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Known as Florida’s gentle giants, spotting a manatee in their natural habitat is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Also known as a “sea cow,” these wrinkled, leathery creatures can tip the scales at 1,000-3,500 pounds and can be seen grazing along Florida’s grass flats and aquatic meadows. Widely dispersed in Florida’s waterways, these charming creatures can be found at any time of year, but are more commonly spotted in the winter months from November to March.
Sensitive to cold temperatures, manatees migrate in the winter and early spring where they roam Florida’s warmer waters. From marveling at them from a platform viewing deck to having the chance to go swimming, snorkeling or kayaking near these fascinating underwater mammals, read on to discover the best places in Florida to see manatees.
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The largest winter refuge for manatees on the Gulf Coast, Three Sisters Springs is one of the most famous manatee hot spots. While manatees can be found year round in Kings Bay, the area receives extra protections as a designated sanctuary in winter months and can only be seen from the boardwalk vantage point. You might find up to 30 manatees in the summer from April to November, and while there are strict rules in how to interact, visitors can swim, kayak and canoe with the manatees on a scheduled tour. One of the state’s most visually stunning springs, its crystalline blue waters adds to the majestic experience of watching the manatees glide below the surface.
One of the most popular spots to see Florida’s famous manatee residents, Blue Springs State Park covers more than 2,600 acres. Located north of Orlando in Orange City, this park is a designated manatee refuge where during winter months, from November to March, visitors can come and see the growing population of West Indian Manatees at the spring’s overlooks. While swimming in the water is not permitted during manatee season, you can walk along the half-mile boardwalk that runs along the Blue Spring Run to soak in views of these beautiful animals and watch them roam the area, as interpretive displays provide history and education about the wildlife and ecological wonders of the area.
Frequenting the refuge year round, these gentle slow-moving creatures can be found on the northern end of the Meritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville. With 140,000 acres of undisturbed wildlife habitat connecting the Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River, the Haulover Canal between the river and lagoon was created in the 19th century, giving manatees easier access between the two bodies of water. Located on the east side of the bridge, visitors will find a manatee observation area with platforms to observe them in their natural habitat, in addition to interpretive displays giving insight into the history of the refuge.
An hour drive from Gainesville in the city of Chiefland, Manatee Springs State Park is a warm water refuge for manatees in the winter. During these cooler months, manatees travel up the Suwannee River up to Florida’s springs. Offering a connected run that leads the manatees to these areas, from November to April visitors can find them roaming the area. A first-magnitude spring that produces 100 million gallons of clear water daily, it’s also a popular area for snorkeling, scuba diving, canoeing and kayaking throughout the year. Come here to visit the manatees and spend a day out with the family, as the hiking trails, children’s playground, and full-service BBQ sets the scene for a family-friendly afternoon of outdoor adventures.
From November to March, manatees make their way to Lee County Manatee Park in Fort Myers for its warm waters from the former power plant nearby. A protected sanctuary with an observation platform and landscaped park, this 17-acre oasis is perfect for a day out with the entire family. With its shallow waters, visitors have plenty of unique opportunities to see the animals up close in their entirety at this non-captive natural environment. The park offers a range of guided walks and educational activities that are fun for visitors of all ages, while a beautiful butterfly garden and its variety of picnic facilities make this destination ideal for a day trip.
Located on Florida’s Adventure Coast, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is a 538-acre park an hour north of Tampa in Spring Hill. Best seen on a kayak or canoe, you can float along the clear waters of the Weeki Wachee River under a natural canopy of cypress and oak trees to find Hospital Hole, an extinct spring where the endangered West Indies manatees like to congregate. Delighting its visitors since 1947, Weeki Wachee is equally as famous for its underwater mermaid shows and Old Florida attraction where you watch a live show in a 400-seat submerged theater. The park is also home to Buccaneer Bay, an exciting, kid-friendly flume ride water park, and a picturesque white sandy beach area.
A designated manatee sanctuary, Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center is a solar power plant in Apollo Beach where plenty of these gentle giants find refuge in its warm waters from November to April. One of Tampa’s hidden gems, here visitors can get a chance to observe manatees in their natural habitat and an education center where you can learn about them as well. An expansive 50-acre facility, take a break in your itinerary to see the manatees swim through clean Tampa Bay saltwater waters from atop the 50-foot viewing tower. Spend a day exploring the property to find a mangrove exhibit, butterfly garden, and gift shop.
Attracting manatees in the wintertime, Manatee Lagoon, An FPL Eco-Discover Center in West Palm Beach has seen up to 800 manatees during a cold snap. Here visitors will find two levels of exhibit and observation areas designed for viewing these endangered species up close, where a 16,000-foot center features hands-on displays to help learn about the manatees and the eco-system around Lake Worth Lagoon. Watch manatees bask in the warm-water outflows from Florida Power & Light Company’s near Riviera Beach, or join one of the kid-friendly Manatee Tales and Manatee Lagoon Talks where Manatee Master’s tell first-hand stories and guide visitors on a walking tour of Manatee Lagoon’s exhibits.
Located on Florida’s east coast, Manatee Observation and Educational Center in Fort Pierce is home to abundant wildlife, including the Florida manatee. Overlooking the freshwater Moore’s Creek that runs into the saltwater estuary of Indian River Lagoon, visitors will find a boardwalk and observation deck for plenty of unique viewing opportunities. While manatees can be observed in Moore’s Creek throughout the year, your best bet is to come during winter time. Tour the exhibit hall and learn about manatee habits and watch live marine and freshwater animals in the aquarium, where informational displays educate visitors on how to interact responsibly with these eco-systems. Take a boat tour to spot a variety of diverse wildlife, from bottlenose dolphins to brown pelicans.
Nestled near Sanibel Island and Fort Myers, Lovers Key State Park is a popular destination for spotting manatees. A 1,600-acre slice of natural paradise, Lover’s Key is made up of four barrier islands and is well-known for its unspoiled white beach and fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities. The perfect escape for animal lovers, visitors can spend their day hiking, biking or boating through the shady maritime hammock ecosystem to not only spot West Indian manatees, but gopher tortoises, bald eagles, and bottlenose dolphins. While the picturesque 2.5-mile beach offers plenty of places to sunbathe, its mangrove-lined waterways are where to go to catch a glimpse of one of Florida’s famous manatees.
Boasting one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park is a 6,000-acre park that sits atop a maze of underground caverns. Located in Florida’s Panhandle less than a 30-minute drive from Tallahassee, visitors will find this a popular area for wildlife viewing, particular for spotting manatees in the winter. To get an up-close look at these animals, hop on one of the daily guided boat tours that traverse the Wakulla River. Take a dip in the refreshing waters when Florida heats up in the summer months, while fall and winter are ideal for exploring the various nature trails.