As winter visitors flock to Clearwater's white sand beaches to bask in the warmth of the Florida sun, another type of winter visitor heads to the Gulf Coast to escape winter's chill. Manatees swim en masse to coastal wetlands where freshwater springs in bays and rivers provide enough warmth for these large marine mammals to sleep away the winter months. You'll see them anywhere along the coast during warm months, but you'll find large concentrations at a wildlife refuge two hours north of the city in winter. You can passively swim in some areas where these great beasts lurk, but you have to be careful not to touch or disturb them.
Know the Law
Manatees are protected by several laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. These laws prevent anyone from "annoying, molesting, harassing or disturbing any manatee," whether it's done intentionally or not. If you're altering a manatee's natural behavior in any way, you could be guilty of harassment. Don't follow manatees in your boat or swim after them; just float passively nearby and observe the animals from a distance. Breaking the law could result in fines up to $100,000 and/or a year in jail.
Where to Swim With Manatees
Manatees can't survive for extended periods once Gulf waters dip below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Hundreds of manatees head for natural 72-degree springs found in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge 80 miles north of Clearwater. The mammals congregate around some 30 springs in the bay, most of which are only accessible by boat. Three Sisters Springs is the only one accessible by land, and only on certain days out of the year. You'll find strict speed limits enforced for boats throughout the refuge to prevent injury to manatees, and some refuge areas are off-limits to boats, swimmers or snorkelers during winter months.
Look for swirls on the surface of the water that indicate a diving manatee, or look for snouts, flippers, tails or backs breaking the surface. Slip into the water quietly and float, taking care not to stir up sediment with your flippers, making the water murky. Using a foam noodle beneath your arms helps you stay afloat without splashing, and a snorkel and mask let you have a clear, uninterrupted view of these gentle sea cows. To move from place to place, stroke with your arms below the surface and kick gently with your feet. Don't try touch the animals, or you could be cited for harassment. Instead, passively float above them or follow them without getting too close.
Take a Tour
Although their numbers aren't nearly as dense, you can also see manatees at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge during summer months as well. A tour company can help find them at various times of year. You'll find tour and dive companies in Crystal River, as well as some in Clearwater that provide transportation and all the equipment you need, including wetsuits and snorkeling gear. Taking your first swim with a tour guide will help you know if you're breaking any rules long before a ranger shows up to issue a citation.