The manatee, Florida’s gentle giant, also known as the “sea cow” can be spotted in the largest numbers during winter and early spring. When water temperatures dip below 68 degrees manatees gravitate towards warmer waters. Florida’s 72-degree freshwater springs are an ideal respite for the warm-blooded mammals with the added benefit for us to be able to easily observe them in crystal 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 catch these true Florida natives, because as the summer approaches, these endearing creatures will scatter to warmer waterways.
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.
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 in the wild are located in Central Florida:
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.
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, 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 (or kayak) into a tree lined setting to get a closer look. A boardwalk, with viewing platforms has been built around the springs but at this time is only open on specific days of the year.
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 Nature Coast Kayak Tours. Owner Tracy Colson is one of the best area experts on manatees and wildlife.
Springs Bayou/Craig Park, Tarpon Springs (no link). A small community park with a freshwater spring attracts manatees from November through May.
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.
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.
Manatees in Captivity
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 observatory of manatees. During the winter, the gates to the spring are opened and the wild manatees can be viewed.
Protecting the Manatee
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.
For more of the in-depth story on Florida Manatees or for authentic ideas and travel, go to Authentic Florida. Sign up for Authentic Florida's free E-News, a bi-monthly newsletter featuring the latest Florida travel, food and living ideas.
Pictures courtesy of Nature Coast Kayak Tours