If we have learned anything from the ongoing pandemic, it’s the value of quality family time. For years my wife and I contemplated taking a Florida vacation with our kids but time, bills and other roadblocks seemed to get it our way. Months of quarantine finally jolted our priorities and last December we decided to go “all in” and take a once-in-a-lifetime vacation that we’ve been dreaming of for years. Our trip of course included a budget-breaking week in Orlando to see a magical mouse, but I wanted our vacation to be more than just spending our hard-earned time off at Disney.
Crystal River, Fla., which is about an hour and a half drive from the Disney World resort, is best known for its manatee sightings. Florida manatees move into warmer waters when the water temperature drops below about 68 degrees Fahrenheit and this coastal city in western Florida shelters manatees year-round.
Places such as Captain Mike’s Swimming With The Manatee offer a variety of tours during the peak winter season that let you get up close and personal with these amazing sea creatures. As a life-long boater and a frequent visitor to Florida, swimming with the manatees is something I’ve always wanted to experience but never did. To be fair, I’ve had previous opportunities, but this was something I wanted to do with my wife and kids and this trip was my chance.
Any half-hearted Google search will bring up options for the area if you’re interested in seeing manatees, but based on my own experience there is only one place I would recommend and that’s Captain Mike’s Swimming With The Manatees. I started my research which led me to their informative website, and everything I needed to know to make my decision on which tour I wanted was available online. My sister and her family would be joining us for a total of 10, so the Silver Tour that provided us our own private pontoon made the most sense for our group.
Justin Strickland, the manager a Captain Mike’s, is very knowledgeable and extremely helpful. He and his staff were able to answer any questions we had and we made our reservation.
The drive from Orlando was a breeze and you could feel the excitement in the 10-passenger van as we made our way to Crystal River. Headquarters for Captain Mike’s is part of a Best Western hotel, which makes it really easy if you’re coming from a long distance and would prefer to stay close. We began by getting fitted for our full-body wetsuits, goggles and snorkel that is all included with the tour. You truly just need to show up with your swimsuit and they take care of the rest.
We had a short instruction meeting followed by a required safety video on how to respect the manatee and then we were out the hotel doors and heading towards the dock and our most exciting adventure of our trip.
Having a fun and an energetic guide makes all the difference and Captain Mike’s employees are some of the best including Captain Tom Byersdoerfer. We boarded a fully-enclosed pontoon (hey, blame it on my day job but of course I was going to pick a manatee tour that included pontoon boats) and headed out on the water. It was just the 10 of us so we had this spacious pontoon to ourselves and the canvas enclosure kept us comfortable and protected from any wind. Captain Tom was very personable as well as knowledgeable as he explained and gave details to the six kids in the group who had never been to the state of Florida before, let alone seen a manatee up close.
Going For A Swim
The wetsuits do more than just keep you warm; they actually provide a little buoyancy too and then Captain Tom passed around noodle floats so we floated comfortably on top of the water as we watched for manatee. If you stand or walk in the shallow water your visibility decreases as the water becomes murky from your feet touching the bottom so it’s best to float. We were surprised a couple of times to be floating along and then all of sudden find ourselves face-to-face with a manatee. It’s a little startling at first, but they really are gentle giants and it’s so amazing to be so close.
The season for Captain Mike’s Swimming With The Manatees runs from mid-November to mid-March--this is the peak season for manatee sightings. The company began in 2002 just doing the variety of manatee tours but eventually branched off to include kayak, boat and standup paddleboard rentals for those interested in creating your own tour. For a bunch of first-timers like our combined family, the guided tour was the clear choice and this experience was truly a memory-maker.
If there was a downside to our tour, it’s that it only flamed the desire for all of us to return soon and do it again, which works for this dad.
For more information on Captain Mike’s Swimming With The Manatees that is located at 614 NW US-19 in Crystal River, Fla., call 352-571-1888 or visit www.swimmingwiththemanatees.com.