We’ve all seen it on Instagram – your giddy friends decided to swim with dolphins or (insert cute, cuddly animal here) on their latest trip and flood their IG with selfies. It looks like fun! But you wonder about it, don’t you? As Ecophiles, we all wonder… is it really OK for the animal?

I wondered that very same thing when it came to swimming with manatees. I live in Florida, and manatees are everywhere here. You’ll see them occasionally swimming in pods in the Gulf of Mexico, but more often in the shallow back waters and lagoons where there’s more vegetation to feed on. But come winter time in December when the water temperatures dip below 72 degrees (F), hundreds of manatees migrate to warmer waters to avoid hypothermia as the Gulf cools down.

In the clear crystal springs of central Florida, the water from the earth is a constant 72 degrees and draws manatees back into the warm springs like moths to a flame. Visitors from all over the world come to see this unique and natural occurrence, and some even get into the chilly water to swim with and observe them in their natural environment. And there’s just one place in Florida you can do this — in Crystal River, Florida.

Florida-Swimming with Manatees

Photo by: Lori Sorrentino

The Ultimate Question – Is it safe for the manatees?

How is it possible – or even legal – to get so close to a protected animal in its own habitat? If you don’t think too deeply about it I suppose, a “swim-with” experience may seem like a harmless way to get an up-close look at some of the world’s sea animals. But what many people don’t know or haven’t fully considered is that most attractions designed to expose humans to wild creatures don’t enhance the lives of the animals involved at all.

The West Indian manatees in Florida are passive, non-aggressive, vegetarian aquatic mammals that can grow to up to 13 feet in length (10 feet is average) and weigh an average of 800-1,200 pounds, though some are much heavier. They have two front paddle-like flippers and a large single round paddle for a tail. They’re roly-poly plump and torpedo-shaped, unusually homely and therefore completely adorable. In fact, Christopher Columbus, upon seeing manatees for the first time during his first trip to the Americas, wrote that he’d finally seen mermaids – and they were not quite as beautiful as originally thought!  Because they’re related to elephants, they are thought to have very long memories, which may account for their trust toward, and memory of, humans.

Florida-Swimming with Manatees

Photo by: Lori Sorrentino

In the US, they’re protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal. They’re also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. There are two categories of declining species of plants and animals that need protection – endangered species and threatened species.In simple terms, endangered species are at the brink of extinction now. Threatened species are likely to be at the brink in the near future. It was just recently in early 2016, that the manatee was downlisted from endangered to threatened status under the ESA (Endangered Species Act) as a result of significant improvements in its population and habitat conditions, and reductions in direct threats.

Swimming with Manatees

Photo by: Lori Sorrentino

So you can see why interacting in the water with manatees might be controversial. Some say that swimming with manatees is irresponsible and detrimental to the mammals. Predictably, others complain that stricter regulations (safeguards) unnecessarily impact income potential and tourism. While I’m in favor of strong economic development, I won’t ever support tourism that in the end destroys what it’s about in the first place.

Florida-Swimming with Manatees

Photo by: Lori Sorrentino

But I wanted to see for myself, so I joined a tour early one December morning last year and discovered a powerful flip side to the Swim With Selfie phenomenon. An up close and personal animal tour can deliver an important educational message and have a lifelong impression on us humans about conservation and eco-tourism standards that not only protect the viewed species but ensure their vitality for generations to come.

With Manatees, Passive Observation is Key

Passive Observation is the only way to successfully view manatees in their own habitat. You sit back (and in this case, float back) and observe. You look but don’t touch. They may very well touch you – consider that your good luck! But don’t reciprocate. Float with them, but don’t block or separate them from their group, especially babies from their mothers.

Florida-Swimming with Manatees

Photo by: Lori Sorrentino

Be Diligent to Find the Right Tour

Crystal River has dozens of tour operators who will happily show you manatees any time of year. But beware! As you’ll find anywhere you travel, not all tour operators are created equal. But with just a few simple questions, you’ll find a responsible tour with the animal’s best interest in mind. Ask these questions before you book:

  • “Do You Offer Tours Any Time of Year?”

It’s possible to see manatees in the river during other times of the year, but your best time to see them up close is in the winter months. If you’re looking for a leisurely sightseeing tour, that’s fine. But if you actually want to see them in the water, consider the time of year and ask about recent sightings.

  • “How Do You Prepare Snorkelers Ahead of the Tour?”

Your guide(s) should be familiar with each person’s experience level before you head out, whether through email or one-on-one chats. If at any time you don’t feel comfortable, or you’re confused about what to do or how to act, ask! Make sure they offer the mandatory Manatee Observation video for you to watch.

Florida-Swimming with Manatees

Photo by: Lori Sorrentino

  • “How Large Are Your Tours?”

Look for operators who offer smaller group tours with no more than 6-10 people. This tells you a few things: 1) your guide can offer personal attention and a higher degree of safety. Let’s face it, swimming around dark water where you can’t see or rest your feet on the bottom ain’t for everyone, and you may not realize it until you’re in that situation and find yourself in a panic!  And 2) smaller groups mean more quality time observing the manatees and less thrashing around, bumping into others, and bumping into the manatees.

So, How Was It?

In a word, unbelievable! It was a day I’ll always remember, interacting with and photographing these amazing animals. Some early notions I’d had about them were firmly cemented forever, and I have a new, and passionate, appreciation for them.

I discovered that it IS possible – though challenging – to balance responsible tourism with an interactive eco-tour of an endangered or threatened species. Our natural curiosity can lead us astray by wanting to get too close. It’s human nature. The docile manatee fools us into romanticizing and treating them in ways other than for what they truly are – wildlife. But with education and a firm commitment to protection and responsible tourism, I believe a tour like this can actually be a valuable tool for their future protection. Because once you’re kissed by a manatee, you’re their advocate for life!

Florida-Swimming with Manatees

Photo by: Lori Sorrentino

When to Go:

December through March is the prime time to see manatees as they head in to the warmer waters of Crystal River. Keep an eye on the temperature. Manatees follow warm water, so an unseasonable cold snap (even one day) means better viewing in the springs.

For more information: [email protected]