Easily one of the most life-changing moments of my life. Image: @TheHappyTalent
In 2018, I took a twenty-hour flight to the Philippines, a five-hour bus ride from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, a four-hour ferry from El Nido to Coron (it was the first and last time in my life when I got seasick -- and I discovered the best possible solution), then a two-hour van ride to a two-hour one-way boat ride, all to spend a few minutes in the water with the dugongs.
From: @TheHappyTalent on Instagram.
One thing I admired about the excursion was learning the rules and regulations. You're not allowed to touch or harass the dugongs in any way — and, in fact, the number of people allowed in the water with them at one time is strictly capped, so even after your two-hour boat ride, you might be waiting another 90 minutes on the surface waiting for your turn to enter the water.
I don't regret the experience in any way. It was a magical experience, and I would even do it again!
Which is why, while visiting a place in Florida so perfect that I won't even blog about it because I it all for myself, when I learned I could swim with manatees in Florida, I immediately began planning my trip to Homosassa, Crystal Springs, and Three Sisters.
Despite a cold snap that kept the air temp between 39 and 55 degrees, I spent two days in the water with the manatees — the first cost $1 and the second cost $79 (but, really, since I booked it through Harvest Hosts, I saved 10% on the tour and got a free night of camping, which is worth at least $45, and entry into the parks can be $20-$30, it really ended up costing about $6).
I'll be real: The $79 (err... $26?) experience was far better. But not everyone has that much money in their budget. In this post, I'll explain how to see the manatees for only $1. Then I'll explain my Harvest Hosts experience, why going out on a tour might be a better option, and what it was like to have manatees kiss me all over my body for 90 minutes on end.
1. HOW TO SEE THE MANATEES FOR $1
Even without a guided tour, seeing the manatees can cost upwards of $20, as the state and local parks charge for admission.
HOWEVER. If you go to Hunter Springs Park in Crystal River, FL, you can park for only $1 per hour.
Image: Crystal River Florida
Park, suit up. The water is 72 degrees year round, but as mentioned earlier, the air temp can get quite chilly. Most people say they were "fine while they were in the water, but freezing when they got out." So have a towel ready.
Better, have a wetsuit. That way, you can stay in the water longer and feel more comfortable during your excursion. Moreover, the added buoyancy will help you float more effortlessly. The less you move, the closer the manatees will come to you. (In fact, I normally scoff at people who snorkel with a pool noodle or other floatation device, but in the case of manatees, I recommend it.)
Enter the water in the swimming area and swim out just to your left of the middle buoy. That's where the spring is, so that's where the manatees congregate.
If you want to leave the swimming area — which you should, if you don't see any manatees in the swimming area and you're up for a longer swim — you will need a dive flag. It's Florida law.
Whether scuba diving or snorkeling, it's the law. You'll save about $20 if you order a crappy one online (it'll prevent you from getting a ticket, but will keep you less safe), but the $50 ones they sell in the local shops are superior products (larger, more vertical and visible, even in wind and waves), so make the choice that's right for you.
ALSO FLORIDA LAW — you may not harass the manatees. But if they initiate touch, you can touch them. WITH ONE HAND. Two hands, and you go to jail. This is very strictly enforced, and some of the other "snorkelers" you see out there might actually be undercover cops.
With the swimming area behind you, turn right. There's a big blue building (the one at Pete's Pier Marina). Swim to it, then turn left into Kings Bay. That bridge is a place where many manatees congregate.
In fact, if you don't want to bother with getting in the water, you can park somewhere near there (maybe around SW 1st Place or Kings Bay Drive) and watch manatees from the bridge.
Worth noting, though, since some people have a fear of murky water. When I did this swim, the water was very clear in the Hunter Springs swimming area, but much murkier once I got into the river. As in, the first manatee I saw swam almost RIGHT in front of me, and I didn't see it until it almost hit me. I don't know if the river is always like this or if there was just a lot of sediment stirred up because of boats or because both manatees I saw in the river were eating.
Here's Hunter Springs swimming area:
Here's the river:
Image: @TheHappyTalent on Instagram
By the end of the swim, I'd seen three manatees, close up and all to myself. It was amazing and I was completely satisfied.
2. HOW TO SEE THE MANATEES FOR $79 (or $6, depending on how you look at it)
The two days I was in Homosassa, I camped for free at a Harvest Host location called River Safaris & Gulf Charters. This was my view:
This is a view I would have had to pay $45-$89 for at a campground or RV resort.
So why did I get to stay there for free?
For those who don't know, Harvest Hosts is a website that connects business owners with extra space on their property with RVers who want free places to boondock or dry camp. RVers get a free place to stay. Businesses get sales, as there is an expectation that you're supposed to buy something during your stay.
Most Harvest Hosts are wineries or breweries, and I'm not going to argue with buying locally made wine and beer!
River Safaris was definitely more expensive than your typical Harvest Host — I suppose if you really wanted to, you could buy something from the gift shop for $20 instead of booking a $79 tour.
However, I knew that there were more than three manatees in the rivers, and I wanted to see them all. After discussing the tours with Captain Susan, I booked a trip on a boat with an open-air option (a heated cabin would have been nice, except for COVID) on the earliest possible boat, since that's when you're most likely to see the most action.
After a quick lap around Monkey Island (yes, with three real monkeys marooned on it):
We headed up the Homosassa River for about 25 minutes.
We went over the rules (again: don't harass them, you may touch them ONLY if they initiate contact and ONLY with one hand) and best practices (again, make as little movement and noise as possible; don't kick your feet), and started seeing manatees before we even got off the boat. We didn't need to go looking for them.
They came to us.
When I saw one swimming near me, I turned on my GoPro to film it. Little did I know, it would spend the next four minutes kissing me all over my body.
Even when invited, I only touched the manatee minimally. The less you touch them, the more they want you to touch them. (Also, if you have the choice, wear blue, as that attracts them to you. They also like hair. I thought it was adorable when they all started nibbling on mine, until I realized just how easily such a thing could result in drowning.)
The experience was so incredibly, life-changingly magical, I was literally glowing afterwards.
Image: @TheHappyTalent on Instagram
The moment we got back to the dock, I was calling my mom to see when was the soonest possible date she could come swim with the manatees with me. "Add it to your bucket list immediately!" I urged her. "Even a 100-year-old could do this!"
Other ways to see the manatees include by renting a kayak and exploring either with a tour or on your own, or visiting one of the parks. The $1 experience I had at Hunter Springs was amazing, but I don't think anything could top the River Safari experience.
Two last pieces of advice:
1. Bring binoculars on the boat. You'll see some interesting birds along the river.
2. It's really cool to get some photos and videos, but the best part is when you turn your camera off and fully, completely engage with these incredible creatures. So remember to remind yourself not to experience the manatees through a screen.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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