The one place you can go
Though manatees live all over Florida, the only place you’re legally allowed to get in and swim around with them is Citrus County. It’s on the Gulf coast, about two hours northwest of Orlando and 90 minutes north of Tampa. Environmental protection laws otherwise restricted swimming with manatees, but as Citrus County's economy was dependent on manatee tourism, it was grandfathered in.
Two Citrus County towns offer manatee encounters: Crystal River and Homosassa. Crystal River is home to King’s Bay, the best-known manatee swimming area, where as much as 10% of the state’s sea cow population congregates. Here you’ll also find Three Sisters Spring, a natural spring that manatees flock to during the coldest months. Homosassa has Blue Springs, a freshwater spring under a natural aquifer where manatees come to find warm water.
And the best time to be there
Though it won’t exactly be beach weather, January and February are the best months to go. Manatees don’t actually have any blubber, and can’t thermoregulate. So when the water in the Gulf of Mexico dips below 64 degrees, they go searching for warmer water, and end up in Citrus County, where hundreds of natural springs -- including Kings, Magnolia, Hunter and Jurassic Springs -- also feed the bay. Between November and April this area attracts the highest natural concentration of manatees in the world.
“We had about 850 manatees out in Kings Bay one day earlier this year,” Engiles says. “The survey only has 6,500 in the whole state.”
Even in the off-season you're likely to find a handful of the gentle giants who decide Kings Bay is good enough for a permanent stay.
“We have about 30 to 60 manatees that live here year round, so operators are always running,” Engiles says. “You don’t see the number you do in the winter, in the summer the gulf is up around 90 degrees so they’re wherever they want to be eating. We only had two days last year where we didn’t see any.”
How many you see will vary from year to year. In 2015, for instance, Hunter Springs had a large number of manatees all summer long, but when a large dredging project started, the noises scared many of them off.