Want to see Florida manatees in the wild? Winter is the best time
~ 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.
Manatees at Blue Spring State Park
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.
On Nov. 16, 2014, for example, the manatee specialist for the Save the Manatee Club counted 169 manatees in Blue Spring after the an unusually cold (for Florida in November) cold snap. But two weeks before that chilly weather, the daily count was 22. (You can see up-to-date information on how many manatees are in the spring here. )
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.
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.
Other springs where you can see manatees
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. A boardwalk providing land access to the spring opened in time for viewing in 2014. Self guided tours on the viewing boardwalk are conducted daily in the winter. Roving interpreters are available along the boardwalk. Tours, which last about an hour, are $6 per person and reservations are recommended. More information and reservations: River Ventures Manatee Tour Center, 498 S.E. Kings Bay Drive, Crystal River, FL 34429. Phone: 352-564-8687 or 1-877-581-8401.
Note: There are several commercial outfitters in the Three Sisters Spring area, which can get overrun with boaters and swimmers.
Spring Bayou/Craig Park, West Tarpon Avenue, Tarpon Springs. This small city park has a freshwater spring that attracts manatess in winter.
Manatee Springs State Park, Chiefland. This spring on the Suwanee River attracts manatees to mouth of the spring during cool weather.
Seeing manatees outside springs
If the Gulf water is below 68 degrees, Manatee Park in Fort Myers will have dozens of manatees lolling around in the wam water from a Florida Power and Light plant. While the water is not clear like Florida springs, this free park offers extensive viewing areas as well as playgrounds and picnic tables. The best way to see the manatees is from a kayak in the water and you can launch here or rent kayaks here. Here’s a comprehensive story on Manatee Park and kayaking the Orange River. Note: Manatee Park is five minutes off I-75, so it can be a quick and easy stop.
Nearby, 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. Good news: Riviera Beach is building a manatee viewing area that will open in winter 2015. The plant routinely attracts hundreds of manatees in winter; during a cold snap, 800 manatees have been counted here.
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.
Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center is a designated manatee sanctuary where tons of manatees return annually to the warm discharge waters of the power plant. Viewing platforms, tidal walkways, and an environmental education center are located at this 50-acre facility. Yelp comments on the TECO viewing area.
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.
Seeing manatees in captivity
At Homosassa State Park , you can see manatees every day 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. The park has many attractions and charges an adult admission of $13. Kids over 5 are $5.
Other zoos and aquariums with manatees, all of which charge an admission fee, include Disney’s Epcot Center, Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Miami Seaquarium, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium and Sea World of Florida.
A note about a special manatee at the South Florida Museum and Parker Manatee Aquarium in Bradenton. This terrific small museum built a special tank for Snooty, the oldest manatee in captivity, who turned 65 in 2013. Snooty was born in captivity in a small Miami restaurant/attraction on July 21, 1948. He came to Bradenton the next year. His tank is designed to also host manatees in rehab, and Snooty has had 28 tank-mates over the years. There are manatee feedings and presentations several times a day. Located at 201 10th St. W | Bradenton.
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 in Crystal River. Three Sisters Spring, Crystal River.
- 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.