Winter is your best time to spot manatees
If Florida’s endangered species held a beauty pageant, the manatee wouldn’t win for its looks.
But it would be a shoo-in for Miss Congeniality.
That’s why most Florida residents and visitors prize any opportunity to admire manatees. They’re just charming creatures.
I’m lucky. I live on the Middle River in Fort Lauderdale and I see manatees in my backyard with some regularity, especially in winter.
The best place to see manatees, however, are in Florida’s springs because the clear water allows you to see more than a snout or back briefly emerging from the water and, in winter, the warmer spring waters draw manatees for an annual spa vacation.
You can see manatees is Florida waters any time of year, but they are more commonly spotted from November to March, when they gather in places with warmer water. The suggestions here are for winter viewing of manatees.
Florida’s springs offer some terrific manatee viewing opportunities and the best of all is Blue Spring State Park . When are manatees in Blue Spring? It depends on the weather.
In 2013, there were 23 manatees in the spring when a census was done Oct. 28. The spring’s usual schedule is to close it to swimmers and and kayakers from Nov. 15 to March 15, when manatees are generally present. If weather keeps manatees in residence later, the park may delay re-opening the spring to swimmers and boaters.
The most reliably chilly weather, and thus the best manatee viewing at Blue Springs, is in January.
The Orlando Sentinel shot some captivating video of the manatees and the researchers who count them. You also can watch live manatees in real time via the webcam at Blue Spring from Save the Manatee organization.
Blue Spring has an extensive walkway around the water, offering many vantage points of the manatees. You cannot swim or kayak in the spring in the winter, to avoid disrupting manatee life.
If you go to Blue Spring State Park in the winter, be aware that at times the park closes its gates when it reaches capacity. One year when that happened to us, we came back 45 minutes before closing time and managed to gain admission and see an incredible gathering of manatees. If possible, go on a weekday.
I’ve had a magical experience kayaking with manatees on the Weeki Wachee spring at Weeki Wachee State Park in winter. I spent a half hour with just me, my husband and five or six friendly manatees who nudged our boat and peered at us with the same curiosity with which we looked at them. (I have video from that encounter at the Weeki Wachee link.) At Weeki Wachee, you must go by kayak or canoe to see manatees, as they are most commonly located a distance upstream from the actual spring.
Another favorite manatee-viewing spot is Three Sisters Spring in Crystal River, which is accessible by canoe or kayak off Kings Bay. On a few designated days, spring managers will open its boardwalk for visitors and provide shuttle service from an off-site parking lot. In 2010, Three Sisters Spring became a protected, national wildlife refuge through a multi-agency purchase of the land and water rights. The springs are now managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and there are plans to open a visitor center. You can visit the manatees at Three Springs any day by canoe or kayak, however. See details for visiting Three Sisters below.
At Homosassa State Park , you can see manatees every day of the year via the park’s underwater observatory of its resident manatee population. Visitors start a visit on a pontoon boat ride down Pepper Creek to the wildlife park, where you also see Florida panthers, bears, bobcats, deer, alligators and a wide variety of birds. In winter, the gates into the first-magnitude spring are opened and wild manatee flock to the warmer waters. On cold days, you may see dozens of wild manatees.
While not a spring with clear water, manatees are also viewed regularly in winter at Lovers Key State Park in Fort Myers Beach. Lovers Key State Park is worth exploring for two major draws: A 2.5 mile beach lined with natural vegetation that is perfect for beachcombing and bird watching, and mangrove-lined waterways that are major draws for both manatees and kayakers.
In South Florida, there used to be good manatee viewing spots in the waters warmed by the Riviera Beach and the Fort Lauderdale power plants, but they are no longer accessible for security reasons.
The warm-water discharge area for the Fort Pierce power plant, however, is still open to the public and, on cool days, attracts as many as 30 manatees and their fans. The free viewing area is now the Manatee Observation and Education Center in Fort Pierce, which is just west of the Atlantic ocean overlooking the Indian River Lagoon, a saltwater estuary, and Moore’s Creek, a freshwater creek and historical resting spot for the Florida manatee. I’ve also seen manatees hanging around the Fort Pierce marina, which is adjacent to the manatee center.
In a post on his Visit Florida blog, Kevin Mims also recommends these manatee-viewing locations:
TECO Manatee Viewing Center, Apollo Beach - Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center is a designated manatee sanctuary where tons of manatees return annually to the warm discharge waters of the Big Bend Power Station. Viewing platforms, tidal walkways, and an environmental education center are located at this 50-acre facility. Yelp comments on the TECO viewing area.
Lee County Manatee Park, Fort Myers - Located across from Florida Power and Light and directly on the warm water discharge canal, Manatee Park is another wintertime haven for manatees. Here are visitor comments from TripAdvisor.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville - The Haulover Canal connects Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River, and on the east side of the bridge is a manatee observation area. Viewing platforms, interpretive signage, a boat ramp, and polarized viewer are located at the observation area. (Note: I’ve been here several times but never spotted manatees.)
You can also get lucky and see manatees in many waterways in winter. My partner in the Florida Rambler site, Bob Rountree, fondly remembers the time his kayak was lifted out of the water by a manatee in the St. Lucie canal that links to Lake Okeechobee. (He was camping at the Army Corp of Engineers campground at the St. Lucie lock.) I’ve seen manatees in the Intracoastal Waterway in Delray Beach, the New River in Fort Lauderdale, Biscayne Bay, off docks in the Keys and on Sanibel Island. None of these places, however, provides a reliable viewing opportunity like Blue Springs and other locations where manatees are drawn to warm water.
If you go to these or other places to see manatees, please add comments and tips to this story.
Links and details on where to see manatees in Florida:
- Blue Spring State Park, 2100 W. French Ave., Orange City.
- Weeki Wachee spring, 6131 Commercial Way, Spring Hill.. Kayak and canoe rentals are through Paddling Adventures.
- Three Sisters Spring, Crystal River. You can only visit Three Sisters by land on the days of open houses. Here’s a map locating the springs for kayakers. Put in at Hunter Spring Park In Crystal River. From North Suncoast Boulevard/US 19 in Crystal River, go west on Northeast 5th Street. After a block, go left at Northeast 3rd Avenue, then an immediate right on Northeast 4th Street, then left at Northeast 1st Avenue to Hunter Spring Park. There are several commercial outfitters in the area that visit Three Sisters Spring, which can get overrun with boaters and swimmers
- Lovers Key State Park, 8700 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach
- Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center, 6990 Dickman Road, Apollo Beach.
- Lee County Manatee Park, 10901 State Road 80 Fort Myers
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville
- Homosassa State Park, 4150 S. Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa . Adult admission is $13; children 6 to 12 are $5.
- Manatee Observation and Education Center, 480 N. Indian River Drive, Fort Pierce.
- Kayak tours with manatees sponsored by Save the Manatee non-profit organation, provides manatee viewing without disrupting natural behavior.