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
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 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.”
Kayaking the Orange River beyond Manatee Park
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.
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
10901 Palm Beach Blvd
- 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
- Bunche Beach: Heaven for kayakers and birds alike
- Matlacha FL: Delightful, artsy, Gulf spot for kayaking, nature
- Pine Island: Step back in time without a tourist in sight
- Six Miles Cypress Slough Preserve
- Fort Myers Beach: Charming seaside getaway
- Lovers Key State Park for manatees, kayaking and beaches
- Mound Key State Archaeology Site
- Cayo Costa State Park: Dreams of a private island
- What makes Sanibel special and nine ways to experience it.
Places to explore near Naples
- Naples: Rich in nature, beaches and boating
- Corkscrew Preserve in Naples
- Barefoot Beach is on Southwest Florida’s wild side
- Clam Pass Park, a Naples beach where you ride the tide
- Koreshan State Historic Site: Wacky Florida history; lovely spot preserved
Other places to see manatees around Florida.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.