Discover the Best Places to See Florida's Manatees
Author: Robin Draper
Date: February 23, 2017 12:00 am
Category: Where to Go
Region: Central West Florida
Best Places to See Florida's Manatees
Find out the best places are to see Florida’s manatees as they congregate in large herds for the winter, swimming to the crystal clear warm Florida springs escaping cooler temperatures.
The manatee, Florida’s gentle giant, also known as the “sea cow” can be spotted in the largest numbers during the winter and early spring. When water temperatures dip below 68 degrees manatees gravitate towards warmer waters making Florida’s 72-degree freshwater springs an ideal respite for the warm-blooded mammals. The added benefit is that we can observe them in the clear water.
Manatees are often found congregating around bubbly springs, within state and marine water parks, or near power plants where the outflow of warm water keeps their body temperatures constant. Now is a good time to look for these true Florida natives, because as summer approaches, these endearing creatures will scatter.
Manatees, Three Sisters Spring, photo courtesy Discover Crystal River
Manatees are related to the elephant, with grayish thick, leathery wrinkled skin. Propelled by huge powerful tails but slow swimmers, they lumber along quietly through Florida’s waterways. If you look you can find them year around in Florida but it is much easier in cooler months when large numbers cluster near the temperate water.
As herbivores manatees usually dine on marine and freshwater plants, grazing along grass flats and aquatic meadows, surfacing for air every five minutes (or more) breathing through their whiskered nostrils. These gentle creatures are definitely heavyweights, tipping the scales anywhere between than 1,000-3,500 pounds and consuming up to ten percent of their body weight in marine vegetation each day. The females give birth to calves typically weighing more than 60 pounds and growing as they nurse under water.
Florida manatees, photo courtesy, Discover Crystal River
So where do you find a Florida manatee?
There are various places to see our state’s unique underwater mammals. Some locations have platforms where visitors may observe from lookout decks. Many parks have created boardwalks adjacent to waterways where manatees can be seen in mass.
Many Florida outdoor adventure outfitters specialize in manatee trips, either by boat, canoe or kayak where adventurers can get a closer look. But not too close, as there are strict rules about keeping a safe distance from the official marine mammal of the State of Florida. Expert guides are trained to spot the enormous creatures while providing information about how to both observe and protect these endangered species.
Two of the most popular locations in Florida to see manatees are located in Central Florida: Blue Spring State Park and Crystal River
Boardwalk, Blue Spring State Park
Located north of Orlando and west of Orange City, Blue Spring State Park is a designated manatee refuge and ideal for viewing. The refreshing, 72-degree water of Blue Spring is welcome warmth from the cooler St. Johns River. A half-mile boardwalk borders the Blue Spring Run, the main manatee viewing area, with the translucent spring on one end and the St. Johns River on the other. Interpretive displays along the boardwalk provide history and education about the wildlife (particularly manatees) and the ecological wonders of the area.
Blue Spring State Park where manatees congregate
Manatee, courtesy William Gavin
North of Tampa and west of Orlando, along Florida’s Gulf coast, Citrus County’s Crystal River has an abundance of freshwater springs. Known for its first magnitude spring system originating in Kings Bay, it has the distinction of being the largest gathering area for Florida manatees in the United States. This is the one of the few locations where you can snorkel and swim (from a distance) with the manatees.
Crystal River's Three Sisters Springs, courtesy Discover Crystal River
Crystal River's Three Sisters Springs managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, is considered one of Florida’s “crown jewels”. It resembles a secluded swimming hole and one of the most beautiful springs in all of Florida, while serving as a popular destination for manatees. Local outfitters transport visitors by boat outside the enclosed area while swimmers snorkel into a tree lined setting to get a closer look. Also, a walking boardwalk, with viewing platforms has been built around the springs but at this time is open via tours through River Adventures. For a guided kayak tour try the Florida Kayak Company.
Another favorite paddle ride is on Citrus County's Homosassa River. Launch at the Old Homosassa public ramp and paddle upriver towards the Ellie Schiller Homosasa Springs Wildlife State Park, an easy one-hour ride. Old Florida scenery and charming homes line the river as boaters cruise by. Blue Water is your destination where manatees congregate before they travel into the park. This is a prime location for manatee observation and a favorite with paddlers.
Boats transport divers outside the springs to view the manatees
Here are some additional locations for manatee viewing in Florida’s outdoors:
Citrus County’s Chassahowitzka River, south of Homosassa Springs and considered one of the most scenic rivers in all of Florida. I recommend you travel with a guide unless you know the area as you will get more from your visit and spot more wildlife, especially manatees. Try Carla at Kayak Karavan who is from the area.
Hernando County's Weeki Wachee River flows over seven miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Manatees travel up and own the river often in route to the warm Weeki Wachee Springs. You may want to start at the Weeki Wachee Springs Park or take an easy kayak down the translucent waterway with a shallow sandy bottom. The slow, easy, five-mile, three-hour kayak paddle downstream is an ideal day on the water. Paddling Adventures, located adjacent to the Weeki Wachee Park, will provide equipment and tips for an enjoyable kayak ride. You’ll paddle under a shady natural canopy of cypress and oak trees while enjoying plenty of wildlife. They also provides transportation back to the park, making it an easy one way, downstream paddle.
Springs Bayou/Craig Park, Tarpon Springs (no link). A small community park with a freshwater spring attracts manatees from November through May.
Mosquito Lagoon, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
A manatee observation area is located within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The location is where the Haulover Canal connects the Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River. (Call the NWR before you go, as the sightings are variable.) Also, across the street at Bairs Cove Boat ramp manatees are often spotted. You might want to consider contacting A Day Away Kayak Tours for trips through the area where you can get closer.
During the cooler months, manatees travel up the Suwannee River in search of Florida’s springs. Manatee Springs State Park has a connected run that leads manatees into the spring area. Call ahead before going. Best times to view are November through April.
Located in Fort Myers Beach, Lovers Key is a popular destination for the manatees particularly in the canal areas. The park ranger will give you tips on best places. Rentals boats and kayaks are available.
The Warm Water Flow: Manatees Congregate at Power Plants
An easy way to see manatees is adjacent to power plants situated on or near bodies of water. The discharge of warm water from the industrial station sends a steady stream of warm water creating a hospitable environment for the manatees.
Tampa Electric created the Manatee Viewing Center after people began seeing manatees congregating near the Big Bend Power Station discharge canal. Designated as a manatee sanctuary, the Apollo Beach location has a manatee educational center.
Visitors to Manatee Lagoon can view Florida manatees as thes gentle giants huddle in the warm-water outflows of Florida Power & Light Company’s (FPL) Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center.
Located on Florida’s east coast, the Center is managed by Ft. Pierce Power Authority but no longer physically connected to the power plant. Overlooking Moore’s Creek that runs into the Indian River Lagoon, the Center provides a resting spot for manatees with a boardwalk and observation deck providing viewing opportunities. Swampland Tours and Lisa’s Kayaks provide adventure tours to get on the water for closer observation.
Situated across the street from Florida Power & Light Company, the Manatee Park is located on the discharge canal. It is a walking park with boardwalks and plenty of opportunity to see the mammals. Guided kayak tours are also offered by Florida Naturalists by calling the Calusa Blueway Outfitters.
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, Wakulla Springs (South of Tallahassee)
The Wakulla Springs State Park is not only one of the best state parks in all of Florida with the deepest freshwater spring, it is also a haven for manatees. The park boat tours will point out the wintering manatees and plenty of wildlife in the park. March through September is the best time of year for viewing.
Wakulla River, South of Tallahassee
Wakulla River and the St. Marks River, North Florida
Manatees can be viewed year around, but especially when they are traveling to the warm Wakulla Springs. T-N-T Hide-A-Way offers Manatee Observation Tours.
Manatees in Captivity
Homosassa Springs State Park Manatee Observatory
Many tourist attractions offer the chance to see manatees (Miami Seaquarium, Sea World, and Epcot) but here are some good alternatives for seeing manatees in captivity:
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Park also offers an underwater manatee observatory called the "fishbowl." During the winter, the gates to the spring are opened and the wild manatees can be viewed.
South Florida Museum, Bradenton (Snooty, the resident manatee is the oldest known in captivity)
One important thought about your manatee adventure. Call ahead if you are hoping to see manatees in a natural setting. Most parks or outfitters will tell you if they have been spotted that day. The unpredictability of weather can make the sightings erratic, so it saves time to check.
If you’re not able to get out before the end of spring, take heart, manatees are still present in Florida. If you are on a boat, and particularly a kayak, you are more than likely to see manatees throughout the year but they will be in stealth mode, quietly grazing in the shallows of rivers, the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic seaboard.
Protecting the Manatee
Florida Manatee, photo courtesy, Discover Crystal River
There are many threats to these endangered creatures. The greatest ones are the destruction of their coastal and freshwater habitats, careless boaters driving too quickly through “manatee zones” often scarring and killing the animals with sharp boat propellers. And one of the hardest realities is global climate change that continues to affect both temperature and water quality. But don’t lose hope - education and awareness will go a long way in creating a better future for the manatee, its environment and us as well.
For information and tips on how you can help the manatee, visit the Save the Manatee website. Also, a highly recommended YouTube video is called Manatee Manners that provides an excellent overview of our gentle giants.
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About the Author: Robin Draper is a Florida native and blogger devoted to the simple and delightful pleasures for Florida living. This article is connected to Robin's Google+ profile.
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