Winter is the best time to go to see the Manatees in Florida’s warmer waters. These creatures, known both as “Gentle Giants” and “Sea Cows” are very sensitive to cold temperatures, so they migrate in winter and early spring…giving us the perfect chance to meet these 1,000 to 3,500 pound creatures along Florida’s grass flats and aquatic meadows.
You can marvel at them from a platform viewing deck or even go swimming, snorkeling, or kayaking near them. The question is: Where?
And here’s the answer: five great places to spend time with these magnificent manatees.
Three Sisters Springs, Crystal River
This is the largest winter refuge for manatees on the Gulf Coast. While they can be found year round in Kings Bay, the area receives extra protections in winter months, so you can view them from the boardwalk vantage point. From April to November, however, visitors can swim, kayak, and canoe with manatees on scheduled tours. This location boasts crystalline blue waters the make viewing these manatees gliding below the surface ideal.
Blue Spring State Park, Orange City
This area covers more than 2,600 acres. Located between Sanford and Deland, visitors can come from November to March to see the West Indian manatees from the overlooks. There’ a half-mile boardwalk that runs along the Blue Spring Run where you can watch them and there are displays that provide history and education about the wildlife and ecological wonders of the area.
Lee County Manatee Park, Fort Meyers
From November to March the manatees come to this park for its warm waters. This is a protected sanctuary with an observation platform and landscaped park that spans 17 acres. It’s the perfect for a day out with the entire family. The waters are shallow, so visitors have plenty of unique opportunities to see the animals up close at this non-captive natural environment. The park also has many guided walks and educational activities, including a beautiful butterfly garden and a variety of picnic facilities.
Manatee Lagoon, An FPL Eco-Discovery Center, West Palm Beach
This beach has seen up to 800 manatees during a cold snap. There are two levels of exhibit and observation areas for viewing these manatees up close, where a 16,000 foot center features hands-on displays to learn about manatees and the eco-system around Lake Worth Lagoon. They also have guided walking tours of the exhibits.
Manatee Viewing Center, Tampa Electric, Apollo Beach
This is a designated manatee sanctuary where plenty of these gentle giants relax in the warm waters from November to April. Here, visitors can observe them in their natural habitat and there’s an education center where visitors can learn about them. This is a 50-acre facility, so you can take a break to see them swim through the Tampa Bay saltwater from atop the 50-foot viewing tower. There’s also a mangrove exhibit, butterfly garden, and gift shop.
But what about swimming with the manatees?
Crystal River has several companies which offer small, semi-private, and private manatee snorkeling tours. These are conducted from a boat and provide the snorkeling gear and the wetsuit, but of course, you can bring your own. They provide you an in-water guide who is with you from arrival to departure. These companies respect the ecosystem and avoid putting undue stress on the manatees and their habitat, so groups are kept small and you begin with educational videos, teaching you what you are allowed to do on your tour.