It was 5 a.m. when I checked the thermometer as my sister's family and my own clan awakened in our hotel room in Crystal River, Fla. It was a January morning some years ago, and we were rising early to prepare for our 6:30 a.m. snorkeling excursion to swim with manatees.
"I've got good news and bad news," I said. "The bad news is, it's 42 degrees." Everyone groaned at the thought of jumping in a river. "The good news is, we're going to see a lot of manatees!"
As temperatures lower, the sea cows, many of which spend the hot months in estuaries and bays, migrate to Florida's springs where the water temperature at the source is always a reliable 72 degrees. While there are many places in Central Florida to see these herds of West Indian manatees that congregate during winter months, the Crystal River Preserve State Park area is the only place in Florida where you can legally get in the water with them for the purpose of interacting.
I've snorkeled with manatees twice in Crystal River, located near the Gulf coast and about two hours slightly northwest of Orlando, and three times in nearby Homosassa Springs. The experiences are very different but similarly rewarding. The swimming area in Crystal River is a larger and deeper body of water; the outing can be paired for certified scuba divers with a guided dive into the caverns, which makes for a standout entry in a log book. The manatee meeting spot in Homosassa Springs is a shallow area of the river that is both intimate and serene.
I recommend American Pro Diving Center, a PADI five-star training center and operator that also offers an add-on Manatee Awareness course to learn more about the animal, its habitat and challenges.
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission strictly enforces guidelines to prevent manatees from being harassed. The manatees' grassy feeding areas, which are closer to shore, are roped off and strictly off-limits to people and vessels. Swimmers may not pursue manatees or touch them with two hands. Snorkelers must stay on the water's surface at all times. This way, manatees can choose to come to the swimmer for an interaction or move out of reach of humans. Volunteers patrol in kayaks and FFWCC personnel are almost always visible.
The colder the weather, the better chances swimmers have of seeing manatees. If this sounds like a freezy-chilly outing, it is and it isn't. The air temperature is cold, but the water is always balmy at 72 degrees.
Tour operators loan guests thick wetsuits, masks, snorkels and fins. Neoprene hoods, gloves and boots are also helpful and can be purchased at American Pro Dive.
The boats I've been on were all covered pontoon boats with thick plastic outer walls snapped on to keep the wind and rain out; hot chocolate helped keep us warm. The trick to staying warm is to bring along a towel to dry off with onboard and warm clothes that are easy to pull on after getting out of the water and peeling off your wetsuit. A hat, warm socks and some sort of slide-on footwear (Crocs, Uggs or even slippers) are good to bring along, too.
Anyone who is comfortable in the water and able to climb up and down the swim ladder is able to participate. American Pro Diving sends a professionally certified dive master into the water with every group to provide assistance as needed.
The last time I went (with family), my daughter was not even 2 years old, so she and my husband stayed onboard and watched us from the platform at the bow of the boat. They saw plenty of manatees, too, and my husband was able to get some good pictures.
The captains and guides are knowledgeable about the animals, their environment and their behaviors and help prepare guests to know what to do and how to react when and if a manatee does approach them.
Manatees are curious and will often approach eye to eye. They love to be rubbed and scratched along their backs and bellies. A large manatee can be up to 15 feet long and weigh up to 1,200 pounds. It's like swimming beside a minivan.
A guide usually gets in the water to take photos and videos, which are available to purchase. If this is important to your clients, advise them to just enjoy the interactions with the manatees and to buy the photo/video package afterward.
For travelers in search of unforgettable, even life-changing, experiences, swimming with manatees delivers, and this is the time of year to do it.
I never leave the area without also visiting the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. It is committed to showcasing only Florida native animals (with one notable exception: Lu the hippopotamus, whose 58th birthday will be celebrated on Jan. 26) and does so in natural-looking enclosures. Here, you are guaranteed to see manatees, black bears and alligators and in a setting that encapsulates the wild Florida experience.
Lodging: Though not normally an early riser, I always choose the earliest excursion at 6:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. and have had amazing encounters every single time. This requires spending the previous night in the area. My first two trips, I stayed at the Last Resort, featuring mobile home-style cottages and a restaurant located on the Homosassa River. It's a quirky place and met our needs when traveling as a group. For instance, we enjoyed eating at the on-site grill, then going back to our cottage to play board games.
Newer accommodations are available, including two Holiday Inn Express options. The Lecanto location is pet friendly, while Crystal River is not. Crystal River has some two-room suites (where I stayed on the trip with my family). Both include free breakfast, which is helpful when you have an early start. The Hampton Inn Hotel in Crystal River is new since my last visit.