Swim With Manatees
The moment we crossed into Florida we were on the hunt to fulfill a huge bucket list adventure: To swim with the endangered Manatees! Because Manatees are endangered, they are under strict protection from the Florida government and you really need a tour to see them or know someone who lives on the canals in the springs.
After much research, we decided on a 3 hour Paddle Boarding or Kayaking Plus Snorkel Tour with River Ventures in Crystal River, FL. They had a great reputation on TripAdvisor and it was a bonus to also paddle board with these amazing creatures!
We arrived early to check in and were offered coffee, hot tea, or hot chocolate for free. The staff also let us know that there were snacks and waterproof cameras available for purchase if needed which was nice, but we had our own GoPro.
We watched a short video that explained that in order to get the highest chance of interaction with a Manatee, you have to be totally quiet and still in the water. This is a very different approach than when interacting with a dolphin where they are super playful and splash around. Manatees sleep most of the day, so if you want one to come up to you, you actually have to act like a Manatee. We were excited to get going!!!
Unfortunately, most of the Southeastern US just experienced a pretty rough cold snap and we were told our chances of actually seeing any Manatees were slim. The tour the day before searched all day and came up empty handed due to the weather, even though winter is usually the best time to see them. We didn't give up hope though, and figured, if nothing else, we'd get a good workout paddle boarding.
Once fitted with wetsuits, we were driven to the harbor to meet our guides Wade and Dave, we set out on our paddle boards. The guides followed close behind us in a boat and showed us how we should look for a Manatee.
As we paddled along on our boards, we stopped to wait for the others in our tour catch up when suddenly right off the side of Murray's board was a large, round flat form on the surface of the water, creating ripples that spread in all directions. Could we be that lucky?!?
We paddled closer and to our delight we saw a small brown snout poke out of the water, take a breath and continue swimming. It was a Manatee! We couldn't believe it given the odds of the day! Excitedly, but in total restrained silence, we paddled as fast as we could without creating splashes to catch up with the huge Manatee that was swimming slowly along in about 4 feet of water.
We caught up to her and paddled with her for a few hundred yards. She even crossed directly and slowly under our boards a few times. We were practically jumping out of our skin with excitement, though we didn't dare make a noise!
The rest of the group and the guides arrived a few minutes later and we were directed into Jurassic Spring, where a second Manatee was spotted by another boat, relaxing in a corner.
We got off our boards and put on our snorkels to view the seemingly lazy creature suspended in the water. We floated with her for probably 20 minutes, where she did nothing but float and take the occasional breath on the surface of the water. Then she decided to move bumped into Murray before turning face to face with Alex! We got a great look at her sweet expression saying hello and her beady little eyes.
Her skin looked like it was flaking off and we were later told that she was suffering from cold stress, a condition similar to frostbite which is one of the biggest causes of death for Manatees. These mammals are very much like humans and can only survive in a narrow temperature range. For Manatees, water colder than 60 degrees Fahrenheit means a death sentence, which is why they migrate in masses to the warm springs in Crystal River.
This particular Manatee wasn’t very active, but we were told that she was actually doing better than she was when she first entered the spring a few days before. So that is good. The local organizations are very good at monitoring and rehabilitating the species as needed and they kept a close eye on this one.
The guides then had us board the boat instead of our paddle boards to continue to test our luck and search for more Manatees. Given the tour is only three hours, it became apparent that it is much more effective to search for Manatees by boat than by paddle board and we were happy to oblige.
We next stopped in a small canal lined by homes when one of the guides spotted our third Manatee of the day. Our small tour group of four were all alone in this canal, so we quickly jumped in the water. Much to our delight we were able to interact with this large, pregnant Manatee grazing on small water plants. She didn’t seem to notice us as we watched her eat and gently touched her baby bump.
As this encounter ended and we swam back to the boat, we came upon the final Manatee of the day! A very typical white one swimming right towards us! We spent a few extra minutes observing this one, but the tour had come to an end and it was time to head back.
Pros of the Tour:
This was such a life changing experience! Being in the water with gentle giants and understanding their lives was truly a bucket list item for us.
Our guides Wade and Dave were great and very knowledgeable. They knew exactly where to look and found us the 'secret' viewing spot away from all other tours.
The regular snorkel tours had at least 15 people per tour, so we felt really lucky to be on the smaller 4 person tour. This was definitely the reason we saw more Manatees than the other tours that day!
We also were very impressed with all the staff at River Ventures; they were all very kind and helpful and seemed to genuinely care about Manatees and our experience.
Another benefit, although we didn't realize it was a benefit until later, was that there were not large groups of Manatees congregated together. When they are grouped together like you see in the photos featured on tour websites, they kick up the sand on the bottom which can make it really difficult to see them clearly or get clear pictures. We saw 5 lone Manatees on their own, which is probably why we had such clear water.
Cons of the Tour:
Because of all the photos on their website showing masses of Manatees, we had the expectation from the beginning that there would just be a ton of them everywhere, especially because it was winter season. While this can happen in perfect conditions, it is far more likely to see about 4-6 Manatees a day. Many factors affect how many manatees come into the springs including air temperatures, water temperatures, tides, and food availability.
So don't come to the tour expecting to get those perfect shots on that perfect day of 50 manatees swimming around. We saw a total of 5 Manatees on our tour and it was still one of the best experiences of our lives!
Paddle boarding is not an essential part of this tour if you are mainly focused on seeing Manatees. However, we did feel like it added something really special for us to experience Manatees swimming underneath our boards. I think we were exceedingly lucky, because the other members of the tour did not have this experience. It only added $10 per person to the trip cost and gave us a more intimate experience with these amazing mammals!
Sign up for your tour with the Manatees!
River Ventures - http://www.riverventures.com