Caribbean Manatee Encounters

Three tropical destinations where you can swim with manatees in the wild


If the thought of coming across a 2,000-pound animal in the water sounds scary, then you haven’t met a manatee, aka a “sea cow.” These gentle giants pose no threat to humans, and encounters are more likely to evoke smiles than shrieks. Florida is famous for it’s manatee sightings, but you can also find them in the waters of several Caribbean destinations. Here are three of our favorite destinations for finding manatees in the wild.

Manatee Caribbean

Proper manatee encounters dictate that the animal may approach humans, but should not be chased or harassed if they choose to keep their distance. Photo: iStock


The coast of Belize is flanked by a string of small islands known as Cayes. Between these islands and the mainland lies a coastal lagoon of mangrove forests and hidden tidal creeks that provide shelter for the Caribbean’s largest manatee population. The popularity of manatee encounters hasn’t escaped the notice of local tour operators, and today you can find dozens of outfits that that offer manatee viewing and snorkeling adventures. The good news for the sea cows is that they have protection; there are currently three sanctuaries where human and manatee can meet.

Tours originating from Belize City or Caye Caulker most often visit the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary. Less visited and more private are the Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, which is near the Mexican border, and Gales Point Manatee Wildlife Sanctuary, which is to the south. To encourage responsible tourism practices, we suggest you book your manatee tours with a company that adheres to established interaction guidelines.


Along the Yucatan coast known as the Riviera Maya there are several tourism parks that offer in-water encounters with manatees and dolphins. If you are ethically opposed to this type of activity, or simply want to see manatee in their natural state, keep driving south to the town of Tulum, and book a wilderness tour to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

This UNESCO World Heritage site encompasses 1.5 million acres of pristine coastal wetlands that can be explored by kayak or small boat. A favorite tour includes a swim and snorkel in the clear- water lake known as the Natural Pool, and a network of adjoining mangrove channels where there’s a good chance of spotting a manatee.

Dominican Republic

Though the DR is better known for it’s numerous beach resorts than its eco adventures, the country’s northern coast is actually one of the best places in the Caribbean to swim with manatees in the wild. Near the seaside village of Estero Hondo, a coastal estuary has become the country’s first Marine Mammal Sanctuary. The resident population of manatees is relatively small in number, but they are healthy and quite willing to share their aquatic habitat with humans.

Tours are run by the Ministry of the Environment, using small boats to access the mangrove-lined tidal channels where the manatee feed, rest and raise their young. The sanctuary is also home to a rich diversity of bird life, and the park’s visitor center overlooks a pristine beach. Together these attractions make a visit to this somewhat remote corner of the country well worth the drive.