How, when, where and why you should swim with the Florida manatee.
While some people may travel internationally for the chance to swim by the manatees, this once-in-a-lifetime experience is only a little more than an hour drive from Greater Gainesville.
“We see a lot of German travelers that come over and want to see what this is all about,” shared Paul Cross, director of adventure tour company, Plantation on Crystal River. Every year, German magazines come to Crystal River, Florida to write articles about swimming with the “gentle giants,” otherwise known as the West Indian manatee.
One of the most important springs for wintering manatees is Three Sister Springs in Crystal River. Between November and March, manatees flood into the Florida springs by the hundreds to keep warm. The springs stay at a constant 72 F, which is exactly what the manatees need to stay alive.
Even though the springs are more populated with the animals during the winter months, it is still possible to see manatees year-round, although not ideal. Crystal River has a permanent herd of roughly 40 manatees.
Manatees crowd into Three Sisters Springs in their winter migration
“One of the common misconceptions we have is that people come in July and want to see crystal clear water and hundreds of manatees,” said Cross. “Although we can find manatees all year-round, the pictures that you are seeing are taken primarily in those cold, winter months.”
Consequently, Crystal River companies offer a variety of ways to view the manatees, but the most popular are by snorkeling or diving in the springs. Eco-tour companies like Plantation on Crystal River take tourists into the springs to snorkel safely.
With there being so many people who have a desire to swim with the manatees, extra precautions must take place to keep them safe.
Starting in November 2017, the Save the Manatee Club is launching a Guardian Guide Certification Program to partner with the existing tour companies in Crystal River, Florida to keep tour companies accountable for practicing safe techniques while swimming with these gentle creatures.
To qualify “Companies have to fill out an application that has questions asking how they operate their business and what they do,” said Save the Manatee Club’s science and outreach coordinator, Jenna Golden. “In addition, there is an annual review.”
Along with the Florida crocodile and the Florida panther, the manatee is on the endangered list both statewide and nationwide. The manatee is protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which makes it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal.
Although the population has increased, there is still a need for protection. Most importantly, boaters must abide by the waterway signs. These signs are to protect the manatees as they can be injured from the propellers from the boat. While swimming with the manatees, it is best to passively observe them, that way they are in their natural habitat and are not being disturbed.
“Manatees have tactile hairs on their body, 2,000 of which are on their face. And they use those tactile hairs to feel and sense things. So, it is common for them to rub those whiskers on your face or on your mask or on your body just to try and feel what you are,” Cross explained.
Being an informed swimmer and viewer is important to keeping the animals safe. To continue this precious pastime, swimmers should be cautious while in the water. So, grab your wetsuit, your snorkel and your swimming buddy and go explore the crystal clear water while swimming with the gentle giants.