you take a large carrier bag with you containing a towel, warm clothes to change into; synthetic fabrics, especially fleeces are ideal to get you warmed up quickly.

So with your excitement building, nothing can prepare you for your first interaction with these gentle giants.  I decided to swim away from the main group, whilst keeping an eye on our boat!  I found a juvenile manatee that wanted to play, he would swim up to me, turn over, and allow me to scrub its belly – he actually ‘cuddled’ my arm into his flipper.

Manatees are generally slow swimmers and feed on the grass in the shallow streams and rivers, making this activity ideal for swimmers of all levels.  If you do not wish to enter the water you can go on the boat and watch them interacting from above.  They are inquisitive and will often approach the boats to investigate further.

One by one passengers returned to the boat with big smiles on their faces, but shivering from the cold, I on the other hand was still in the water enjoying uninterrupted time with the manatees, nice and toasty thanks to the added layers!

Having had such a great time, we returned a week later, however, this day was quite chilly in comparison and the manatees didn’t want to interact as much, only wanting to come up for air and return to the bottom of the river.  Therefore, if you can be flexible when booking, I would recommend that you on a warm and still day (not windy), firstly for your own enjoyment as you will feel the cold quicker, but also to experience the interactive gentle nature of these large mammals.

I’ve returned several times since, and each experience has been incredible and I would recommend all visitors to do this when visiting Orlando in the winter months – December, January, February and even March.

http://www.sunshinerivertours.com/

Photos Dec 2008 / January 2009

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