Watching a Child Grow with Wonder: Swimming With Manatees in Florida

manatee in Crystal River Florida

There’s so much crap out there when it comes to family travel. You’ll visit blogs and parenting sites that give you 1,001 tips for doing Disney or lists of parks and children’s museums to stop at where ever you go. Unfortunately, this isn’t the kind of travel that adults typically enjoy, and for many, traveling with their kids becomes a chore. It’s not such a tedious endeavor, however, when you kind find places and experiences that everyone will love. What will everyone love? Swimming with manatees.

My six-year-old son knew all about whales and dolphins and sharks, and even about that fish that Dory is, but he had no clue what a manatee was. (It’s not one of those animals that you can easily find at an aquarium or one that comes up in regular chats about creatures that live in the ocean.) When we couldn’t find a way to explain manatees adequately, my husband pulled out Google on his phone, got a picture for the boy, and described them as “sea puppies”. Nothing could have made a child more excited to see one up close.

Finally, it was time to travel to Florida. Woo hoo! Understandably, we were exhausted after a long day at Disney, but I had my heart set on driving clear across the state of Florida to hop in the water with some manatees, and no one fought me on this front. We got up before the sun and made the trek without complaint.

boy in Crystal River, Florida

My husband, son, and I had a good laugh as we all tried to squeeze ourselves into wet suits — apparently the water in the canals in Florida can still be chilly in March. We weren’t deterred, however, and promptly boarded our boat. After roughly two minutes, we arrived to the little area where the manatees hung out and soon spotted big floating blobs in the water. The tour company unleashed us.

I daintily let myself down into the water. It wasn’t even that cold, but the non-shock of being fully submerged was more than I could handle apparently. It took me a few minutes to catch my breath. In those few minutes, my son figured out how to snorkel and completely put me to shame. I caught my breath and followed my boys through the canal on a search for a manatee.

You have to lightly breaststroke through the water because too much commotion scares the gentle giants, and no one wants that on a swim with manatee excursion. The noodles our guide gave us helped, but it was still challenging, and trying to keep my body upright left me with some seriously sore abs the next day.

We were assured that the conditions were great, but the water was still murky and I found myself concentrating on the lovely beams of light that were streaming through the water and hitting the ground below me. As I admired these little treasures, I almost swam straight into a huge gray rock. Shit! That was actually a manatee.

I was in awe. These things were huge. It was just sitting there minding it’s own business, checking out our group without a care in the world. This big girl was actually a mama and my little boy was on the other side watching her baby. When she had had enough, she swam right under my son. He didn’t panic at all — which is probably what I would have done — but put his arms and legs up so he couldn’t accidentally touch her and stayed completely still until she passed, no more than six inches under him. It was amazing to see. It was even more amazing that he had listened so closely to directions. (I didn’t know he could do that.)

boy and dad snorkeling to swim with manatees

Not to long after this encounter, we came across another manatee who was as curious about us as we were about him. He even liked to give kisses. I’m not sure who was more impressed — myself or the six year old. I do know that the entire ride home was filled with a child’s detailed thoughts on conservation.

Swimming with manatees was always something I wanted to do, but I couldn’t have imagined how much more spectacular it was because I got to experience it with my kid. There is just nothing like seeing him try new things and become a better person because of it. That’s what travel does. It brings us together and makes us all better people. Better communicators, better swimmers, better in tuned with the environment, and even better manatee lovers. It never, ever hurts to throw a manatee into the travel mix. Try it out.

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