Not only kids have curiosity about animals. Travel & Leisure magazine article 12 Places to Swim with Animals states "your travel bucket list just got 12 items longer." The article included swimming with manatees in Florida as one of the twelve places. I admit it was on my list.
All three species of manatees (West Indian, West African, Amazonians) have endangered animal status. The Florida Manatee and Anitillean Manatees are subspecies of the West Indian species. If you are a globe trotter, perhaps you visit the Anitillean Manatee in Puerto Rico or Mexico or the African Manatee in Kissama National Park in Angola, Africa. Boat traffic and cold stress from temperatures below 68 degrees present risk factors for manatees. If you go on a tour, the guide will reinforce instructions on how to observe without disturbing and rules such as not touching the manatees.
One of the few places to swim or snorkel with the Florida manatees is the Crystal River, north of Tampa. A tour makes it easy, providing you wet suits and a short boat ride (under 30 minutes). Make certain to arrive early to watch the mandatory regulations video. Related to the elephants, these gentle giants or "sea cows" typically grow to 10 feet in length and can weigh over 3,000 lbs. Manatees can live 50 to 60 years.
We saw manatees both active and swimming around us and manatees sleeping at lower levels. Even during napping, manatees surface for air every twenty minutes. Manatees eat large quantities of vegetation each day including sea grass, aquatic plants, algae, and mangrove leaves. These friendly creatures swim gracefully. It's a magical treat to swim near them.
If you take a Crystal River tour, swimming skills help. You'll likely be in cool water for an hour and a half. There's many places to observe manatees including these 9 places:
1. Citrus County's Homosassa River, paddle toward Ellie Schuller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
2. Weeki Wachee River, warm Weeki Wachee Springs; check out Paddling Adventures located next to Weeiki Wachee Springs Park for a 5 mile, 3 hour paddle
3. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge observation area near Cape Canaveral, plus look nearby at Bairs Cove Boat Ramp
4. Manatee Springs State Park Chiefland, Suwanee River, 100 million gallons of clear water comes from the springs
5. Blue Spring State Park, north of Orlando, although access prohibited in winter
6. Edward Ball Wakulla Spring Park, Wakulla Springs, the deepest freshwater spring in FL
7. Lee County Park, Fort Meyers, discharge canal from electric company, check out Calusa Blueway Outfitters
8. Manatee Lagoon, West Palm Beach, near electric company
9. TECO Manatee Viewing Center, Apollo Beach near discharge canal
Experts estimate the total Florida manatee population at approximately 4,000, so you are not guaranteed to spot a manatee. If you don't want to disappoint your kids, consider the Lowry Park Zoo or Miami Seaquarium.