Extreme Manatee Encounters

Ah the manatee! Nature’s care bear. Passive, adorable, endearingly endangered. Many of you probably know that I have had a bit of a thing for manatees for years. I am happy to say that I have finally met the little guys in person in the warm spring-fed waters of Crystal River, Florida.

The manatees need warm water to survive. While seemingly plump it turns out they are mostly full of air and can’t survive in water below 63 degrees. This is why they winter in the Gulf Coast rivers of Florida where natural springs keep the water at 70 degrees year round.

Like salmon they migrate annually to the same rivers and Crystal River is home to hundreds of manatees every winter. As the spring warms the Gulf they make their way back out to sea in search of food.

We paid our balloon-like buddies a visit in late April, pretty late in the year for a good sighting. While companies lead tours year round you will have much better luck when the weather is cold.

Instead of hundreds in the river in April there are only a few dozen. Luckily we were able to spot a small group and shared a nice swim together.

We booked a tour with Captain Mike’s Sunshine River Tours in Crystal River. The tour included a little orientation, snorkel gear, a wetsuit and three hours in the water playing with manatees and exploring the river.

We had an excellent captain, Donna who was very experienced in all things manatee. I am a bit jealous of her career as a manatee captain. The tour was $50 each and comparable to the price of all the other tours in the area.

Being endangered the manatees are protected by Federal law. I was a bit nervous about whether this kind of a trip may be potentially exploitative of the poor little guys, but I left the experience confident that no manatees were harmed in the making of the tour. Divers are instructed on appropriate ways to touch the manatees and all interaction needs to be initiated by the manatee.

Fun fact for those of you familiar with the endangered species act: One hand open palm touching is ok, two hands is illegal.


Perhaps the most astonishing thing is that the manatees actually want to play with you. The adolescents are the most friendly and though timid, will swim right up to you to check you out. If you stay still and avoid splashing they will often run right into you looking for a pat.

This becomes even more amazing because manatees are one-way only and they don’t have brakes. The result is that an adorable baby manatee will run right into your face with its face. Then it looks for a petting.

If you aren’t affectionate enough the manatee will swim over to someone who gives it the attention it deserves. If the manatee likes you it will roll over like a puppy and ask you to rub its belly.

Here’s a video Kyle shot with our GoPro HERO helmet cam (we have a discontinued non-HD version, I imagine the HD version they sell would be better quality). It shows a manatee run into my face with its face. Probably one of the most exciting moments of my life.

Other highlights of the tour include: manatee chewing on Kyle’s foot, sightings of a 12-foot long mother manatee, and a moment in which I got surrounded by three baby manatees and the mother and actually had more manatees to pet than I had hands. If only the videos and pictures had captured my uncontrollable giggling.

I am sure that even the casual manatee fan would find the tour worthwhile. Our group had manatee fans ages 8-60 and everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Next time you’re in Florida stop in and see some ‘tee.



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