If elephants rule the African savannah, then manatees reign supreme in southern Florida. Gentle and trusting, manatees meander their way across the waterways of the Sunshine State from one natural spring to the next, delighting those that cross their path. While they tend to startle easily, their naturally curious nature tends to win out, giving patient swimmers a bucket list worthy experience and a chance to interact with one of the coolest creatures on the planet. If you're looking for a unique family activity or you're simply a die-hard animal lover, don't miss the chance to swim with the manatees in Florida.

Mermaid or Manatee?

These gentle creatures have fascinated explorers — and inspired mermaid myths — for centuries. Christopher Columbus wrote about what he believed to be mermaids way back when he first sailed the ocean blue. Years later, a skeleton arrived back in England for examination and nearly all the researchers deemed it as a mermaid bearing striking similarities to a female form. Even today it’s not uncommon for boaters and fishermen to spot them cautiously peeking their noses above the water, taking in the spectacle.

Gentle Giants

Despite weighing more than half a ton, manatees are incredibly graceful in the water. You can see them across southeastern Florida from mid-spring until late autumn. However, the best time to swim with them is in wintertime. That’s when the waters are a mild 70-degrees and the sea cows enjoy ambling their way across the fresh waters to hover near the natural springs. Two of the best locations for seeing the Florida manatees are in Blue Spring State Park and in Crystal River. Both locations offer snorkeling and guided boat tours for exclusive access to these mellow mammals.

Get on their Level

Although West Indian manatees were removed from the US Endangered Species list in 2016, seeing them in the wild is still considered a special treat. Most parks, like Crystal River and Blue Spring State Park, are protected areas that keep these special creatures away from heavily commercialized areas. When you swim with them, embrace the experience: stay calm and don’t make any sudden movements. If you do it right, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most memorable travel experiences in the world — and possibly even a smooch!