Love manatees and dugongs? Here’s where you can swim with them

by   Profile Kathryn   When 21st November 2023
Marsa Alam
Marsa Alam
Shark Bay
Shark Bay

The gentle giants of the sea, manatees and dugongs have captured the hearts of many with their endearing presence and unique charm. There's something truly magical about encountering these graceful creatures up close, and fortunately, there are places around the world where you can make that dream a reality.

In this article, we'll dive into the top destinations that offer you the chance to meet and even swim with manatees and dugongs. From crystal-clear springs to idyllic tropical islands, these destinations hold the promise of unforgettable marine encounters during your next dive vacation.

Get to know manatees and dugongs:

  • Manatees and dugongs are large, weighing up to 1,500 kilograms.

  • Both manatees and dugongs primarily feed on seagrass.

  • Manatees can be found in North and South America, Africa, and the Caribbean.

  • Dugongs inhabit waters along the coasts of the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific Ocean.

  • These creatures can live for 40 to 60 years.

  • Human activities, habitat loss, and boat collisions are among the threats they face.

What is the main difference between manatees and dugongs?

Manatees have paddle-like tails, while dugongs have fluked tails, similar to that of a whale. Additionally, manatees are known to inhabit both freshwater and saltwater habitats, whereas dugongs primarily reside in saltwater environments.

Top places to meet and swim with manatees:

Crystal River, Florida

Crystal River is a well-known place to swim with manatees and is renowned for its Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary for the Florida manatee. During the colder months, hundreds of manatees gather here for the warmth of its natural springs. You can take guided tours to snorkel and swim with these gentle giants, offering an intimate and educational experience.

As well as being one of the world’s most sought-after dive destinations, Belize has around 1,000 manatees. These gorgeous animals are found along the entire coast of Belize and three marine reserves offer year-round manatee tours:

  • Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

  • Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary.

  • Gales Point Manatee Wildlife Sanctuary.

Boat tours provide opportunities for spotting these animals and you also have a chance to see them while snorkeling in Belize. The clear blue waters promise encounters with diverse marine life and also offer great dive conditions, making Belize a must-visit destination for divers.

Playa del Carmen, Mexico

This coastal town offers unique, conservation-focused encounters with manatees. Head to the Xel-Há Park, where you can swim with manatees in a safe and supervised environment. Here, you'll not only experience the thrill of interacting with manatees but also learn about their biology and conservation.

Alligator Hole, Jamaica

Jamaica's Alligator Hole Lagoon is a haven for the West Indian manatee. Although swimming with them is not permitted, you can join an educational tour to observe these gentle giants in their natural habitat. This river is home to resident manatees that have been cut off from the sea, and they swim upriver each afternoon to be fed by local conservationists, making sightings pretty much guaranteed.

Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

Tortuguero's stunning network of waterways is home to manatees and the surrounding forests are full of life. This is a wildlife-rich destination, home to 60 mammal species, plus a famous sea turtle nesting area that hosts around 22,500 female turtles every year. While swimming with manatees is not permitted due to conservation concerns, you can explore the park's many wonders and meet the manatees on guided boat tours. Witnessing these creatures amid lush, forested landscapes is an experience to cherish.

Top places to meet and swim with dugongs:

Palawan, Philippines

Palawan was once voted as the second most beautiful island in the world by Condé Nast Traveler and it’s easy to see why. With its turquoise waters, white sand beaches, dolphins, and sea turtles, Palawan is a paradise for scuba divers. Added to that, this destination is also home to around 30 dugongs, and its seagrass meadows provide essential habitat for them. Join a dugong eco-tour to meet Palawan’s dugongs by boat and for the chance to go snorkeling or diving with them.

Shark Bay, Western Australia

Shark Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Western Australia and is home to around 10,000 dugongs. You can take part in guided tours that allow you to observe these creatures from the water's surface, respecting their need for space. The dugongs' presence is just one of the many treasures this unique marine environment offers; Shark Bay hosts more than 28 shark species, over 300 species of fish, and an array of corals and bivalves.

Moreton Bay, Australia

Moreton Bay, near Brisbane, is another top spot for dugong spotting in Australia. This bay hosts around 600 to 800 dugongs and, unlike other places, they are often spotted in herds of around 100 animals. While swimming with the dugongs is not permitted, you can meet Moreton Bay’s dugong up close on a boat tour that also includes dolphin, whale and sea turtle spotting. These tours provide valuable insights into the lives of dugongs and the conservation efforts to protect their habitats.

Abu Dabbab, Egypt

Abu Dabbab is a partially enclosed bay close to Marsa Alam and is one of the most renowned snorkeling spots in the Red Sea. This bay has lush seagrass beds that host numerous green sea turtles and dugongs. You can go snorkeling among the turtles and dugongs just off the beach, in calm, warm waters. There is also great diving available from Marsa Alam, with vibrant coral reefs teeming with life. All of which makes this a great place to encounter dugong whilst enjoying the many highlights of diving in Egypt.

Encountering manatees and dugongs is a privilege that offers a deeper connection to the marine world and raises awareness about the importance of their conservation. Whether you're captivated by their gentle nature or cute appearance, spending time with these animals is a life-changing experience.

When you go swimming with these majestic creatures, remember to approach them with respect, keeping their well-being and preservation at the forefront of your mind. For more information about where to swim with manatees and dugongs, and to find dive centers at your preferred destination, check out SSI’s MyDiveGuide.

Kathryn Curzon, a shark conservationist and dive travel writer for SSI (Scuba Schools International), wrote this article.

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Profile Kathryn
When 21st November 2023
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