A Manatee Finding Mission
Watching a large, lumbering manatee silently and slowly glide through the water is a rare thrill. They are among the most peaceful animals you can encounter in the wild. Once you’ve had a baby manatee gently nudge your arm to play, or seen a pack of manatees swim beside you in a kayak, you will understand the emotional connection these marine animals so easily create with humans.
Manatees are common in the springs and rivers of Florida. While they can be found there year round, the highest concentration of manatees occurs in the winter. They flock to the Sunshine State during cold weather as a matter of survival, like so many other visitors.
They are drawn to Florida’s springs where the water temperatures stay around 70 degrees all year. While manatees might swim further north during the summer, once the water starts to turn cold in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, they make their way back to the constant warmth found in the state’s unique natural waters.
There are some spots in Florida where manatees return year after year. These locations are where you’ll find the best encounters, along with responsible tourism operators who can safely bring you close to the manatees without endangering or harming the animals. After all, since manatees have no natural predators, their perch on the edge of extinction is primarily due to human behavior.
Make plans now to visit these spots in Florida during manatee season, typically mid-November to mid-March, for an adventure that you’ll never forget.
A popular place to swim with manatees, the Crystal River area offers an array of ways to interact with the gentle giants. The National Wildlife Refuge has more than 70 springs and is the largest winter refuge for manatees on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Swimming with manatees is allowed in Crystal River. Though they are large, there is no need to fear the herbivores that only munch on plants. In fact, you will probably be delighted if a manatee comes face to face with you, curiously gazing into your eyes as you snorkel in the cool springs.
Federal manatee protection laws limit how swimmers can interact with the marine animals, so it is important to book a tour with an outfitter who specializes in manatee outings.
The Plantation on Crystal River is a great location to combine a luxurious stay with the chance to swim with manatees in the wild. Surrounded by the springs of Kings Bay, this 232-acre resort is the perfect spot to relax and unwind. Combine a manatee tour with an overnight stay and breakfast in one of their popular hotel packages. A full service spa, golfing, boating and fishing are among the activities available to round out an active day.
Kayak and boat tours are also great ways to see large numbers of manatees in the wild without needing to don a snorkel and wet suit. Whatever your adventure style is, there is a way to get close to the manatees.
Howto Swim with Manatees in Crystal River
Blue Spring State Park
Blue Spring State Park, in Orange City, is an excellent place to view manatees without needing to get in or on the water. Hundreds of manatees swim to the largest spring on the St. John’s River every year. Blue Spring has been designated a manatee refuge, and a large number of West Indian manatees travel there each winter.
While the spring is usually open for activities such as swimming, snorkeling and boating, it’s closed to human activity during peak manatee season, typically from mid-November to mid-March. During that time, aggregations of manatees can easily be seen from the shore and platforms built overlooking the spring run.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
This state park showcases wildlife native to Florida, which includes manatees. The spring pool has an underwater observatory to watch manatees during the winter, along with overlooks and platforms above Homosassa Springs.
The park is also home to a rehabilitation facility for injured manatees. Their educational component includes wildlife programs, a children’s education center and a native wildlife zoo.
Teco Manatee Viewing Center
In Apollo Beach, one of the best places to see manatees in the state is in a power station’s discharge canal. Though it might sound strange, the warm water that flows back into Tampa Bay after cooling a unit of the Big Bend Power Station creates the ideal location for manatees seeking warmer waters.
So many manatees flock to this area that it is now a federal and state designated manatee sanctuary. Tampa Electric has created the Manatee Viewing Center to educate visitors about the gentle giants and their habitat. Butterfly gardens and a walking trail with a wildlife observation tower are part of the free attraction, as well.
In Fort Myers, this small park is also a warm water refuge for manatees during the winter months thanks to warm water discharge from Florida Power & Light. Kayaks and canoes can be rented, and there is also a butterfly garden to wander around.
Year-round Manatee Viewing
No matter what time of year it might be, there are places in Florida where you can be guaranteed to see manatees. Animals that are injured in the wild and cannot survive on their own are taken care of in facilities that promote wildlife education. These locations include Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa; Miami Seaquarium; and SeaWorld Orlando.
(Go Magazine July/August 2017)