From left, Nicky Christiansen, Mike Christiansen Sr., Mike Christiansen Jr., Kathleen Christiansen and Anthony Christiansen go on a Manatee Tour and Dive manatee snorkeling tour on July 21, 2018, in Kings Bay in Crystal River. (Kathleen Christiansen/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Swim with the manatees – legally – in Florida’s Crystal River

On a recent trip with my in-laws, my husband and I decided to do something different, something that would capture the interest of my animal-obsessed sister-in-law. After searching for what seemed like hours on Groupon, we came upon Manatee Tour and Dive in Crystal River — about 87 miles northwest of Orlando, Fla. — which offers the chance to swim with manatees.

Decision made.

Groupon deals are only offered during the summer, which is generally a slower time for manatee tours because there isn’t as large a population of manatees in Crystal River then. The best time to go is November through April, when manatees flee to warm water springs.

Driving up to Manatee Tour and Dive, you’ll likely first spot the kayaks, which can be rented. After confirming our reservation inside, we were led outside to be fitted for wetsuits which helps guests to float.

Every tour has a captain and a guide; ours were Shellie Mitchell (who’s also a tour guide) and Mark Mekelberg, respectively.

After we donned our suits, which takes a little time to get used to, we watched a short introduction video of manatee dos and don’ts — from “do practice passive observation” to “don’t poke the manatees” — followed by a short walk down the road to the docks.

We hopped aboard the boat, and off we went to explore Kings Bay. Throughout the tour, Mekelberg and Mitchell shared facts about Florida manatees — and helpful, offering guests assistance with everything from de-fogging masks to clearing snorkels.

Our first trip off the boat was just to practice techniques — the best way to get down the ladder, how to dead float around the manatees so as not to startle them and how to swim in the bay. A tip from the guides: Cross your legs to prevent yourself from kicking in the water, which stirs up muck, decreasing visibility.

We re-boarded the boat to go to a location where other tour groups had seen a manatee, when Mekelberg told Mitchell to slow down — he had spotted a manatee no one had seen yet on that day.

The tour filed into the water, following Mekelberg’s pink noodle to locate the manatee. We saw the sea cow cycle through most of its daily functions: eating, swimming, sleeping and coming to the surface for air. And Mekelberg even identified the manatee as a male.

One person on my tour asked if the manatee could do any tricks, to which the manatee responded by passing gas.

Unfortunately, when one tour stops, word spreads and other tours swing by to see the manatee. That’s when we took off.

A male manatee wakes from his nap to come up for a breath of air during a manatee snorkeling tour on July 21, 2018, in Crystal River. (Kathleen Christiansen/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
Photo: Kathleen Christiansen/TNS

Our last stop before heading back was a spring about 15 feet deep. As my family posed for a photo in our gear, a manatee swam by, bringing our sea cow count up to two. We were lucky because some summer tours don’t get the chance to see even one manatee.

On our way back to the docks, we got one last surprise: A mama manatee swimming with a calf.

During the busier manatee season, Manatee Tour and Dive (36 N.E. 4th St., Crystal River) offers more time slots and uses more boats. Tours last about two hours and cost $57.20 per person.

In addition to the manatee snorkeling tour, Manatee Tour and Dive also offers scallop, kayak and sightseeing tours. For more information, go to

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