Forget Discovery Cove – swimming with wild manatees has got to be one of the most peaceful, yet awe inspiring experiences in the world. What makes this experience all the more humbling is that you can learn so much about these gentle giants and how dedicated the local people are to saving them from extinction.
Getting to Crystal River from Orlando takes about an hour and a half by road so, as we don’t drive, we had to book ourselves on to a tour. We booked our excursion through our UK travel agent about 4 months in advance, though it was operated locally by Grayline.
We weren’t sure what to expect from this tour when we booked it, but we were so glad that we did. Our driver, Donald Johannessen, was super friendly, informative and genuinely passionate about his job and made sure we had a great time. He also happened to be our guide at the Kennedy Space Centre the day before and greeted us like old friends when he saw us the next morning.
Upon arrival at the American Pro Diving Centre, we were kitted out in wet suits ($10 per person charge, payable locally) and shown the safety video “Mantee Manners”. We then drove to the dock and boarded the boat. We started our short boat ride through Kings Bay with an informative ‘Q & A’ conversation about the manatees, their behaviour, how we should behave if we want to see the manatees etc, then after about 10 minutes on the water we spotted our first manatees. Our captain Marlon and skipper Jerry were fantastic and gave us the best opportunity to see a mother and baby manatee resting, then another pair of adults eating & swimming, giving us over an hour total dive time and around 2 hours in total on the water. They gave us a great deal of information about the other animals as we saw them around the bay. When we were in the water, Marlon even gave us a nudge to help us get the best opportunity to see these beautiful creatures (it’s unbelievably hard to get yourself in a good position in moving water when you’re not able to splash your arms & legs)! To round the morning off, we went back to the dive centre where we were able to get changed and view / purchase the video of our dive and any other manatee merchandise ($35 for 15 minutes of edited footage on a USB with video, photos and music).
After our dive, we went on to lunch at Sara’s Diner just a short drive down the road where we enjoyed a hearty lunch included in the price of our tour. This local diner was the epitome of American dining with meatloaf, pancakes & fried chicken among the favourite dishes on the menu.
We finished our day in Homosassa State Park. This served as a lovely end to the trip and gave us a chance to see a few more manatees, a black bear, bald eagles, alligators and so much more. We spent around an hour and a half here which felt like just about the right amount of time. We recommend planning to watch one of the manatee ‘shows’ where the manatees are fed their lunch as this gives you a guaranteed viewing opportunity either above or below the water in their underwater viewing platform.
If you have been to Orlando before but you’re looking to do something different, or you love the idea of interacting with the manatees, I highly recommend booking this tour with Grayline!
Other Useful Information:
- Wear your swimsuit for the drive down so its quicker getting in to your wet suit
- Take a towel and a plastic bag to keep your clothes dry
- Take some money so you can buy the digital video of your dive & hire a wet suit (it cost us $35 for the video, $10 per person for the wet suit & snorkel equipment but it was worth every penny – the water is so cold it takes your breath away!)
- They don’t have showers at the dive shop, but the water is clean enough that you don’t feel gross all day
- Groups are typically between 6-15 people which is plenty, just enough so not to scare away the manatees!
- It’s an early start (we were the last pick up at 06:50) but it’s totally worth it!
- Book your tour in advance – they can’t operate the swim in large numbers due to the nature of the animals, so book early to avoid disappointment.