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I’m kind of thinking it’s time for a new post category on Alex in Wanderland — perhaps “Animals I Squealed At?” Maybe, “Fauna That Made Me Talk In A Baby Voice?” Or more descriptively, “Creatures That I Briefly Considered Smuggling in My Backpack?

manatees_001

It’s true — I’m obsessed with animals. And lately, there have been a fair amount of posts about my pursuit of getting closer to them. I’ve swum with manta rays in Hawaii, fed an elephant in Cambodia, rode a horse in Iceland, played with stingrays in Grand Cayman, hung out with tigers and monkeys in Thailand, fetishized Highland Cows in Scotland, volunteered at animal shelters in Thailand and Grand Cayman, and visited zoos and aquariums in cities around the world. I also make a habit of befriending stray dogs on every corner of the planet but it’s all good — I’ve got the full range of crazy-animal-lady vaccines!

Recently, my pursuit of getting all up in some animal business brought me to Crystal River, Florida. They share my enthusiasm level.

swimming with manatees florida

swimming with manatees florida

Crystal River is manatee mad. Signs for manatee swims line the highway while everything from hotels to mailboxes make a nod to the city’s claim to fame. My personal manatee history in pretty well-entrenched too. When I was in the fifth grade, I was manatee obsessed. I decorated an old washed-out peanut butter jar with a collage of manatee images that I printed out from Ask Jeeves, and brought it to my classroom where my teacher allowed me to solicit my classmates for donations. Eventually we had enough to adopt a new class pet — a manatee named Star!

Sadly, Star passed away — and the news was passed on via an official sounding letter in an envelope marked “SENSITIVE MATERIAL WITHIN” and delivered to me with total gravity after class by my teacher Mr. Feldman. First of all, I admire Adopt-A-Manatee‘s commitment to authenticity — I mean, it would have been pretty easy to not tell a bunch of fifth grader’s that their freshly virtually adopted pet was dead, am I right? But really, who doesn’t need another reason for therapy.

swimming with manatees florida

Years later, I was ready to face the manatees again — this time on their turf. So I borrowed my aunt’s car and signed up for the Self-Drive Swim with Manatees on the Crystal River. While spotting wild animals can never be guaranteed, my chances were good as I was visiting during the peak season of December to March, when manatees flock to Florida to escape the cool winters in the Gulf of Mexico — kind of puts manatees in the same category as most Florida retirees, no?

swimming with manatees florida

I arrived early at the dock and was rewarded for my promptness by a dolphin splashing around in the harbor. When the rest of the tour-goers arrived from Orlando, we gathered in the shop to watch a video on how to interact with the manatees. It was a lot like an instructional dating video from the 1950’s — play hard to get, don’t make aggressive eye contact, don’t go to them, let them come to you.

swimming with manatees florida

swimming with manatees florida

Of course, these strict regulations are only for the animal’s benefit. Crystal River may be home to one of the world’s largest populations of West Indian manatees, but sadly they are still endangered animals. They suffer from loss of habitat, climate change, and boat collisions — the final cause of death of my poor Star so many moons ago.

Soon we were on the boat, scanning the water for large gray shadows. The captain spotted a few, but promised us a real show once we arrived at the Crystal River Springs. Mask, snorkel and wetsuit donned, I hesitated before hopping into the chilly 72 degrees Fahrenheit water — though the captain cheerily assured me that I’d go numb soon enough.

swimming with manatees florida

I swam back into the springs a little apprehensively — I knew the manatees wouldn’t hurt me, but it’s still a bit strange swimming alone through a mangrove looking for a wild animal. But as time passed and no manatees, I grew a bit disheartened — when suddenly I spotted two gray rocks.

swimming with manatees florida

But they weren’t rocks! It was a momma and a baby manatee. I played by the rules, observing them stealthily and from a distance. These two weren’t interested in me and eventually swam away, but I was floating, literally and metaphorically.

swimming with manatees florida

swimming with manatees florida

I spent the next hour zipping around the springs from one manatee to another. Some glided by slowly and gracefully with not more than a passing glance.

swimming with manatees florida

swimming with manatees florida

Some were curious and playful, and others came right up to nuzzle with the snorkelers floating nearby.

swimming with manatees florida

swimming with manatees florida

swimming with manatees florida

swimming with manatees florida

swimming with manatees florida

I tried to hand my camera to a few people but the results were disastrous (um, yes, I was in fact interested in a photo of me and a manatee — not your fins), so I had to settle for some underwater selfies.

swimming with manatees florida

swimming with manatees florida

My mask leaked with water and my whole body shook with laughter at times, just watching these awkward-shaped sea cows move through the water like they were in slow motion.

swimming with manatees florida

swimming with manatees florida

swimming with manatees florida

swimming with manatees florida

I kept telling myself it was time to go back to the boat — then I’d see just one more manatee I had to film or photograph. Eventually, finger numbness forced me back to the boat.

swimming with manatees florida

swimming with manatees florida

This was a truly magical experience. There is nothing quite like getting to interact with wild animals in their own environment. They could swim away or leave any time, which means that when you are together, they are making the willful choice to spend time with you. What could be more special than that? In all my years of coming to Florida, this was the most special activity I have done, and I can’t recommend it more.

And while photos are great, there’s nothing like video to really show the character of these funny creatures. This one’s for you, Star!

Tour Tips: When signing on for the Self-Drive Swim with Manatees on the Crystal River, try to book for a week day if possible — it will be much less crowded. Also, bring along either a wetsuit or the $10 to rent one. It may be listed as “optional,” but believe me — you don’t want to spend an hour in that water without one at any time of the year. And while the tour tells you to arrive at 10:20, the group from Orlando doesn’t get there until 11:00am, so don’t sweat if you’re running late!

Have you ever swam with manatees? What’s been your coolest animal interaction? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

I am a freelancer for Viator and participated in this tour in order to write a review for their site. They did not request a favorable view on either their site or my own. All thoughts and opinions are, as always, mine.

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76 Comments...
  • Julika
    January 31 2013

    What an amazing experience! The manatees are adorable – I love their faces!
    My favorite animal travel interaction was adopting a dog in Switzerland on a family vacation when I was 12. He’s been in our family ever since and is the coolest dog ever πŸ™‚
    Julika recently posted..Picturesque Monday: The Ruins of Rome

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      That’s amazing! I’ve known a few people to take dogs back home from Thailand, and it’s always a bit of a bureaucratic nightmare — but I guess it’s all worth it in the end!

    • Rose
      December 21 2013

      Hey Alex I love your article you wrote about the manatees. My husband and I offer Private Manatee Tours on a houseboat. We are a little different than most tour operators. We conduct our tours such that it causes no stress on the manatees. We truly love these amazing creatures, we want everyone to fall in love with them so that we may help to protect them. If people learn to care about the Manatees then they will be more cautious as boaters. So if you or anyone you know want to do a trip please pass our name on. We only limit to 6 passengers and avoid the crowds and other packed tour boats.

      Thanks,
      Rose
      Nature Coast Manatee Tours

  • Jessie Festa
    January 31 2013

    Alex I miss your life and these photos are amazing! Just added another experience to my long list of things I need to do in this lifetime. Can’t wait until June to see your pretty face and hope you’re having a blast in Thailand πŸ™‚
    Jessie Festa recently posted..Utah Ski Guide: Where To Go For Your Powder Adventure

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      Aw Jess! So great to hear from you. Thank you so much… living the good life here in Thailand but very much looking forward to June as well πŸ™‚

  • cosmoHallitan
    January 31 2013

    SQUEAL! I love manatees but never imagined you could swim with them! Must have been an incredible experience. Great photos!
    cosmoHallitan recently posted..Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      Thank you so much! I was pleasantly surprised to learn we could touch them and get so close. It was really special.

  • Jen
    January 31 2013

    Ah! So cute! Your pictures came out so good and have my smiling at my desk. They just look so lovable! I’m so glad you were able to spend such awesome quality time with the manatees.
    Jen recently posted..Eeeeee… time to start running!

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      Aw, thanks Jen, what a lovely comment! You have me smiling at my laptop πŸ™‚

  • Bonnie Toth
    January 31 2013

    Wonderful, wonderful, WONDERFUL blog & PHOTOS!!!!! … and video too! Excellent job, Alex! I truly enjoyed all of it – I swam with the manatees before and it truly is an incredible experience.

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      Thank you so much Bonnie! It’s definitely harder to take photos and videos when you are snorkeling than when you are diving!

  • Its incredible how close you can get. I’d love to get that close to them. In Australia I swam with wild dolphins in the open water that was such an amazing experience. I didn’t want to get out of the water until I had to because we were too far away from the shore and well, it’s australia you know, sharks and all that shit…
    Sebastian @ Off-The-Path.com recently posted..Choeung EK Memorial und die Killing Fields von Phnom Penh in Kambodscha

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      I had an amazing dolphin experience in Hawaii with a pod of 10-15, little football sized babies included, swimming with our boat for more than half an hour. It was so special… but now I want to get IN the water with them! Jealous!

  • Federico @ MaiTravelSite
    January 31 2013

    What an experience! I also saw manatees for the first time a few weeks ago but was not able to swim with them. Will do so shortly though! Great pics and video by the way!
    Federico @ MaiTravelSite recently posted..The Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary in Toledo, Spain

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      Thanks Federico! Yes, I saw the manatee picture on your site πŸ™‚ Fun!

  • Gaelyn
    January 31 2013

    Yet another awesome adventure and the filling of a lifetime dream. They are so cute. You’ll have underwater one of these days.
    Gaelyn recently posted..What to do around Port Elizabeth South Africa

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      I just love their funny little bodies! πŸ™‚ You’re right, great to check another thing off the list.

  • Erica
    January 31 2013

    They are such awesome animals. When we snorkeled with one I thought it was magical! (And kinda scary because one really liked Shaun)
    Erica recently posted..Stepping Into a Time Machine: The Star of Texas Tattoo Convention

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      Haha! That would be pretty entertaining to see… they tell you do much not to harass the manatees but don’t really mention what you should do if you yourself are a victim…

  • Caty
    January 31 2013

    Oh my word I just died from all the cuteness!!!Amazing video, Alex! I saw manatees at Sea World in Florida a couple of years ago but oh my now I wanna go swimming with them! My favourite animal encounters were probably in South Africa when we driving along the coast to the Cape of Good Hope and we had the windows rolled down and heard whales singing.We stopped the car and saw a few swimming along the coast. Later we went on a whale watching boat trip, which was a childhood dream of mine come true (hehe ever since watching Free Willy =) ).

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      Caty that sounds MAGICAL! As if I needed another reason to want to go to South Africa…

  • Sophie
    January 31 2013

    I Loved your blog post about my favorite sea creature! I myself just went to Crystal River last month to swim with the manatees and you’re right it is a life changing experience! I just wanted to become a mermaid and stay with them forever. Thanks for all your wonderful underwater photography. Great job capturing their adorableness!
    Sophie recently posted..The Loving Hut in Cape Coral: My Review

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      Thanks so much Sophie… I’m glad that you too were able to experience this!

  • O
    M
    G
    This is by far the coolest thing you’ve ever done!!!!!!!!!!!!
    They are so freaking cute, I want five!
    Love love love!!!
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..A Photographic Look At My Thanksgiving In 2012 + Giveaway

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      If you ever go back to Tampa, you’ll have to make the stop! Amazing how affordable and accessible this trip is!

  • Kristen
    January 31 2013

    Haha….too cute! I have had a few similar animal-interacting experiences … snorkeling with sting rays in Grand Cayman, hanging with tigers and riding elephants in Thailand, and swimming with dolphins in the DR, all so much fun! My favs were probably the tigers and sting-rays since they’re the most “dangerous”

    As always, awesome shooting…lovee the makeshift selfies!
    Kristen recently posted..Shorin’ In Florence

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      Ha, you should see the results from when I hand my camera over to others…. not pretty. My favorite animal encounters are the most natural. I love to see animals happy in their home habitat.

  • Ayngelina
    January 31 2013

    This looks amazing, I cannot believe how peaceful they are.
    Ayngelina recently posted..48 Hours of Food in Ottawa

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      I have never seen an animal move so slowly and patiently! That said, I have yet to see a sloth πŸ™‚

  • Rachel
    February 1 2013

    Wow! Lovely pics and video! This looks so amazing. It would be hard to fit a manatee in your backpack though.

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      At the moment, I feel like I am carrying an adult manatee as a backpack… when will I stop overpacking!

  • Milly
    February 1 2013

    Ahhhhh!! Oh I can’t stand it!! They’re so cute! I just want to give them a big kiss, they are irresistible!

    I have only just found your blog, and have spent the last few days back tracking through your archives- annnd I’ve decided to sign up for scuba diving so I can see some of these things as well!
    Milly recently posted..Un: To Paris with Love

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      So glad to hear that, Milly! And I’m very glad you found me, hope you’ll still around πŸ™‚

  • Angela
    February 1 2013

    I love manatees!! Manatees are so cute. In Holland we call them zeekoe, which means seacow. Not a good name at all.
    I will definitely remember this for when I go to America!
    Angela recently posted..How To Avoid Sunburn On a Motorbike Tour in Vietnam

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      Sea cow is another name used for them here as well! I think it sounds much prettier though as “zeekoe” πŸ™‚

  • Camels & Chocolate
    February 1 2013

    I AM SO JEALOUS. This is on my Life List, and every time we’re in Florida, it always seems to be the time of year the manatees aren’t in the springs. Ahhhh. But ONE DAY.

    (Also, Bittersweet Symphony was the music Scott and I walked down the aisle to!)
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..The New Microsoft Office 365 + C&C Partnership

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      Aaaah! What an amazing aisle song choice! Did you know I used to do all kinds of wedding stuff when I lived in New York? My favorite walk down the aisle song choice was “She’s Got a Way.” But yours might be a new close second!

  • Juno
    February 1 2013

    Wow, amazing! What a wonderful experience πŸ™‚ How did they feel?

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      Like a rock with algae on it! Ha. The OCD patient in me really wanted to go at them with a scrubby brush…

  • Kelli Nicole
    February 1 2013

    That is so cool!!! I’ve never had the desire to do this, but I do now!

    • Alex
      February 1 2013

      I’m all about building up the bucket list! Glad you found a new addition πŸ™‚

  • Matthew Karsten
    February 1 2013

    Manatees are super funny looking. I had one scare the crap out of me in Florida once, was just swimming and didn’t realize they were around. Big animals!
    Matthew Karsten recently posted..Meet Petra: The Woman Who Lives in a Cave

    • Alex
      February 2 2013

      Um, that would terrify me! I was a little scared at first swimming back into the springs… and I was expecting them! Ha.

  • Dad
    February 1 2013

    Great write up and the video is amazing (so are you!)

    • Alex
      February 2 2013

      Thanks Dad πŸ™‚

  • InACents
    February 1 2013

    Very cool experience, as I did not know there are now formal tours to this.
    InACents recently posted..Greater Cleveland Aquarium Admission Price Restructuring for 2013

    • Alex
      February 2 2013

      Yup! There are people selling tours all over Homosassa and Crystal River.

  • Zoe
    February 1 2013

    they are so silly looking!!

    • Alex
      February 2 2013

      I know, right? Like someone was like, “let’s do a big football shape, slap some fins on there, paint it gray… that’s us done.”

  • Nadia
    February 1 2013

    I want the little one that was touching his face!

    • Alex
      February 2 2013

      Sadly the captain told me later that there may have been a fish hook in there irritating him πŸ™ But the good news is he dispatched the marine rescue team out as soon as I showed him that footage!

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    February 2 2013

    What an absolute thrill this must have been! Now that we have started diving, our list of underwater creatures we hope to encounter in the wild is exponentially increasing. I’ve always loved manatees and hope I get the chance to swim with them some day!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Tea Scammed (?) in Guilin!

    • Alex
      February 3 2013

      And I love that this one is so easy to check of the bucket list as it doesn’t involve a huge cost or training (I was just snorkeling!) I’m sure you’ll achieve that goal before you know it πŸ™‚

  • Emily in Chile
    February 2 2013

    The picture of the manatee eating its little fins is pretty much the cutest thing EVER. Love!
    Emily in Chile recently posted..Vistalba: views and vines in Mendoza

    • Alex
      February 3 2013

      Ha thanks Emily! They are little munchkins aren’t they.

  • Abby
    February 2 2013

    YAY manatees!! I grew up in Florida, so I am biased. I never swam with them though. Only you lol
    Abby recently posted..Traditional Napa Kick-off: Oxbow food yum

    • Alex
      February 3 2013

      Haha if there is water, I’m probably getting in it. If there is water and an animal, I am DEFINITELY getting in it!

  • Anita
    February 3 2013

    Lovely post & great video πŸ™‚ Swimming with manatees is on my upcoming march travel program – we will visit Crystal River FL πŸ™‚
    Anita recently posted..FESPO 2013 – Reiseinspirationen

    • Alex
      February 3 2013

      Awesome Anita! You will love it… glad you got a little hint here! πŸ™‚

  • Nadia
    February 3 2013

    Only further verification that I do not possess the necessary skill set to keep him in my bathtub. πŸ™

  • D.J. - The World of Deej
    February 3 2013

    Aren’t manatees great? I’ve lived in Central Florida my entire life and have encountered them many times. Crazy to think they were nearly extinct not too long ago..
    D.J. – The World of Deej recently posted..Avenue of the Oaks – Picture of the Week

    • Alex
      February 5 2013

      I’m so glad there is such a major conservation movement now to protect them. Amazing creatures, they deserve it!

  • Heather
    February 4 2013

    So awesome! That’s definitely one for my bucket list….although I can’t hear about manatees without thinking of this video my friends and I found years ago (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tM_lrK4upvw). Makes me laugh every time!

    • Alex
      February 5 2013

      OMG Heather I just died…. totally worth the ten minutes it took to buffer here in Mae Hong Son πŸ™‚

  • Susan @ Travel Junkette
    February 9 2013

    Omg omg omg. LOVE this! I’m as big of an animal freak as you are — this looks incredible!

    BTW, have you seen this? It’s my latest obsession: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/05/chris-p-bacon-disabled-pig-wheelchair_n_2626078.html?utm_hp_ref=good-news&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009.
    Susan @ Travel Junkette recently posted..Travel Links of the Week – 2/8/13

    • Alex
      February 10 2013

      Haha, that’s amazing! I’ve collected some great links in this post πŸ™‚

  • Nadia
    February 20 2013

    The Daily Show (19 February 13) has a bit about the Tea Party who wants to make it legal to ride Manatees in FL. Pretty funny. Check it out. . .

    • Alex
      February 21 2013

      Just found it! It will probably take forever to load on my crappy Thailand internet but I think it will be worth it πŸ™‚

  • Jordan
    March 7 2013

    I have always loved Florida and it’s for reasons like this, swimming with manatees or dolphins, whatever it is, sounds like an adventure! The sunshine and palm tree lifestyle is just for me. I bet it was so much fun to do, I’ve never done it but it’s on my bucket list! Cannot wait for the summer time and my Florida trip! Palm Bay here I come.

  • Amanda
    December 7 2013

    Hi Alex,

    I am planning on doing this exact same thing when I head to Florida this coming February. I want to be able to take pictures while in the water though, but do not own an underwater camera. Your pictures look AMAZING! What did you use to take your pictures?!

    Amanda

    • Alex
      December 7 2013

      Hey Amanda! It’s a great trip and I highly recommend it. To see a full list of my camera gear and links to reviews, check out my Gear and Products page in the navigation bar above. Let me know if you have any other questions!

      • Amanda
        December 8 2013

        Hi Alex, thanks for the information! I have a Nikon D1300 and I also have a NIkon Coolpix P4. Just because I am on a budget, I would like to try and find a case for my coolpix. I have looked at the Drycase that you can put cameras and iphones into. They are around $50 so they fit the budget, but I do not know much about the product itself. What is your opinion on using the Drycase? Do you know anything about them? I really want great pictures when snorkelling, but I do not want to spend hundreds of dollars at the moment in order to do so. Thoughts?

        Amanda

        • Alex
          December 9 2013

          I’m sorry I don’t have more advice for you, but I’ve never tried the Drycase :/ I would be very nervous to put my dSLR in one, though, to be honest. I would try reading the Amazon reviews and see what you think! If it seems like a no-go, maybe you can rent an underwater camera for a day! I’m sure it would be around the same cost as the Drycase, less risky, and more fun! Good luck!

          • Amanda
            December 10 2013

            Okay I will do that! Thanks for the help Alex!

  • Matthew
    July 7 2014

    Swimming with manatees is a right of passage for every Floridian, so we might allow you to become an honorary Floridian! Hope you get a chance to come and visit Florida again soon!
    Matthew recently posted..Tavares, Lake County

    • Alex
      July 8 2014

      I am trying to get down there in January! I love me some Florida πŸ™‚

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