Where on United States is it legal to swim with wild manatees?

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The go-to spot for West Indian manatees, also called Florida manatees, is Crystal River, Fl. As soon as the animals sense the coming winter, they seek out warm locations. For generations, the manatees have traced the same migratory route from as far north as New England to Crystal River — a stretch of warm water 90 miles west of Orlando and many miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. It is in the warm water springs of Crystal River where the sea cows spend their time from November through March, floating languidly and munching sea grass and other vegetation.

Why Crystal River, Florida?

The warm waters of Crystal River and Kings Bay stay at an average of 72 degrees throughout the year. Since manatees can’t tolerate water temperatures below 68 degrees, the warm shallow springs are a refuge for the animals during the winter. The Crystal River area is the largest natural refuge of the manatees in the world during the winter. It is made up of 70 springs, which includes Three Sisters Springs, an area where 400-500 manatees are usually found during every winter season because of its temperate waters and ample vegetation.

Legal swimming with manatees

Seeing and swimming with manatees has become a bucket-list destination for many people around the world. In fact, because of their sheer cuteness and calm demeanor, these large distant relatives of the elephant have become a great attraction. However, the sea giants are protected by law under the Endangered Species Act and are still considered threatened species by the Florida Wildlife Services. Their population has hit just over 6,300 animals in Florida, an increase of only 1,267 since 1991. So it is illegal to swim with manatees in their habitat anywhere in the United States except in Citrus County.

How is it possible in Citrus County?

Citrus County has many features that have allowed for legal swimming with wild manatees in their habitat. For instance, the area has numerous outfitters, such as Captain Mike’s, who offer snorkeling excursions that enable people to get closer to the animals in a safe and lawful manner. Each trip with Captain Mike’s lasts up to 3 hours and starts with an on-land educational session that includes information on the manatees, their Crystal River ecosystem and how to see and swim with them.

After the educational session, the snorkelers are whisked away by a certified captain to a pontoon boat and taken to favorite manatee haunts along Crystal River, such as the shallow coves packed with vegetation where many manatees can be found. Captain Mike’s provides all the gear you need for the trip, including a snorkel, mask and wetsuit.

On average, at least 400 manatees reside in Crystal River from November to March, though some stragglers are left behind as others migrate north in the summer. So when it is cold, such as in mid-March, manatees are almost everywhere in the springs, which means you take something like just 5 minutes before getting in the water with them. But in the summer or in the weeks between seasons, it is often more challenging to find them and may take 30-60 minutes or longer to find one.

Guidelines in swimming with manatees

Swimming with manatees appears to be a straightforward activity, but there are strict guidelines that must be followed by snorkelers. For instance, Captain Mike’s promotes passive interaction with the manatees, which means that snorkelers only interact with animals that approach them first. The outfitter also enforces the regulations outlined by the 1978 Manatee Sanctuary Act, which affirm that it is illegal to intentionally or negligently molest, annoy, disturb or harass a manatee at any time. So the captains ensure that no snorkeler tries to touch, feed or chase a manatee.

So once you are in manatees’ natural habitat, you have to act like them — making sure you don’t kick, splash or make noise that can drive them away or reduce the chance of a close interaction with them. And since the animals spend most of their time in a position called logging, which is basically floating seamlessly in water, you are encouraged to just float on the surface using your wetsuit for buoyancy. You also get a flotation device to wear around your waist to keep you from kicking beneath the water and lets you to position yourself in front of the manatee so you can drift and float. You will be in a position to allow the manatee to initiate contact and move closer to you.

Would you like to see and swim with manatees in Crystal River? Well, there is still time to do that. Just remember it is easier to find them in the winter than in the summer. And while Captain Mike’s offers manatee tours year-round, always remember that fewer manatees are left in the springs after March. For more information on manatees and manatee tours in Crystal River, visit the Captain Mike’s Swimming with the Manatees website.

Swimming with the Manatees boasts the best water adventure in Crystal River, Florida with lots of things to do for you and your family. For more information, contact us online, or call us at (352) 571-1888.

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