Last updated on July 19th, 2020 at 08:47 am

In the Orange River near the FPL plant, kayakers can paddle admist dozens of manatees on cold winter days., launching at Fort Myers Manatee Park.
In the Orange River near the FPL plant, kayakers can paddle amidst dozens of manatees on cold winter days, launching at Fort Myers Manatee Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

We came for the  manatees.

But we spent the whole day kayaking on the beautiful Orange River and would have called it a great outing even if 20 sea cows hadn’t floated around our kayak.

Fort Myers Manatee Park is one of those places where a power plants discharges warm water, creating a cozy spa for manatees avoiding the winter-chilled Gulf waters. If the water in the Gulf is below 68 degrees, you’re likely to see manatees gathering in the canal used by the Florida Power and Light plant. (Manatees are more likely to be present November to March.)

Visiting Fort Myers Manatee Park

Curious manatee at Manatee Park, Fort Myers, on the Orange River, Feb. 14, 2015
Curious manatee at Fort Myers Manatee Park on the Orange River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

A decade  ago, Lee County made it easier for manatee lovers to gather by building the popular and free Manatee Park, with extensive viewing areas, butterfly gardens, educational exhibits, playgrounds and restrooms. There are videos about manatees and seasonal talks by manatee experts.

The manatees at Manatee Park in Fort Myers loll about in the warm water discharged from an FPL plant.
The manatees at Fort Myers Manatee Park loll about in the warm water discharged from an FPL plant.

The warm-warm discharge canal is fenced off from boats and visitors must view it from the banks. The water is not clear like Central Florida springs, so in the area closest to the warm water discharge, you only see manatee body parts as they emerge from the water – a snout loudly exhaling here, a bulbous stomach there, a scarred back rolling by, a flipper briefly waving.  

On the day we visited, there were so many manatees swimming and rolling around together that it was hard to distinguish one from another.

A little further from the source of the water, there is shallower, calmer area where you can see the entirety of individual manatees.

Don’t miss two exhibits at Fort Myers Manatee Park – an audio stream piped from underwater where you can hear manatees communicating and, hilariously enough, farting. Next to it is a polarized glass panel that allows you to better look into the water.  (Better yet: Bring your own polarized sunglasses!)

The best view of the manatees, however, is from a canoe or kayak. Outside the fenced canal area, plenty of manatees are hanging around Manatee Park and kayakers can float among them. Here, manatees swam under our kayak and curiously came up to look at us. Some were huge, some were babies, one was covered with barnacles. Sadly, it is the white scars on their backs that you see best and are often the easiest way to spot a manatee submerged in the reddish water.

At this close range, you can see the manatees well and it is easy to float here for a long time mesmerized.

Tips for seeing manatees at Manatee Park

If you want to see manatees, here are a few tips from Mike Hammond, Calusa Blueway coordinator who spent many years as a park ranger:

“On the cusp of cold weather, they will often spend the night in the park and then leave in search of food as it warms up in the morning.  On these days, it is best to arrive early before they leave for the day,” Hammond says. “You can also see large schools of cow-nose rays swimming right where the warm water flows out from under the road and into the park. Lots of tarpon as well.  Many people mistake the tarpon for sharks or dolphins.”

While it is against the law to touch or feed the manatees, some manatees are so curious they reach out to kayaks at Manatee Park.

Hammond tells this story: “Several years ago we bought small green sit-on-top kayaks for the park. The manatees loved them and would feel the kayaks with their prehensile lips. Some visitors loved the experienced, others were freaked out. I’ve also witnessed a kayak fisherman have a manatee hold onto his kayak and paddle him around the Orange River. The fisherman explained it was the same manatee, which he assumed was a female.  ‘She’ would greet him, roll on her back, clasp the kayak, and give him a ride. The fishermen just pulled in his line until she got bored and let go.”


A scene along the Orange River, accessible from Fort Myers Manatee Park.(Photo:Bonnie Gross)
A scene along the Orange River, accessible from Fort Myers Manatee Park.(Photo:Bonnie Gross)

Kayaking the Orange River beyond Manatee Park

The Orange River in Fort Myers is not a wild river, but it is beautiful and peaceful kayak trail.
The Orange River in Fort Myers is not a wild river, but it is a beautiful and peaceful kayak trail. You launch at Manatee Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross) 

There’s more to see, however, than just manatees. Kayaking up the Orange River is a beautiful and peaceful trip, one of many that are part of the Great Calusa Blueway.

There is a great launch site in Manatee Park and, conveniently, you can rent kayaks and canoes there from an outfitter.

The brackish Orange River starts out wide and deep with pleasant scenery. As you paddle upstream, it gets narrower and the Old Florida ambiance grows, with live oak branches arching overhead fuzzy with airplants. After a few miles, the water is shallower and clearer and you begin to see small schools of fish. The farther upstream you paddle, the prettier it gets.

The further upstream you paddle on the Orange River in Fort Myers, the more Old Florida the ambiance becomes.
The further upstream you paddle on the Orange River in Fort Myers, the more Old Florida the ambiance becomes. Kayakers put in at Manatee Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

We saw a variety of heron and ibis with the real treat being a barred owl that flew across the river right in front of us and watched us from a perch in the woods. Another paddler told us to watch for an eagle that is frequently seen.

The Orange River is not a wild river; you’ll pass widely spaced homes the entire way.  It is all a no wake zone, however, so there are few motor boats and little traffic. On a warm and sunny February afternoon, it was very quiet with no traffic sounds to disturb the natural beauty. We passed perhaps a half dozen boaters.

We paddled about four miles upstream and you can paddle beyond our turn-around point for another mile or two, according to the maps from the Great Calusa Blueway. (Note: Don’t expect anything at what the map calls the Orange River Canoe Park. It was never developed and the banks are too steep there to even get to shore.)

There was little difference in current upstream or downstream. The Orange River would be good for families or beginners because you can turn around whenever you’d like.

I hadn’t heard much about the Orange River before this visit, so I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. Sure, a flotilla of manatees at Manatee Park put me in a good mood, but the river was a slice of Florida natural beauty that I am happy I experienced for its own sake.

Visiting Fort Myers Manatee Park and kayaking the Orange River

Manatee Park
10901 Palm Beach Blvd

Fort Myers

  •  Manatee Park is five minutes off I-75. (Take exit 141 SR 80 east five miles.) Here are visitor comments from TripAdvisor on Manatee Park.
  • The park is free except for parking — $2 an hour or $5 for all day. On cool winter weekends, the park can get very busy.
  • Calusa Blue Outfitters operate out of Manatee Park in the winter seven days a week from 9 to 5. Information: 239-481-4600.
  • The Great Calusa Blueway is a network of  paddling trails around Fort Myers totaling 190 miles. The Orange River is one of the trails.

Places to explore near Fort Myers Manatee Park

Places to explore near Naples

 Other places to see manatees around Florida.


One Comment

  1. Correction, the park is not 5 miles east of #75, maybe 2 miles.