I am going to ramble on about the amazing thing our little family just got to do in Florida. I want to go back and do it again as soon as possible, it was that incredible!
While fishing in Florida a couple of years ago we had a mother and calf swim past our boat and surface near us. I was pretty excited. They are enormous gentle creatures.
This winter we planned to go back to Florida and spend some time lower on the Gulf Coast. Husband wanted to see the Everglades and Daughter wanted a nice beach. I had the plans all set, hotels booked and a shell of an itinerary. We would be in Fort Myers Beach, Naples and end around St. Petersburg.
I stumbled on a trip review that said you could swim with the manatees.
Then I watched a video on Facebook and was determined to make this work three weeks before we traveled. I read up a little more on the tours and knew I wanted a 6am tour for the best luck. A little more shuffling and I had our vacation plans reworked and found a reservation that I was thrilled about.
We were able to use points to stay at the Best Western in Crystal River. The hotel was two minutes drive from the Birds Underwater Dive Center. They offer a noon check out and they have a large hot tub for guests in the pool area.
To make this work we had a long drive from Lido Key the day before. No matter how I worked this trip we had to cover more miles than I usually want to deal with on vacation. We set out with the intent to try to break it up into smaller chunks, that really did not pan out for us. We did spend the afternoon in Homosassa State Park and saw many manatees in the river there, so I was really hopeful.
Then “winter” hit Florida. When we left the Sarasota area it was a nice sunny almost 80 degrees. It was a cold, cloudy and barely 60 in Homosassa when I got out of the car.
When we awoke at 5am for our 6am swim it was a very cold 41 degrees. Husband was NOT the least bit happy and I was tempted to tell him to go back to bed so I did not have to hear about it. No amount of coffee was fixing his mood. Telling him the water was warmer made his attitude worse. You are given a wet suit but Husband is correct, eventually you need to get out of the water.
We watched a short video on what to do and NOT to do with the manatees present. There were almost 30 people booked on the 6am tour but we were split into groups of 6-8 and assigned tour guides. The tide was going out as we stepped down into our boat and with the cold air the water was covered by fog. Our captain offered everyone coffee, doughnuts and hot chocolate before we set off to our swim area.
The Fish and Wildlife people had closed down Three Sisters the day before, there were too many manatees in the area. So we headed out to Kings Bay to wait for the sunrise. As we entered the water the captain pointed us in the direction of the manatees coming to check us out.
Here is why you want the 6am Birds company tour. We were the ONLY boat out there for over 20 minutes. Yup, 8 people (7 guests and 1 guide in the water) and all the curious manatees. Then bam the other tour companies arrive with their guests! Things get louder, there is more activity and some manatees say adios to the noise.
I expected to snorkel over a couple of manatees laying in the water. I expected to be excited to see a couple. I did not expect the experience we received! Wow! Our family was placed with a group of four women. They excited the boat and floated to one side towards some manatees that were seen on the left. Daughter excited the boat down the ladder and I was behind her. As soon as I stepped off the ladder an manatee hugged my lower leg and then popped up right in front of me to check me out. I was a bit surprised to say the least.
The manatee was checking me out so with small arms you can touch them with one hand. Some like their bellies rubbed. Then the manatee came around me and started playing with the longer string on my wet suit zipper and goofing around. They like hair, one nuzzled on Husbands beard for a little. This is not what I was expecting but it was very fun. While they are big, they are herbivores. You are not in any danger but for some kids I could see it being intimidating to be in the water with something so large. So know your family and judge if they can float quietly on the water without splashing. Later on in the day we saw a different tour group out and one of the poor kids was freaking out. Not fun for anyone! And know if you CANNOT behave they will pull you out and put you on the boat.
I could not even venture a guess at how many manatee we saw that morning. After our fill of time near the parked boat we followed our guide into the spring area. This area was pretty busy with other tours guests. We did see manatees here also with other fish groups. But there was a lot more noise and inconsiderate people wearing flippers stirring up the water. Girls were yelling to each other and shrieking despite guides asking them to be quieter. After a little bit our group voted to head back towards the boat with the guide and enjoy more quiet interaction with less people.
One by one people gave in to the cold air and headed onto the boat. They offer a small changing area and toilet to get into dry clothes. I am pretty sure the air was still around the low 40s so we all changed pretty quickly and hit the hot drinks that were provided on the way back to the dock.
Inside the dive shop you can view pictures taken on our tour and purchase if you wish. Very low key, we did not purchase any but also did not feel any pressure to do so.
I know vacation budgets can be tight. We like many others do as much as we can that is low cost. But this was worth every penny we paid and then some. This was our trips “big event” and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
We took the public 6am tour, it is $59.95 a person booked in advance. They also offer a 7am private manatee tour for $99 a person that is a longer tour with more of a brunch offering. Either way make sure you book with Birds, you will not regret it!
Husband and Daughter both agree it was amazing. Once he got in the water Husbands attitude did a 180 and he loved it. Maybe he just needed one more cup of coffee… I know warming up later in the Best Western hot tub while we discussed our adventure was worth every point I spent booking that hotel. (It was only 10,000 points, so book it!)
More information here: https://www.birdsunderwater.com/tours/manatees/
If you want to see some of their previous tour photos and videos check out their Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/Birdsunderwaterdivecenter/photos/pcb.1685140384880076/1685140344880080/?type=3&theater