One of the benefits of exploring new places is being able to witness Mother Nature. From new landscapes, plants, and animals that you don’t often get to see. Of all the magnificent animals in Florida, none is loved quite as much as the Manatee. Manatees are gentle giants that inhabit the coastal areas of Florida, making them an ideal animal to observe up close.
This is especially true during the winter months when manatees move inland where the water is warmer. You can view manatees in their natural environment all around Florida. In fact, we just saw a manatee a few days ago just a few blocks from our home while walking our dog! So if you’re on a mission to view manatees in the wild in Florida, keep reading to find out some of the top places we recommend you visit – where you are sure to spot one of these beautiful, gentle creatures.
READ MORE: 20 Free Things to do in Florida
But First, What Are Manatees?
Manatees are gentle and peaceful creatures that inhabit the shallow coastal waters of Florida. These large aquatic mammals can grow up to 13 feet in length and weigh up to 1,300 pounds! They have thick gray skin covered with pale spots and whiskers on their snouts. Their diet consists mainly of vegetation, like seagrasses, that are found in the waterways and coasts they inhabit. They are slow-moving, curious animals and can often be seen by boats or kayaks drifting along with the current.
Is a Sea Cow the same as a Manatee?
Many people affectionately refer to manatees as sea cows. And while there are some similarities, technically a sea cow is not the same as a manatee. Sea cows are an entirely different species of aquatic mammal, although they are related to manatees. Sea cows are larger than manatees and have a more rounded body shape compared to the cylindrical-shaped body of a manatee.
Also, unlike manatees, sea cows do not have long whiskers on their snouts. They are found in the open ocean rather than estuaries or coasts like manatees are, and they feed mainly on sponges and other soft-bodied invertebrates instead of vegetation.
What Do Manatees Eat?
Manatees are herbivorous, which means they feed mainly on aquatic vegetation. They consume an average of 10-15% of their body weight in plants per day. Given the fact that they can weigh up to 1300 pounds, that’s a lot of greens to eat in a single day! This diet consists of seagrass, freshwater and marine algae, and even the occasional fruit or root. Because manatees love to eat seagrasses and also freshwater vegetation, Florida with its many miles of waterways around the state offers abundant food to nourish these large creatures.
Where Do Manatees Live?
Manatees live in shallow, slow-moving waters of the coastal areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida. They can also be found in estuaries, bays, rivers, and lagoons throughout the state in both fresh and brackish waters. Most coastal communities around Florida, including us here in the Venice & Sarasota area, are used to seeing manatees in the bays and Intracoastal waterways. But they can also be found inland as well since manatees can travel to interior freshwater areas and springs. This is why places like Blue Springs State Park northeast of Orlando are also popular places to see manatees.
Tips for Spotting Manatees in the Wild
When out on the water, look for telltale signs of manatees such as a flat, oval-shaped wake or disturbance on the surface. Manatees also have unique noise patterns that can be heard underwater—listen for a series of clicks and chirps coming from the direction of any disturbances you spot on the surface.
You also might hear a noise if they come up to the surface to breathe. In fact, that’s how we heard a manatee just the other day when we were walking our dog in Shamrock Park here in South Venice. We heard a faint noise, almost like the blowhole of a dolphin, and we looked out and saw a disturbance in the water — with a round nose sticking out! We knew the shape of that snout!
Finally, if you’re having trouble finding manatees, ask a local guide or an experienced boat captain where they are most likely to be seen in your area. By following these tips, you should be able to locate and observe manatees in their natural habitat at one of Florida’s beautiful wildlife refuges or state parks.
So Where is the Best Place to See Manatees in Florida?
While you can spot manatees in captivity in different aquariums (including the Mote in Sarasota, among others), it’s most rewarding to see manatees out in their natural habitat.
One of the best, and most popular places to see manatees in Florida is in Crystal River, Florida. This area is just an hour or so north of the Tampa area along the Gulf Coast. It offers easy access and plenty of opportunities for close encounters with manatees.
You can technically see manatees in many waterways around Crystal River town, but one of the most popular places in town to visit is Three Sisters Springs with their boardwalks and other opportunities to explore on land or on water. The warm, clear waters here in the Crystal River area are an ideal habitat for them and they can often be seen grazing in the seagrass beds.
Another extremely popular place to see manatees are just south of Crystal River, in Homosassa Springs. There is a state park here with a wonderful viewing area (even an underground section). You can also walk around the park to enjoy other animals too. Adjacent to the park are a number of waterways where people can take boat or kayak tours to see the manatees and even go snorkeling with them!
However, since manatees are an endangered species, it is important to remember to respect their space when viewing them in their natural habitat.
Other Places You Can See Manatees in the Wild in Florida
Other great places to spot manatees in their natural habitat include:
- The Tampa Bay area
- Apollo Beach
- Blue Springs State Park near Orange City
- Indian River Lagoon
- Charlotte Harbor (near Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda)
- Pine Island Sound
- Fort Myers area
- Apalachicola Bay and St. Joseph Bay
- Manatee Springs State Park near Chiefland
- Sebastian Inlet State Park near Melbourne
Many of these places offer year-round protection for manatees and provide optimal viewing opportunities as well as educational programs about these beautiful creatures. While not all of these locations offer optimal viewing opportunities, there are still plenty of spots where visitors can catch a glimpse.
OUR RECOMMENDATIONS! Top Spots to See Manatees in Florida (Especially During the Winter)
While you really can spot manatees all over Florida, we’ve compiled a quick list of some of our top recommended spots to see them. Especially during the winter months, the places below offer wonderful options for observing manatees and make for an enjoyable day out.
Read Below or Watch the Video!
We’ve outlined all the areas on this list below and provided loads of details. However, if you are short on time and would prefer to watch a video version, then you can click the image below to watch it on YouTube.
The Apollo Beach Manatee Viewing Center
The Apollo Beach Manatee Viewing Center is an area along Tampa Bay (just south of the city) that serves as a sanctuary for manatees. This is a popular tourist attraction that allows visitors to observe these creatures in their natural habitat from an observation tower and boardwalk, as well as learn more about this species through educational programs.
One of the reasons manatees come here is that a nearby power plant circulates cool water from Tampa Bay and then puts warm water back into the bay — and the manatees just LOVE this warm water. Especially during the winter months, manatees flock here! As a result, they’ve built up the area with viewing platforms and other amenities for visitors to enjoy their time exploring the area and watching the manatees.
Seeing Manatees in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
As we mentioned, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is the most popular spot to observe manatees in Florida. It offers visitors several access points along the river where they can safely view manatees in their natural habitat. The warm waters of the springs in this area draw large numbers of manatees each winter when temperatures dip slightly and provide a perfect opportunity for close encounters with these gentle giants.
Seeing Manatees at Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River
Three Sisters Springs near Crystal River is a great spot to observe manatees as well. The shallow, clear waters provide excellent visibility for viewing these amazing creatures up close. Manatees can often be seen in the warm springs year-round, but winter months are especially popular when they flock to the area in large numbers seeking shelter from colder waters elsewhere. You can also enjoy the boardwalk or take water tours too. Be sure to check online about booking tickets here in advance.
Seeing Manatees in Homosassa Springs
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is another popular spot to see manatees in their natural habitat. This is actually one of our favorite parks that we’ve visited to see manatees! The park offers several boardwalks and observation decks with stunning views of the crystal-clear springs where up to 600 manatees can be seen during winter months.
Visitors can also take guided boat tours through the park’s winding waterways, offering an unparalleled opportunity for a close encounter with these gentle giants. They also have a really cool underwater viewing area near the spring’s source. And during the winter months, you can see so many manatees in here!
The area just outside the state park is popular too for manatee-viewers. You can rent a boat / kayak / paddle board or take some boat tours to explore the waterways and watch the manatees even more. And if you are lucky and the weather is nice, you might even be able to hop in the water and swim with them!
Manatee Springs State Park Near Chiefland
Manatee Springs State Park near Chiefland is another popular spot to observe manatees in Florida. This park offers visitors the chance to view these majestic creatures up close from boardwalks and observation decks while they feed on the seagrass in the shallow depths of the springs. The crystal-clear waters make this a great spot for snorkeling, and during the winter especially, you are almost guaranteed to see manatees here!
Seeing Manatees in Blue Spring State Park in Orange City
Blue Spring State Park in Orange City is one of the top spots in Florida to observe manatees in their natural habitat. In fact, this is an extremely popular state park and it also has a great campground if you want to stay here and see the manatees on multiple days. The clear waters of the spring and its surrounding park are perfect for viewing manatees up close, and visitors can even take a leisurely boat tour through the marshes and see them feeding on the seagrass beneath the surface. In fact, my parents have done the boat ride many times — it is one of their absolute favorite things to do in the area and they are always raving about it!
Seeing Manatees in Sebastian Inlet State Park near Melbourne
Sebastian Inlet State Park near Melbourne is another great spot to observe manatees in their natural habitat. The park offers loads of activities for visitors, from surfing, swimming, snorkeling, paddling and more. And of course, there is a lot of great wildlife viewing here including sea turtles as well as manatees. The Bayside Marina and docks are great places to view these different forms of wildlife, including manatees who can be spotted year-round.
Where Can I Swim With the Manatees in Florida?
It is possible for you to be out enjoying yourself swimming or paddling in the waterways and then happen to come up on a manatee naturally. However, there are some official places where swimming with manatees in Florida is specifically allowed, including areas where the animals have been habituated to human presence. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Manatee Springs State Park, and Three Sisters Springs are three of the most popular destinations for swimming with manatees in Florida. We’ve also seen people swimming with manatees in the waterways just adjacent to Homosassa Springs State park too.
Be sure to follow all rules and regulations when visiting these locations, as they are set up specifically to protect the manatees. Swimming with manatees can be an incredible experience, so make sure you respect their space and enjoy your time in their natural habitat!
When is The Best Time to See Manatees?
While you can technically see manatees any time of the year in Florida, the best time when you are most likely to see manatees in Florida is from mid-November through March when the water temperature drops. This causes the manatees to migrate from their summering grounds along the coastlines and move inland to seek out warmer waters. They will congregate in places like Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge or Manatee Springs State Park. During this time, there can be a lot of manatees in a smaller area, so visitors can get up close and personal with the manatees by snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing, or taking a guided tour.
For example, they say that in Homosassa Springs they can have up to 600 manatees in their main spring area!
Other Interesting (and Weird) Facts About Manatees
When Are Manatees Most Active?
Manatees are most active in the morning and late afternoon. This is when they come to the surface of the water to feed, rest, and socialize with other manatees. They can also be seen playing, nursing their young, and rubbing against objects in their environment. Although, we have seen manatees at all times of the day. So even though they might be most active during these times, you don’t have to plan your whole trip around a specific time.
I Hear That Manatees Fart, Is That True?
Manatees are known to be particularly gassy creatures. They release methane and other gases through their intestines and spouting activity, which can sometimes sound like a loud fart! This behavior is perfectly natural for these curious marine mammals, so don’t be alarmed if you happen to hear it during your manatee encounter.
Do Manatees Ever Leave the Water?
Manatees live their entire lives in the water, like a fish or whale. They just float around, dive for food, and swim about – usually eating because they have to consume so much vegetation everyday to support their large size.
How Long Can Manatees Hold Their Breath?
Since manatees don’t leave the water, they have to be able to dive down to get food or to stay safe. It is possible for manatees to hold their breath for as long as 20 minutes straight! But typically, they will go underwater and hold their breath for around 5 minutes or so. However, it really depends on the activity level of each specific manatee and what they are doing. If they come up for air more often, it can actually take more energy.
Are Manatees Endangered?
Yes, manatees are an endangered species. Manatees have been heavily impacted by human activities such as boating accidents, habitat destruction and pollution. While their numbers are increasing in some areas, they remain vulnerable to further decline due to these threats. You will see signs all across Florida reminding you to be mindful of the manatees in the area.
What Can I Do To Help Protect Manatees?
There are many things you can do to help protect manatees from the threats they face. If you are boating, PLEASE adhere to the speed limits and no wake zones! Many times this isn’t just for personal safety, but for the safety of the manatees who are likely in those shallow waters too. Because they float up on top of the water, they are easily hurt and killed by propellers! Also, if you’re viewing manatees in their natural habitat, be sure to stay at least 50 feet away from them, as any closer could disturb their activities.
Additionally, you can support conservation efforts by joining a local volunteer organization or contributing to manatee research and protection funds. Finally, you can spread awareness about manatees and encourage others to respect their habitats whenever possible. By taking these steps, we can ensure that these beautiful animals can continue to thrive in our environment for years to come.
Where Can I Learn More About Manatees?
If you’re looking to learn more about manatees, there are plenty of great resources available. The Save the Manatee Club is an excellent organization dedicated to protecting and conserving manatees, and they have a wealth of information on their website. Additionally, there are a number of books, documentaries and articles that provide further insight into the lives of these gentle giants.
Finally, you can visit one of Florida’s wildlife sanctuaries or state parks (mentioned above) to see manatees up close and learn more about them from experienced guides or naturalists. By educating yourself about manatees and seeing them for yourself, you’ll be better equipped to help protect them in the wild.
Seeing Manatees in Florida is a Truly Special Experience!
Being able to view manatees in their natural habitat around Florida can be a truly awe-inspiring experience. There are so many places around the state where you can see them, from the coasts to waterways and bays, and even state parks and viewing centers. And with the right knowledge and respect for these gentle giants, it is possible for you to view them safely. Whether from land, a boardwalk, on a boat, or even if you are lucky enough to swim with them.
Being able to experience and appreciate beautiful animals such as manatees allows us to be able to understand the struggles they are facing. If more of us could see them and understand, then perhaps we all could work together to protect them so that future generations can enjoy them too.