Everything about this moment feels wrong.

It’s Saturday and we’re up before dawn. The temperature is barely above freezing. We’re wrapped in scarves, gloves, our warmest jackets, and getting ready to go – of all things – swimming.

Winters in Florida are prime manatee viewing times. Hundreds of these 1,000-plus pound marine mammals gather in the springs to wait out the winter in the 72-degree water. Citrus County, about 90 minutes north of Tampa, is especially popular with the endangered vegetarians.

And unlike the rest of the country, heck unlike the rest of North America, Citrus County is the only place where you can legally swim with the manatee in its natural habitat. You just have to be willing to get a little chilly.

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All aboard! Photo by Captain Ross Files of the Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop.

At the Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop that Saturday morning, Captain Ross Files sizes up Greg and me and hands us each a wetsuit. Our group – a family from Denmark, a man from nearby Deland, and an Oregon couple on a road trip from Disney – stand in our skintight wetsuits in the dive center’s gift shop, an awkward group of human seals amid rows of manatee t-shirts, magnets and stuffed animals. Outside we can see steam rising off the river.

Crystal River, FL

Sunrise on the Crystal River.

The sun rises as our pontoon boat skims across the water. Ospreys fly overhead and the occasional cormorant dries its wings on a mangrove branch.

We turn into a wide canal lined with other boats, kayaks and paddle boards. The water is punctured by circles of snorkels and the occasional manatee snout coming up for air.

The rules regarding the interaction between manatees and people are strict. Before we set sail we had watched the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Manatee Manners video.

The agency allows for “passive observation” of manatees in the water. This means you can swim with and even pet the massive mammals, provided the manatee approaches you first. Undercover wildlife officers patrol the springs to monitor the behavior of swimmers and boaters. Mistreat a manatee and you could face up to a year in jail or a $100,000 fine.

manatee in crystal river

Come on, these guys are adorable. Photo by Captain Ross Files of the Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop

As Captain Ross leads us into the water, he says it’s important to go with a guide who swims with you, walking you through the encounter for the most manatee-friendly experience.

I’m the last off the boat. The 72 degree water feels surprisingly warm. At first.

Then I get chest-deep. That’s when I start hyperventilating. Between the cold air, the cool water, and the fact that I’m not the world’s strongest swimmer, my body just freaks out.

I try to follow the group, but I can’t breathe. The snorkel amplifies my erratic breathing as I doggy-paddle awkwardly back to the boat. Other swimmers stare.

While Greg and the rest of the crew are rubbing manatee bellies, getting flipper hugs, and enduring the inspection of curious calves, I sit shivering on the boat.

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Those who didn’t freak out in the cold water get face to face with the manatees. Photo by Captain Ross Files of the Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop

My only company is a little girl from Denmark who doesn’t speak English. She couldn’t handle the cold water either. A woman about my mom’s age is also onboard, bundled in her coat, a scarf and boots. She came along for the boat ride but knew it would be too cold to swim.

Smart.

Suddenly she calls to me from the back of the boat.

“Look!!” she says. “They’re everywhere!”

Sure enough, four or five manatees are gathered near the anchor. They inspect the rope and move on. Others come up for air just a few feet away. A baby and mama float by.

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Extreme manatee closeup! Photo by Captain Ross Files of the Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop

I grew up in a small town just south of here and spent my childhood summers swimming and tubing down these rivers. But I’ve never seen anything like this.

Captain Ross comes back to check on me and the girl from Denmark. She has already taken off her suit and is quite happy to never step foot in the river again. He convinces me to give it another go.

I grab a life jacket and slip back in the water. Breathe slow, he says. A manatee appears a few minutes later. I get to pet it. It’s amazing.

Swimming with manatees

Take two in the cold water. Success! Photo by Captain Ross Files of the Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop

Rather than follow him back to the springs, I stay by the boat. The water’s murkier, but I can stand here. Manatees come and go. They sniff the muddy ground beneath my feet. My friends on the boat call out instructions: “take three steps to your left and you’ll see a baby!” “There’s a big one on your right!” “Look behind you!”

There’s something primeval about seeing a creature ten times your size materialize next to you in the water; hearing it chirp and squeak as it floats by; watching the sun sparkle on the propellor scars that slash its back.

swimming with manatees

Photo by Captain Ross Files of the Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop

After a few hours, the rest of the crew comes back from the spring. Our boat ride out here was quiet. Families kept to themselves. Couples spoke only to each other. But after the swim, everyone can’t stop talking about what they saw.

“Did you see the mother and that tiny calf?” “I swear I saw its eyes trying to focus on me.” “It suckled on my foot!”

This is common, Captain John Pann, the dive shop’s manager tells me. “It’s a life-changing experience for most folks.”

We were guests of the Plantation on Crystal River. No one reviewed this article before it was published. All opinions here are our own.

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