Sometimes, in the life of a family travel writer and photographer, you must leave the family back at the ranch and have experiences all by your solo self.
It’s a happy and sad reality all at once, but sometimes there’s not budget for +3, and so I go it alone and report back to them and to you. And then sometimes, I make immediate plans to return to that exact spot I stood, or in this case swam, with my wife and kids because the experience was so grand, so unique, and so enormous!
There I was, at 6:45 on a balmy Wednesday morning in mid-July, not quite ‘up and at ’em’, squeezing myself into a thick wet suit, 5mm for better buoyancy to make a passive swim with manatees more of a reality; second skin if I were a walrus.
My private manatee snorkel tour pushed back from The Plantation on Crystal River’s Plantation Adventure Center shortly after 7am and we were in the water shortly after that. Our two manatee sightings happening quickly, but lasted a good long while. After all, they’ve got nowhere to go and I had nothing but time. We chill, the manatees and me.
It was as surreal as I thought it would be, to be among the gentle giants.
Swimming with manatees is everything you hope it will be, exactly as you imagine it, and worth every effort and dollar to get to Crystal River, Florida and get in the water.
The fresh water of the King’s Bay waterways had a bite to it, especially when it first hits your delicate mid-section — the 90 degree mid-summer gulf water this is not — but within 45 seconds of being fully submerged you don’t feel the temperature at all. The giddy joy of what is about to happen is enough to warm you right up…or at least distract you from how cold you are!
There’s a fair bit of vegetation that bobs along atop the water and you will think it is super gross but once your head is down and you are on the hunt for manatees, you won’t care in the least that your beautiful locks are cutting through a floating salad bar.
Summer is rough for finding manatees. There’s no way around it or way to dress up the truth. This may deter you from making the journey in the summer months but the manatees are still there, just in far fewer numbers than what winter visitors see and experience when 600-800 manatees occupy the waters of Crystal River, Florida. That sounds Hitchcockian, to be honest.
Luckily, all you need is one manatee to feel like you booked the greatest swim/snorkel tour in the history of humankind because with guides and captains like Lance and Thaisy of the Plantation Adventure Center you will be well cared for on smooth pontoon boats stocked with complimentary waters, hot chocolate and coffee (combine those last two for a ‘manalatte’).
It’s a stretch but go with it, you’re on holiday.
Here’s what it feels like to swim with manatees:
- A Peace Like You’ve Never Known. While there will be others with you, beside you, behind you, it will feel like it is just you and the manatee(s) out for a casual early morning
- Serene and quiet save for the sound of manatees munching on sea grasses, a muted sound that approximates that of a teenager going to town on a bag of Fritos but WAY more charming.
- The bubbles blown by the manatees have a lite musicality to them when they are ‘popped’ by your fingers. It’s like playing an underwater vibraphone. This is an unexpected dreamscape found nowhere else in the known universe (probably, I dunno, it was simply amazing and that sounds awesome).
- Those bubbles don’t actually pop, they split in two, creating musical manatee bubble half lives that rise up to the surface all around you as you delight in the sight of the manatees.
- Manatee skin his hard and coarse, which surprised me, with millions of tiny hairs waving in the water.
- Manatees, enormous creatures (hello 1600-1800 pounds!) no doubt, are not fat. In fact, they possess just 4-7% body fat. Color me jealous! They eat 2-3 times their weight every day, sleep for long stretches, have no predator therefore have no sense of fear or automatic defense mechanism, love people, can live to near 60 years old, are beloved animals, and manatees are never body shamed. Essentially, manatees are living their best life every damn day.
- Viewing manatees in summer isn’t always a guarantee but that’s where the terrific guides of Plantation Adventure Center come in. Captain Thaisy and Lance will work their butts off to find you a manatee somewhere in their waters, to make your manatee swim and snorkel a success.
I really couldn’t have imagined a better experience. Hell, I even wrote a TripAdvisor review — my first ever — hours after our manatee swim because I loved it and them so much. They earned that glowing review for making my first ever manatee swim 100% brilliant.
With prices started at just $65 a person, I cannot recommend you get yourself AND your family to The Plantation on Crystal River and get in the water for a manatee snorkel. You will not regret it.
*I was hosted at the Plantation resort and taken out on a manatee snorkel as part of a Florida press trip. All opinions expressed above are honest and unbiased, as always.