So you live in Miami, and you’re probably all, “Oh, manatees, we see manatees all the time in Florida.” Yes, but do you SWIM with them? Do you dip your sweet self into the water, and sidle alongside these gentle giants? And when a 2,000-lb. manatee approaches you at the speed of molasses, have you actually TICKLED ITS BELLY?

No?

Then hightail it to Crystal River, Florida, where your manatee dreams become magical, sea cow reality.

Where to Get Your Manatee Fix

Plantation on Crystal River (Copyright Miamicito)

Plantation on Crystal River (Copyright Miamicito)

Crystal River, natch. There is an abundance of regional outfitters offering tours that allow visitors to swim with the creatures, and it can be overwhelming to select one. Check out the Plantation Adventure Center, which is affiliated with the Plantation on Crystal River. The hotel and dive shop are located directly on a waterway, so you don’t have to travel far for your ungodly early 7 am boat tour. When you’re not chilling with the manatees, you can enjoy the hotel’s pool and hot tub, eat at the restaurant, hit the golf course, or stroll the waterfront looking for manatees swimming past the property.

Rolling in the Deep

Credit: Plantation Adventure Center

Credit: Plantation Adventure Center

Crystal River is a manatee mecca thanks to the natural springs that dot the area’s waterways. The warm water is like manatee crack, they congregate in droves around the springs during chilly weather. Of course, this means that the best time to see them are during cooler months, like January and February when they’re seeking warmth.

This also means that I got my rear out of bed in 45-degree weather, slithered into a wetsuit and jumped into 72-degree water which actually feels pretty darn cold at 8 am on a cloudy, January day. But I ask, what price a manatee sighting?

We made our way to the dive shop, where we were given wet suits and snorkel gear, and watched a video about how to swim with manatees in a way that doesn’t completely freak the big guys out. After that, we hopped aboard a boat with highly capable Captain Mike.

The man was a manatee whisperer. In fact, he sort of looked like a manatee, large and a bit lumpy, and the sea cows positively loved to swim up to him and chew on his beard. However, he was also a phenomenal guide, and gave us further detailed instructions and guidance, and made sure each person had a chance to get up close and personal with the manatees.

Will You Freak Out?

Credit: Plantation Adventure Center

Credit: Plantation Adventure Center

Though it’s a little unnerving to see a hippo-sized creature making its way toward you underwater, trust me, it’s amazing and no, you won’t freak out. There are few experiences that compare to a monstrous beast slowly swimming up in your grill and gently pawing at you with giant flippers. When they’re excited, they begin to spin around like a corkscrew. One even sidled alongside me, and nudge me along for a few dozen yards as I lay paralyzed, trying not to break our bonding moment. They really are as magical, strange, and gentle as you would hope. Like sea puppies. And who the heck doesn’t like a PUPPY?