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Swim with Manatees

Every winter the manatees gather in the warm water of springs and powerplants in Florida, and the topic of in-the-water interaction with these gentle sea creatures comes up. This page tells of several easy ways for you to do this.

Crystal River - Homossassa River

The Crystal River - Homosassa River area on Florida's Gulf Coast is the best place to readily find manatees. It's the home of the largest natural manatee sanctuary in the western hemisphere, and the biggest herd of manatees. The local businesses have raised manatee encounters to a major industry, so you can still swim with manatees in this area of the state. This practice is frowned on by the Marine Patrol everywhere else. Besides ready access to manatees, you'll get a lot of useful advice, whichever method you choose .

globeClick here for highway directions to this area from my Orlando-centric universe.

Excursion methods

There are 3 easy ways see the manatees from underwater:

  • Rent a boat yourself. (My preferred way).
  • Take a guided tour on one of many boats.
  • Visit the fishbowl at Homosassa SWP.
Pontoon boats

Rental pontoon boats abound.


Rent a boat

  • Pontoons, John boats, and kayaks available.
  • Starting at $15/hour, they're the least expensive option.
  • They hold from 8 to 12 passengers and gear.
  • You can leave and return on your schedule.
  • Keeps your group to itself.
  • Travel is sometimes only a few hundred
    yards and always less than a mile.
  • Radio contact with rental company so
    constant help available.

On weekends during the busy season, you'll need to reserve a boat in advance.

Information on the 5 boat rental companies I've used in the Crystal River area can be found on the interactive map. Click the globe icon to the right.

No entry zones
View from Port Paradise dock.

No entry zones in place from Nov 15 - Mar 31.
Swim access to King's Spring provided for divers.

Take a Tour

  • Guides know the routes, speed zones.
  • Guides know day to day manatee locations.
    But:
  • You leave and return on their schedules.
  • You'll be mixed with other groups

Some customizing of the tours is available. Use the map for info on 6 companies offering tours that I've used or reviewed.

Scuba or snorkel?

The water will be 72F, and the air usually colder still, so dress accordingly. In water interaction with manatees is usually carried out with mask, wet suit, and snorkel, and a small weightbelt or ankle weights. Usually, no fins are worn in the shallows, to avoid silting. If you want to dive the springs while you're out on the water, rig your scuba gear and switch to snorkel for the manatee interaction.

Homosassa Springs SWP

Stay dry, still see manatees underwater...

Weather too cold to get wet? Have kids too young for the in-water experience? Summertime and the manatees are gone? This park's for you.

  • Underwater observatory at the main spring.
  • 8 resident manatees, including Rosie.
  • They were rescued or born there,
    so now can't leave the park.
  • Feeding at 4:00 p.m., so great photo ops.
  • 100's of jacks, snook, sheepshead, catfish.
  • Lectures throughout the day.
  • Educational center, gift shop, restaurant.
  • Also showcases much of Florida's wildlife.
    • Alligators, bobcats, bears, panthers
    • Bald eagles, spoonbills, ospreys
  • Movie star Lucifer the Hippo also on site.
Lucifer the Hippo.

Lucifer the Hippo, star of a few Tarzan movies,
adds to the park visit.


Want to see the manatees right now? Click the TV for a webcam from the underwater observatory at the park. It'll be dark at night, however.


Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park

US Highway 19, Homosassa Springs, Fl
Open 9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. daily.
352 628-2311
[HSSWP]


Homosassa River

The Homosassa River is potentially a better manatee viewing opportunity. Starting just below the HSSWP sanctuary markers, the river is shallow, sandy bottomed, and clear, so better photos are possible. Unless you have your own boat, however, it's not self guided, and tours are noticeably more expensive. Still, the chances for a great photo are better here. Leave the dive gear at home, as the spring is off limits. I used American Pro Dive (see map) the only time I've done this river.


Ancient History.

The Crystal River area was one of the longest continually inhabited sites by Native Americans in Florida, who lived there at least from 200BC through 1400 AD. This site was the most imposing prehistoric ceremonial center on Florida's west coast. It's worthwhile to spend half a day seeing the burial mounds, temple mounds, middens, and stellae at this archeological site and museum. Go north on Hiway 19 to the Day's Inn, turn left on State Park Road, and follow the signs.

Crystal River State Archelological Site 3400 N Museum Pt, Crystal River, Fl 34428
Open 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. daily.
352 795-3817


Manatee Facts

 
Manatee

Rosie the manatee at Homosassa Springs.

 

  • Large, harmless aquatic mammals.
  • A seal-like body, and a beaver- like tail.
  • Two forelimbs with nails on each limb.
  • Stiff whiskers on the upper lip.
  • Very thick skin.
  • Size averages 9 feet and 1000 pounds.
  • Reaches 13 feet and over 3000 pounds.
  • A newborn averages 77 pounds.
  • Communicate with squeaks and squeals.
  • Can live in fresh or salt water.
  • Vegetarian.


Rules of Engagement

 

Manatees are an Endangered Species. The count conducted January 2001 showed slightly over 3000 remain in the entire US. The law is very succinct, and the rangers are tough:

 
 

"It is unlawful for any person, at any time, by any means, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass , or disturb any manatee."

 

  • Do not approach the manatee
    before it approaches you.
  • Do not actively swim after, chase
    or corner a manatee.
  • Do not poke, probe, or stab a manatee
    with any object, including hands and feet.
  • Do not separate the cow from it's calf,
    or the calf from the cow.
  • Do not separate one animal from the herd.
  • Do not hook, hold, reach,
    grab or ride a manatee.
  • Don't feed or water the manatees!
 


globeClick for interactive Crystal River map, then mouse over the menu on it's top.


 

Recommendations

 
 
 
 

Boat Rental

 
 
 

Crystal Lodge Dive Center. 16 boats to rent, by far the most. At $15 an hour, with no minimum period, the best buy. The pontoon boat photo shown above was taken there.

 
 
 
 
 

Guided Tour

 
 
 

Crystal Lodge Dive Center. $15 per person. Others range from $27 to $50 per person. Same duration tour, same boats, same spiel, so why pay more?

 
 
 
 
 


Diving King's Spring

 
Manatee

Looking up toward the north exit.

 
 

I'd not recommend King's Spring as a destination by itself, but if you combine it with a manatee trip, it's worthwhile. If you are new to overhead environments, read Springs Diving before you decide. Overhead is not for everyone.

Anchor in the shallow water surrounding the spring basin, which is about 70 feet across. Descend to it's bottom, about 35 feet, where you'll find two entrances to a cavern system, with the southeast one being the easiest to enter. The cavern goes back about 50 feet, and reaches a depth of around 60 feet. Bring a light, as you'll need it to explore. It's virtually impossible to lose sight of the exits, and the current isn't tough. The photo is of the northwesterly, slightly narrower exit, looking almost straight up.
 


Photo Hints

 
Manatee

Photos of green fuzzy manatees abound.

 
 

If you want your own photos of manatees, you'll be able to get dozens like this one almost anywhere in the Crystal River system. For the nice, clear, killer shot, however, you'll have to be patient, and get a little lucky too.

  • Find clear water. Don't shoot in the green.
  • Find a white sandy bottom.
  • Stay aware of the sun's positon.
    Keep bright sun behind you.
    Keep your shadow out of the photo.
  • Find calm surface, so no sun ripples.
  • Don't silt the place up yourself. The manatee will do it for you.
  • Get down near the manatee's level.
  • Get close. Fill the frame.
    Then get closer and fill it some more.
  • Get the manatee to look at you.
  • Get the calf to look at you.
  • Shoot the whole roll of film
    if any 5 of the above happen.

Clear water and sandy bottom isn't common, but can be found if you look:

  • 100 yards east of King's Spring
    near several smaller springs..
  • Around the 3 Sisters Springs.
  • Around Magnolia Springs.
  • Over most of the headwaters of the
    Homosassa River, near the park barrier.

 
 
Manatee

Good shots require luck and patience.

 
 


Of various manatee photo sites I've viewed, shots by David M. Barron from a research project at Crystal River stand out as the best imagery overview of the area. Enjoy.