What comes to mind when you think of Florida? Theme parks? High-rise beach condos? What if I told you that Florida is home to the world’s largest community of wild manatees and that you can literally take a dip with them as they rest in the turquoise waters of Crystal River.

No entry fees, no barriers – just you and hundreds of enormous creatures with cute, pudgy faces and the disposition of a gentle – and extremely lazy – puppy.

Hordes of these endangered manatees come to Crystal River (just north of Tampa) every winter to rest in the warmer waters of the spring-fed river. And although they are protected there’s nothing stopping you from passively observing these beautiful creatures in their natural environment.

Tourism brochures and the visitor centre will most likely hide this fact from you – preferring to send you to see the manatees on a paid cruise or diving group. But the river system is a public waterway meaning boating, fishing, paddling and swimming is all allowed (with a few extra rules to ensure the safety of the manatees).

Crystal River is located on the west coast of Florida, 1.5 hour’s drive from both Orlando and Tampa.

The majority of the manatees snooze together at the warm Three Sisters Spring – which is located inside a protected nature reserve/manatee sanctuary where entering the water is prohibited (see roped off area in the picture below). Access from the water however is a free for all – as long as you paddle gently, idle on boats and respect resting manatees.

Opportunities to get so close to large animals like this in their natural habitat are extremely rare these days and usually cost an arm and a leg. Back in Australia we contemplated paying $400 each to swim with whale sharks and have heard of people paying up to $200 to swim with captive dolphins.

So as soon as we arrived in Crystal River and realised we could just paddle out on our own and take as long as we wanted to observe the Manatees we went and reserved two stand-up paddles from Hunter Springs Kayaks and unpacked our wetsuits, snorkels and flippers.

Having stand up paddles meant we were able to explore the whole Crystal River waterway at our own pace and gave us easy access to the water. You can also hire kayaks, canoes or cruise to the manatees on a boat.

Literally a minute after we started our paddle towards the Three Sisters Spring we saw our first couple of manatees. And soon after we realised just how many of these creatures live in the Crystal River waterways – they were everywhere!

We decided just to observe the manatees from our boards until we reached Three Sisters.

Once we arrived at the Three Sisters sanctuary we made sure we read and understood all the rules regarding swimming with and around the manatees. Instructions below.

Finally we tied up our paddle boards, donned our snorkelling gear and dove into the crystal clear waters. Straight away you appreciate the enormous size of the manatees. Although an average manatee measures around 3 metres, they seem a LOT bigger under water and when they are right beside you.

We spent a good couple of hours swimming just outside the roped off sanctuary area. In this time we witnessed dozens of manatees passing in and out of the sanctuary and had countless close encounters when they swam right beneath us or passed by just centimetres away.

Although manatees are a large mammal – many measuring longer and heavier than dolphins or sharks – they are completely harmless to humans and utterly docile.

The gentle nature of these creatures is wonderful to witness and certainly strengthened our appreciation of nature that much more.

After two hours in the cold water we decided to warm up and paddle back to the boat ramp we started from. The sun was shining, the waters were turquoise blue and our eyes were lit up with the wonder and beauty of what we’d just done.

Swimming with these incredible creatures has got to be the highlight of our entire trip so far – we can’t recommend it enough! Check out some more photos to see what we mean: