In March 2013 my friend Carrie and I went to Crystal River to swim with manatees. There are manatees all over Florida but this is a particularly good area to see and swim with them because there are a shit ton that migrate there in the winter months. In Crystal River there are a bunch of companies that take you out into Kings Bay, which is a protected wildlife refuge. We went out with Divemaster Zack with American Pro Diving Center and had a great experience. We cruised around Hunter’s Spring and found a cove with about 10 manatees, including a baby, posted up and looking mad cute. This water is very cold in the winter so I definitely recommend going with the wetsuits.
We snorkeled into the cove and waited patiently for the manatees to approach us. You’re not really supposed to mess with manatees in the wild and I’ve gotten a lot of smartass remarks about touching them, but this is a highly regulated area where touching is permitted and they fine you if you make any dopey moves. You have to follow some general guidelines, such as swim/float horizonally not vertically so that your flippers don’t disturb any manatees resting at the bottom or stir up debris from the floor, let them approach you, don’t mess with their faces or paddles. It’s really pretty straightforward and simple, you float there snorkeling around and these creatures come up to you twirling around so you’ll scratch their bellies. There are social and nonsocial manatees, so we noticed that the social ones came up to us (one smacked me in the head with its paddle) and nudged us when we stopped scratching while the nonsocial ones hung back and did their thing resting near the bottom. The water was clear but murky in some parts and it was a little startling to be floating around then suddenly this giant thing is directly in front of you putting its mouth on your face. There were about 6 people in our group and everyone was very respectful so it was an extremely positive and memorable experience.
To many Floridians this may not seem that interesting because you see manatees all the time, but I get pumped when I see any animal so experiencing them like this was a new and exciting. Highly recommended, will go again.