Article Headings Index
- Looking for a Manatee Experience Without the Tourist Crowds and High Prices?
- My Life-Changing Manatee Swimming Experience
- Chassahowitzka River Campground
- 7 Ways to Spot a Manatee
- 4 Important Tips for Keeping Yourself and Manatees Safe
- What to Bring
- 12 Unusual Manatee Facts
- Don’t Miss My Manatee Swimming Experience Video on Instagram and TikTok @reesehwanderwild
Looking for a Manatee Experience Without the Tourist Crowds and High Prices?
The most popular spot for manatee experiences is Crystal River, FL. — but it is crowded with tourists and expensive.
Looking for an “off-the-beaten-path” manatee experience? Head to the Chassahowitzka River instead.
Chassahowitzka River is less well-known than other manatee hotspots, so it’s a great place to enjoy some quality time with these gentle animals without sharing them with so many tourists.
Remember this isn’t Disney World. There is always a degree of luck when trying to have a manatee experience with them in their natural habitat.
The rewards are worth the effort!
After 10+ years of living in Florida, I’ve learned a few tricks to spot them.
The easiest way is to rent a kayak and paddle around the river manatee “hunting”. Even someone who has never been on a kayak can handle one. The rental company will be happy to instruct you.
But if you are ready for a life-changing experience – grab (or rent) some snorkeling gear and swim with them!
My Life-Changing Manatee Swimming Experience
Florida is one of the only places in the world where you can swim with manatees in the wild and swimming with them is an unforgettable experience.
Florida manatees are some of the coolest creatures around – I’ve been kayaking with them many times over the years but nothing compares to the experience of swimming with them!
I found this out (on a whim) when a friend and I drove up to the Chassahowitzka River Campground with our kayaks. We went through all that work loading and unloading the kayaks and didn’t end up needing them!
We just walked down to the river, via the boat launch, and there they were! Seven manatees (three moms and four calves) hanging out at the spring right in front of the boat launch.
We asked the people who were on kayaks around the boat launch if they had seen any manatees and they said there were 6-to 8 near the spring across from the launch.
Manatees are federally protected by the Endangered Species Act, so you must be careful not to touch, get too close, or chase them.
This is hard because as soon as you see them in the water excitement quickly overpowers reason! I was so excited to see them up close, that it was hard to resist the urge to swim up and pet them!
Honestly though, if you are patient, move slowly, and stay still, they will become comfortable and swim around you.
We did just that for about 30 minutes
We were rewarded with three different manatee mothers and four calf’s resting and swimming around me, so I got my fill of manatee cuteness. That alone was an incredible experience that I will never forget.
However, the day got even better in a way I had never in a million years imagined.
I was minding my own business – watching (and taking a million photos with my new GoPro) mom and calf manatee resting near the spring when I got suddenly get hit from behind by a juvenile manatee!
The young manatee circles me swims and lifts up my hand at least 5 times before I realized he wanted a back scratch. So I was worried because I thought this was illegal and left the manatee to find my friend and explain what was happening.
The young manatee followed me across the river and bumped into me again!
I was so in shock about what was going on (the manatee didn’t hurt me at all) but I spoke to anyone who would listen near me because I didn’t want someone to think I was harassing a manatee (besides federal law, Manatees are fiercely protected by locals across Florida).
Luckily, a local lady was kayaking near me and said that there was a playful manatee in the area.
Apparently, you can touch them BUT ONLY if they come up and touch you first!
This incredible little manatee played with my friend and me for almost two hours – and we never left the boat launch area! The pictures in this article show how close he got to me (he’s a camera hog!) and the videos are on my Instagram and TikTok @reesehwanderwild.
My little manatee buddy even swam up and put his head on the side of my kayak
We decided (after two or three hours of manatee swim time) we should use them since we went to all the effort to bring them with us.
The kayak attempt didn’t last long because trying to get a picture of my new friend caused me to capsize my kayak for the first time ever!
Which lead to an hour-long underwater GoPro search and rescue, to end to our epic day.
All of this for the cost of a $5.00 parking pass!
This is such an unforgettable experience, one that I hope everyone gets to have in their life.
Chassahowitzka River Campground
Florida Manatee swimming is a popular activity among tourists visiting Florida. There are many manatees’ eco-tours in Florida where you can go out on a crowded tourist boat and pay a lot of money to swim, snorkel or SCUBA with manatees.
However, I found out that you don’t need to pay a lot of money to have an unforgettable manatee encounter. Actually, swimming with Florida manatees is a fun activity that you can do for almost free!
The Chassahowitzka River is one of the best-kept secrets for swimming with manatees. It’s less crowded than other tourist spots, and the scenery is just as beautiful.
The Chassahowitzka River Campground Boat Launch is a great place to enjoy the river.
You can launch your kayak, swim around looking for manatees or just relax and enjoy the scenery. The boat launch is located at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.
All you need is a swimsuit, snorkel, and fins (maybe a wetsuit). A kayak can make the day more fun, but we didn’t end up using ours much. Check out my “what to bring” section of this article.
Chassahowitzka River Campground – BOAT LAUNCH
8600 W Miss Maggie Dr, Homosassa, FL 34448
Park and pay the parking fee inside the shop at the boat launch (it can vary depending on the season, we paid $5.00 and it was $10.00 at the campground across the street).
If the parking lot is full – there is another campground right across the street, you can pay to park in.
Then you show that parking pass to the Chassahowitzka River Campground Security (if they are at the entrance in their golf cart that day), and they will let you unload your gear at the Chassahowitzka River Campground boat launch.
You can launch from the other campground as well, but it is around the river bend and not directly in front of the spring.
So, if you are not planning to kayak make sure to go to the Chassahowitzka River Campground.
Your chances of finding Manatees can be better with a kayak but the spring is right in front of the Chassahowitzka River Campground Boat Launch – and as I said earlier we never needed ours.
9 Ways to Spot a Manatee
- Look for a large, gray body. Manatees are typically around 10-12 feet long and weigh between 1,000-and 3,000 pounds. We joke they look like giant brown potatoes in the water.
- Keep an eye out for slow-moving animals. Manatees are very slow swimmers, so they’re not likely to zip past you in a hurry.
- Keep an eye out for snouts sticking up above the water surface. Manatees often come up for air every 20 minutes or less. This is how I usually spot them.
- Manatees often swim close to the shoreline.
- Be on the lookout for groups of manatees – they often travel together in herds. It is common to see a mother and calf together.
- You may also see large swirls or streaks in the water where a manatee has just submerged back under the water
- The easiest time of year to find manatees is approximately from December – to February. They are cold-sensitive animals and travel into Florida’s, always 72 degrees, spring-fed rivers to warm up in the winter months. The colder the day, the more you will find warming up in our FL Springs.
- Weekdays are better -when the rivers are less crowded. However, I’ve seen plenty on the weekends too! The earlier you go can the better, but I’m not a morning person so I have better success mid-day and late afternoon.
- Ask everyone that passes by you on the river if they have seen any – this is the #1 way I find them!
4 Important Tips for Keeping Yourself and Manatees Safe
- Manatees are endangered species protected by federal law, and even more, protected by the locals! Trust me, don’t mess with the proud south you could end up on the local news.
- Remember to give manatees plenty of space, and never harass or feed them. They are wild animals and not there for anyone’s entertainment.
- You are not allowed to touch, follow, or chase a manatee. However, there is one exception. You are allowed to touch them only if they choose to swim up to you (see my story above).
- I have an incredible story of a manatee interaction, but you don’t need to touch a manatee to have your own thrilling snorkeling experience. Honestly just finding one and getting to spend time with it in the water is a “bucket list” adventure.
What to Bring
- Swimsuit & a change of clothes
- Mask, snorkel, and fins — or water goggles and water shoes
- A wetsuit if you are worried about the cold. I hate the cold, but I forgot mine and was fine. I was too excited by the manatees to care. The water is always 72 degrees in the springs. You can usually rent wetsuits from any dive shop in the area.
- Anti-fog for your mask – my favorite is Spit Gel, and you can get it on Amazon
- Bonnie if you get motion sick (if you are not sure take the Bonnie – it does not make me or my husband drowsy). Available at drugstores or on Amazon
- Reusable water bottle
- Snacks or lunch
- GoPro or a waterproof phone for photos and videos
- Rental kayak. If you want to kayak and don’t have your own, you need to book in advance! During manatee season (especially on the weekends) it can be hard to find a rental kayak.
- Drybag for wallets, phones, and car keys
12 Unusual Manatee Facts
- Unlike our eyelids – manatee eyelids are circular and open and close like a camera lens
- Like drinking fresh water from hoses. In the FL Keys, you can find them hanging around boat docks hoping for a drink!
- Just like kids, Manatees body surf in the waves for fun!
- They are so slow that algae and barnacles attach and grow on their backs
- They sleep upside down! For up to 12 hours a day.
- Manatees can live up to 40 years old in the wild
- They eat a 10th of their body weight in seagrass every day. This is where their “Sea Cow” nickname comes from.
- They replace their teeth throughout their entire life, I’m guessing it’s from eating so much seagrass every day.
- They reproduce every 2-5 years and nurse their young from a nipple found in their “arm-pit”, where their front flipper meets their body.
- They are descended from Dugongs, which have forked tails like a dolphin and can still be found, across the planet, in the Indian Ocean.
- Even the Amazon has its own manatee, but little is known about this species.
- There is also a crazy idea floating around that Christopher Columbus mistook manatees for mermaids because of their tails – truth or urban legend? You decide.
Don’t Miss my Manatee Swimming Experience Video!
If you love animals, swimming with Florida manatees is something you should add to your bucket list.
Florida manatees are endangered, so every effort to understand and raise awareness about them is critical to their continued survival.
If you like this story be sure to read My Five Best Wildlife Moments!
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