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Wondering what it’s like to swim with manatees? They may not have the strength and grace of killer whales, or the agility and good looks of dolphins, but swimming with manatees is a profound experience. For families who want to enjoy nature at its best, a wonderland is hidden behind Orlando’s amusement parks at Homosassa Springs in Citrus County. A recent trip took my daughter and me to the manatees’ home turf. This is a far cry from a modern-day aquarium. Here’s why and how to swim with manatees.
Getting to know the manatees
Our days started early in the morning, as this is the perfect time to snorkel with the manatees before they get tired of visitors. We boarded a pontoon boat with one of the few female captains in the area, Traci Wood from Native Vacations. Having spotted two manatees just below the water, Captain Traci stopped the boat as the duo slowly glided towards us. They used their paddle-like tails to propel themselves up and down. The manatees steered with their flippers, gracefully moving their 12-foot-long bodies through the water. Our boat was soon surrounded by this gentle species.
Rules for swimming with manatees
Soon we resumed our journey. Within a few minutes Captain Traci stopped the boat again and gave us instructions. “Whatever you do,” she said, “And it doesn’t matter how excited you are — remember the three golden rules: minimize splash noise; act with very slow movements; and when you do touch one of these friendly, gentle gray giants on the back or stomach, never touch with more than one hand at a time. Two hands are illegal. The Endangered Species Act forbids touching a manatee unless it touches you first, and they will let you know.” The rules are strict in Homosassa, and the protection of this endangered species is taken very seriously. There is absolutely no chasing, riding or harassing the manatees. But these rules won’t diminish your experience in the least bit. Most of the manatees are very social and will come to you.
In Florida, waking up one of these 2,000-pound sleeping beauties will cost you a whopping fine. But it is perfectly legal to snorkel or swim with these playful, inquisitive kids of the deep when they are awake and trying to make your acquaintance.
Entering the water
At Three Sisters Springs, very slowly we entered the water, trying not to disturb the manatees and also trying to keep down the amount of sediment rising from the bottom of the river. Upon our descent, some of the manatees were still sleeping while others were slow-paddling around.
Swimming with the manatees is not at all difficult or intimidating. There were children younger than my daughter, Ilse (who is 10), as well as seniors in the water. There was an abundant feeling of energy and curiosity among us all. Book your swimming with manatees adventure now.
Manatees are very big, measuring 10- to 15-feet-long and weighing one ton. Some can be larger than 12 feet and weigh as much as 3,500 pounds.
They devour more than four to nine percent of their body weight each day. That’s 200 pounds of greens, eaten five to eight hours daily to maintain their beautiful rotund shape. Manatees are strictly herbivores. They eat a great variety of aquatic plant species, including water hyacinth, hydrilla and water lettuce.
Much to our surprise this official marine mammal of Florida is also nearsighted. Manatees are wild, although when looking at one nose-to-nose you’ll have second thoughts about just how wild they are. They turned over and bared their bellies for us to rub, and swam alongside and nibbled at us.
What to do on land at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park
Since not all visitors want to get so close to the manatees, non- swimmers can also view these endangered mammals at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. The park provides refuge for captive-born manatees. It is a halfway house for rehabilitating those that will be returned to the wild. Some manatees that have been injured or orphaned will spend their lives in the park since they are unable to survive in the wild. The park also serves as a research and observation center, offering three daily educational programs to the public.
The park showcases an impressive menagerie of native Florida wildlife including alligators, birds, and bears. It is located at the headwaters of the crystal clear Homosassa River, a natural spring that gushes forth millions of gallons of fresh water per hour.
When and where to swim with manatees
From December to March, groups of manatees escape the cold winter ocean and bask in the warm waters near power plants and coastal springs. The water in Crystal River stays about 72F degrees year-round. Snorkelers, divers and swimmers come from all over the world for a chance to try swimming with manatees. Numerous dive sites, inland springs, good underwater visibility, calm water, and its wintering manatee population have made Florida’s Citrus County a popular destination for nature lovers.
Abundant plant life makes the area an ideal playground for the manatees. They arrive every year by the hundreds to find warmth, food and maybe, just maybe, to visit us, the curious humans. The area is safe for these endangered mammals whose lives are often cut short by environmental factors and fatal encounters with speeding watercraft.
Crystal River is the only place in the world for snorkelers to swim with the West Indian manatee in relatively clear water. Citrus County and Crystal River is less than a 1.5-hour drive from Orlando, Tampa or Daytona. Learn more about the area on TripAdvisor.
Hotel near the manatees
I recommend staying at the Plantation Inn & Golf Resort for its lovely accommodations and guided wildlife excursions. This eco-friendly resort is a proud member of the Green Hotels Association and Eco Friendly Hotels Worldwide. This hotel is perfectly located to view the manatees daily. Read reviews of this resort here.
Why swim with manatees
Once you have swam next to a mother manatee and her newborn calf in the wild, it is inconceivable that anyone could hurt them. Like many visitors, my daughter and I left with this place with unforgettable memories and became avid supporters of protecting and preserving these friendly, docile creatures for generations to come. We believe there is hope that the manatee may yet be saved from extinction, but the public needs to become aware of the problem. These gentle giants are so impressive in their size and manner; it would be difficult not to fall in love with them. Truth is, swimming with manatees is a life altering experience.
How to help manatees
Your family can help manatee conservation efforts! Adopt a manatee for just $25 through the Save a Manatee Club. Ask your children to choose from a list of adoptable manatees and select those that match your family members’ personalities.
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If you like this story, then I bet you’ll love our review of Safari Wilderness Ranch in Florida and our tips for a beluga whale and polar bear safari in Manitoba, Canada.
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Professor Bel Kambach teaches Ecotourism and the Environment at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. She brings all of her Ecotourism students to teach a lesson in conservation to her daughter’s school’s Saving Endangered Species program. Bel can be reached via her blog, Bel Explores or on the Bel Explores Facebook page.
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