Swimming with Manatees (A Local Sarasota Guide)

Manatees are majestic sea mermaids. If you’ve never seen a manatee before, please go right now and find one! After all, ‘tis the season for manatee spottings in Florida. 

Manatee season in Florida is typically from November to April with the peak of the season is December through February. The reason for this is that manatees are migratory creatures. A manatee is susceptible to cold-related diseases if the water temperature is below 68 degrees! (Similar to us Floridians I suppose) In the winter months, they seek refuge and congregate in areas with warmer water sources such as mineral springs or bays. In the summer months, there are much fewer manatees in the Gulf as they tend to migrate West to Texas or North to areas such as the Carolinas or Virginia. 

WHERE to Swim with Manatees in Florida?

Last weekend, I went to Crystal River, Florida to River Ventures location to swim with the Florida manatees. This is known as the manatee capital of Florida so you might say, there’s no better place for manatee sightings and swimming! Before the swim, you’ll suit up with a wet suit and gear up with a snorkel and goggles. You also watch a video about how to interact with manatees which is probably the most important piece. A loud or thrashing swimmer will NOT encounter a manatee. Only peaceful, quiet swimmers are approached. Manatees are very sensitive to sounds around them as their eyesight is poor. Did you know that they can hear your heartbeat in the water from 10 feet away?!

While on the snorkel swim, we saw close to 20-30 manatees! (most sleeping on the bottom of the spring). I saw manatee mothers with nursing babies, manatees with past boating injuries, and playful manatees who wanted to touch faces with the members of our group. Despite the average adult manatee being about 10 feet long and weighing between 800 and 1,200 pounds, they all seemed graceful gliding through the water. It was INCREDIBLE!

I’m sure there are other places near Sarasota to swim with manatees but honestly, the two-hour drive to Crystal River is completely worth it. Hands down.

How to Spot a Manatee in Florida?

While it’s important to know how to spot a manatee as a sight-seer, it’s imperative to be versed in spotting when boating as well. Boating accounts for a high number of manatee injuries and deaths in Florida. 

  1. Look for bubbles floating to the surface of the water
  2. If the water is clear, you may be able to see a boulder-like shape moving under the water
  3. Look for a circular pattern on the water (this is called a manatee “footprint” created by their tails)
  4. They may be sleeping or eating in shallower areas where there is seagrass/Look for protected “Manatee Zones”
  5. Wear polarized sunglasses to see their “footprint” better

Can You Touch a Manatee in Florida?

According to the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, it is “illegal to molest, harass, or disturb a manatee.” When swimming with manatees, they tend to be curious and want to interact with humans especially if they’re younger. Sometimes, a manatee will swim next to you or even up to you in order to say “hello!” making touching natural instinct. Our tour guides educated us on this aspect frequently making sure we knew that we were expected to be: quiet, swim slow, and only touch a manatee if it was initiated by them. And, only with one hand so the manatee does not feel trapped!

Are Manatees Friendly? YES! Manatee are Gentle Giants

If you’re ever lucky enough to swim with a manatee, it’ll be easy to finally see what makes them so lovable. This plant-eating creature is very friendly, however, similar to humans their capacity to interact and trust humans varies. Manatees are not known to ever be dangerous or attack. They have NO natural enemies, not even alligators or sharks. This being so, you may wonder…well, why are manatees endangered then?

The Endangered Manatee

Although a manatee has no known natural predators, they are considered endangered with only approximately 13,000 manatees left in the wild. About 6,500 of those manatees are located off the coast of Florida. Commonly, manatees have known to be killed by eating garbage creating blockages, cold-related diseases, stillbirths, and viruses. In 2020, there were 637 Florida manatees killed, 90 of those by watercraft, unfortunately. Humans have become the manatee’s #1 predator. 

Is the Florida Manatee Endangered?

5% of the total worldwide manatee population died just last year in Florida. The primary reasons manatees die an early death area:

1. Loss of Habitat 

New developments are constantly being built in Florida which, thereby causes an increase in runoff and sewage. This can destroy natural nesting areas and make the algae nearby toxic for the grazing manatees. 

2. Collisions with Boats and Watercraft

Manatees are known to eat seagrass which grows only in shallower waters. This can leave them exposed to boats driving by as they cannot dive down to avoid a collision. 

Conservation of Manatees!

Currently, there are conservation efforts in 13 Florida counties including Brevard, Broward, Citrus, Collier, Dade, Duval, Indian River, Lee, Martin, Palm Beach, St. Lucie, Volusia, and Sarasota. The county governments work with Florida state to continuously improve efforts to keep manatees safe. This includes implementing specific boat speed zones and put in place manatee protection plans that are county-specific. 

Additional Florida conservation efforts include:

  • Scientific research (reviewing population, behavior, biology, and habitats)
  • Manatee awareness and public education programs
  • Public acquisition of critical habitat and the creation of sanctuaries

In order to preserve the manatee population in our area, please continue to educate yourself about these gentle giants so they can continue to be part of our ecosystem and Florida culture!