Swimming with the Manatees in Crystal River
Swimming with the Manatees in Crystal River
Nursing Calves, Intimate Portraits, Reflections and Crystal Clear Water!
Text by Scott Gietler
Photos by Scott Gietler, Kelli Dickinson, Katie Yonker, Brent Durand
Swimming with the Manatees in Crystal River, Florida is an indescribable experience. These animals are big, adorable, curious, social, and can display a wide range of interesting behavior.
The manatees come into the springs area to stay warm when it gets cold in the Gulf of Mexico. In the winter, hundreds of them will huddle together in large groups on the bottom, in very shallow water. We visited the Manatees in early November, right before large number of Manatees (and large number of people) swim into the area. We saw many manatees and had many close encounters.
This is what we learned on our trip this past weekend, Nov 10th. We went out with Birds Underwater, who we recommend.
The area was not what we expected
We were expecting to be in the middle of nowhere, in a large area. The area we were in actually feels like a series of connected canals. The area is very residential, with houses lining all of the canals. You are basically right in the middle of a town. You will not feel like you are “in nature”, but you won’t care – the manatees are awesome.
There are more boats than you can ever imagine
Nothing could have prepared us for the number of boats that go out to swim with the manatees. There were dozens – and this was in low season. Trust me – you will not be alone on this trip. However, if you get a private boat with a small group, get out early, and swim away from the large groups (and trust us, there will be large groups around you), you can have some quality “manatee time”. The trip is completely worth it.
Manatees are big
Some manatees are big, really big. Even the babies are big. They truly seem like “sea cows”. They like to take short naps on the surface, and short naps on the bottom. They like to eat plants and algae on the bottom. They like to swim in small groups, swim alone, and come in contact with each other.
There are a lot of rules
There are a lot of rules, and for good reason. Before you swim with the manatees, you must watch a video that shows people grabbing manatees, chasing them, stepping on them or worse. It was awful. You are not supposed to chase a manatee, approach within 6ft of a resting manatee, swim down to a manatee that is resting or grab a manatee. We did not do these things, but we did see a couple people in the water grab and chase manatees. Unfortunately they were not caught, but there are quite a large number of wildlife officials and “manatee minders” who are out there to give people tickets. Of course we fully support this; otherwise things would be out of control. Splashing definitely startles manatees, we recommend trying not to splash at all with either your fins or arms.
A photographer face-to-face with a manatee at the surface for a breath. Photo: Scott Gietler
Definitely go on a weekday if possible - weekends can be a little crazy there. Leave as early as possible in the morning. There is no need to dive down or wear a weight belt, all of your manatee shots and interactions will be on the surface. They need to come to the surface and breathe every few minutes anyways. In fresh water, you will sink slightly even without weights. In early November, we all wore a full 3mm wetsuit and we were just fine warmth-wise. We did not try swimming with them later in the day, but that may be a good time also if there are fewer boats.
We did not take strobes, choosing to shoot with ambient light. Early in the morning you’ll need to turn your ISO up high. If the sun comes out, try to keep it to your back. They are big and come close, so choose a very wide lens. Also try to take a lot of video.
Shoulder season is a good time to go, either right before or right after high season (winter). During the winter there will be a lot of people - more than you can imagine. But the advantage is that the manatees will in the parts of the canals that have clearer water, in larger numbers.
Many manatee tour outfits will provide wetsuits and fins. We recommend bringing your own mask, snorkel and towel.
A manatee yawns in front of the camera. Photo: Scott Gietler
A manatee calf nursing with mom. Photo: Scott Gietler
Another perspective of the nursing manatee calf. Photo: Katie Yonker
Manatees develop algae growth on their backs near the springs, away from their summer home in the Gulf. Photo: Katie Yonker
Kayakers explore crystal clear water in the Three Sisters Springs. Photo: Katie Yonker
A split-shot at Three Sisters showing the clear blue water and rich greenery above. Photo: Katie Yonker
Two manatees reflect near the surface. Photo: Kelli Dickinson
The manatee calf approaches with its mother. Photo: Kelli Dickinson
Mother and child, swimming by. Photo: Kelli Dickinson
Fish swim through the crystal clear water of Three Sisters Spring. Photo: Kelli Dickinson
Portrait of a manatee near the surface. Photo: Brent Durand
The personal connections with the manatees are the most rewarding part of the day. Photo: Brent Durand
Manatees (often called Sea Cows) are actually graceful swimmers and can move rather quickly. Photo: Brent Durand
A snorkeler models for the camera in the clear water at Three Sisters. Photo: Brent Durand
Planning your Manatee trip
Email email@example.com to plan the best manatee trip ever. Katie knows the scene well and will help make sure you have the best experience with the least crowds. You can see some of her manatee photos in this article.
About the Author
Scott Gietler is the owner of the Underwater Photography Guide, Bluewater Photo and Bluewater Travel. He enjoys helping others learn underwater photography online, in the store, and during international photo trips that he attends with customers. Scott shoots with a Nikon D7000.
About the Photographers
Katie Yonker manages Bluewater Travel and shoots with a Panasonic GX-1. Visit Bluewater Travel and contact Katie for help planning the perfect dive trip.
Kelli Dickinson is the store manager for Bluewater Photo and shoots with an Olympus OM-D E-M5. Contact Kelli anytime for questions on purchasing or using your u/w photo gear.
Brent Durand is editor of the Underwater Photography Guide and shoots with a Canon 5D Mk3. Follow UWPG on Facebook and visit the site regularly for gear reviews, tutorials and u/w photo news.
Where to Buy
Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!
SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:
The Best Service & Prices on u/w Photo Gear
Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!
The Best Pricing, Service & Expert Advice to Book your Dive Trips
Bluewater Travel is your full-service scuba travel agency. Let our expert advisers plan and book your next dive vacation. Run by divers, for divers.