The large gray blob took (a slightly less blobby) shape as it rose to the surface of the greenish waters of the Homosassa River, and poked its snout out for a breath of air. A second later, back underwater, the manatee looked as curiously at us as we did to him. For a second I imagined how silly we must look all lined up on our pool noodles, our mask and snorkel-clad faces peering down under the water like aliens hovering over an exam table. But in an instant, I forgot everything but the experience of being face to face with the whiskered manatee muzzle. Our swim with manatees in Homosassa Springs, Florida was every bit as fantastic as we had hoped.
Near Orlando, there’s a beautiful stretch of Florida gulf coastline where manatee live year round. While manatees can be found all over Florida and sometimes beyond, only in Citrus County can humans legally interact with them. With less than a 1.5 hour drive northwest, swimming with the manatees is a perfect day-trip from the major theme parks. Most of the tours leave from either Crystal River or nearby Homosassa, Florida.
About Swimming with Manatees in Citrus County
During the cold winter months when the water temperature sinks below 65 degrees, the gentle giants move into the warmer inland waters instead of the colder gulf. Hundreds of natural springs warm the shallow water to the perfect 72 degrees and ample vegetation provides plenty of food. King’s Bay, including Three Sisters Springs, and Homosassa Springs are the most likely places your tour will visit in Citrus County. During warmer months, your guide may have to search a bit longer to find the year-round resident manatees.
As a threatened species protected by both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammals Act, interaction with the manatees is highly regulated and heavy fines can be imposed for breaking the laws. The rules are strict and enforced for good reason: manatees have no natural predators and the biggest threat to them is us. As the outsiders entering the home of wild animals, humans are required to practice “passive observation”. This keeps us from disturbing them as much as possible. Manatees must approach you for a simple one hand touch, otherwise keep your distance and observe these beautiful creatures from afar. They can be curious, so they do often come close for a stroke of their algae-covered bodies.
What to expect during a Manatee Swim Tour
Manatees are most often found in the morning hours, before gulf waters warm and they get tired of human observers. Early tours book more quickly for this reason. We arrived just before dawn to sign in and watch the required 8 minute Manatee Manners video. Our guide also explained some manatee conservation highlights and best practices for our swim. Then it was off to the equipment house for wet suit fittings before boarding a pontoon boat for our journey. While the manatees find the spring-fed waters perfect, it’s pretty chilly for humans. The extra protection of the neoprene suit helps with both extra warmth and buoyancy.
In reality, it’s more of a “hover” than a “swim” with the manatees. We don’t want to disturb the animals or the river bottom, so each person uses a pool noodle. Tucked under the belly, the noodle lets us relax and enjoy the experience instead of flailing about or struggling to stay afloat. Along with in-water guides, volunteers in kayaks help groups to spot manatees and ensure the interaction rules are being followed.
Why Swim with Manatees in Homosassa Springs
Unlike Crystal River’s Kings Bay, Manatees don’t come by the hundreds to Homosassa Springs. But along with the smaller number of animals come a smaller number of people. This quieter, more intimate experience is a draw for visitors who prefer smaller crowds. Our family definitely fits into this category.
We also enjoyed the 30 minute ride on the Old Homosassa River to the springs. Our guide pointed out wildlife along the banks, including a pair of nesting osprey and a heron searching for breakfast. Hearing the history of the area was an added highlight, including learning about the origins of Monkey Island of Homosassa and nearby Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. If you have extra time after your swim with manatees in Homosassa Springs, the park is a great way to see other native Florida wildlife, plus a “human fishbowl” viewing area where non-swimmers can also see manatees underwater.
Our swim with manatees in Homosassa Springs was over all too soon. The air was an unseasonably cool 52 degrees on our tour day. We were definitely cold after an hour with the manatees. But even though we shivered in the water, we weren’t ready to leave them behind. Being close to this peaceful, gentle creature in the wild is an unforgettable experience. Once you’ve looked a manatee in the eyes, seen the boat prop scars on its body, it’s impossible to forget that they need our help to stay safe.
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