Manatees are unique, sea-dwelling creatures that call the waters of coastal Florida home. Also known as sea cows, these air-breathing gentle giants can weigh over 3,000 pounds and grow 12 feet in length. It was once commonplace to witness them throughout Florida’s waters, but the Sunshine State’s construction boom in the late 1960s and years of boating incidents resulted in plummeting numbers. Thanks to conservation efforts, these water-dwelling mammals can now be seen in numerous waterways, and thousands of people each year take the opportunity to snorkel alongside these wonderful creatures.
Crystal River Wildlife Refuge
Comprising 46 acres, the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge is widely considered as the best place to swim with manatees. Located 75 miles north of Tampa and a two hour drive from Orlando in the quiet town of Crystal River, the refuge is not only home to a resident herd of nearly 100 sea cows, but others congregate to the waters of the Kings Bay area in the winter months to relax in the year-round 72-degree water. Although there are numerous dive shops in the area that offer guided swim tours all year long, the best time to swim with these gentle giants is December through March, when they congregate to the warm waters of Kings Bay.
Lee County Manatee Park
Another splendid place to snorkel with manatees is at the Lee County Manatee Park, which is located in Southwest Florida near Fort Myers. Similar to Crystal River, the best time to visit is October through March, because the sea cows living along the Gulf Coast flock to the park when the typically warm Gulf of Mexico waters dip below 70 degrees in the winter months. In addition to snorkeling, the park offers rental kayaks for those who would like to explore the many islands scattered throughout the area’s beautiful waters.
Manatee Springs State Park
Anyone desiring an opportunity to swim with manatees and enjoy a taste of old Florida can do so in the waters of Manatee Springs State Park, which feed into the enchanting Suwannee River. In the winter, they swim upriver to experience the warm waters of the river’s springs, which pump out 100 million gallons of crystal clear water each and every day. The park is also a popular destination for SCUBA divers, who can be found diving there nearly every day of the week.