Manatees are as much a part of Florida as alligators, Miami Vice and Key Lime Pie. Nowhere else in the USA can you come as close to these animals as here. But what are the best spots to observe manatees? When can you see them, and which places let you swim with manatees? We will tell you in this article
Manatees of Florida Facts
Manatees are Florida’s biggest marine mammals and possess some remarkable features. Here are the most important manatee facts:
The Name „Manatee“
The name “manatee” denotes a particular kind of “Sirenia”, commonly known as Sea Cows. More precisely, when speaking about manatees, we mean the Caribbean Manatee, a subspecies that lives in the Southern USA, the Caribbean and as far south as Brazil and Venezuela.
The name stems from the pre-Columbian Taino word “maniti”, meaning “breast”. This name choice can be explained by the milk glands manatees have near their armpits.
Size and Weight
Grown manatees can reach 8.2–13 ft in size. Their weight normally ranges around 440–992 lbs. However, there have been reports of manatees that weighed up to 1323 lbs.
Manatees living in the wild have no natural predators. Thus, the animals can live up to 60 years. In captivity, their lifespan is even longer. A good example is Snooty, a 69 year old male manatee that lived at Parker Manatee Aquarium.
Manatees are strict herbivores that feed on seaweed, grasses and leaves. In the past, they were suspected to eat fish, but this turned out to be false. In order to feed their enormous appetite, manatees have to consume 4–10 % of their bodyweight in food every day.
Fun Fact: “Did you know that manatees spend up to 50 % of their days sleeping? The animals have to come to the surface to breathe every 20 minutes. However, they are able to do so without waking up.”
Manatees usually lead a solitary life and only sporadically gather in groups – for example, at the warm springs in Florida’s interior. An exception is the mating season when multiple males are competing for one female. Manatees communicate with their peers via squeaking and whistling sounds. The animals have an excellent sense of hearing.
After a gestation period of 12 to 14 months, manatee cows mostly give birth to one calf that they feed up to 2 years. Twins also occur, but they are rare. Manatee babies can weigh up to 66 lbs and measure 3.3 ft in length. They are able to swim right after birth, but are often carried on their mother’s back.
Manatees of Florida – Threats and Conservation
Manatees in Florida are one of the biggest tourist attractions. However, the species remains endangered. There are a number of threats to these animals, prompting the state to react with strict conservation efforts
Florida’s native inhabitants used to hunt manatees for their meat and fat. Even though hunting the animals is illegal now, the human impact on manatees is significant. Sea cows are facing numerous threats, among them:
- Boats and boat propellers that injure the animals
- Waste water in rivers and coastal areas that causes diseases in manatees
- Manmade structures like nets and floodgates where manatees get trapped.
As an endangered species, manatees are protected in Florida. To save them from extinction, the state created special zones that are off-limits for boats. Hunting, disturbing or feeding manatees is illegal in Florida and can result in hefty fines or even jail time.
These conservation efforts have already proved effective: In the last 25 years, Florida’s manatee population has increased by 400 %.
Manatees of Florida – the best Time to watch them
Even though you can always see manatees in Florida, the best time to go manatee watching are the winter months from December to March. Then, many manatees from northern parts of the US come to Florida for the warm water. They do not only swim along the coast, but also make their way upstream to warm springs. In summer, the animals are only rarely found in fresh water. An exception is the Wakulla River.
Tip: “The best time for manatee watching are the early morning hours when the animals are particularly active.”
Swimming with Manatees
Many visitors to the Sunshine State are not content with watching the manatees on land. Swimming with manatees is a popular activity that is offered on the Crystal River. There, the animals are known to gather around warm springs.
First, your guide will take you to the river by boat and scan the water for ripples that indicate the presence of manatees. Then, you put on your snorkel and dive right in. Manatees are curious creatures that often swim close to humans – especially if they are not moving. Getting kissed by a manatee is definitely an unforgettable experience.
However, there are some important rules when interacting with manatees:
- Feeding the animals is forbidden.
- There are designated safety zones where you are not allowed to swim.
- You should not make hasty movements or chase the animals.
- Hurting or molesting manatees is punishable by law in Florida.
If you want to swim with manatees, you should choose a legitimate and experienced company, e.g. Florida Manatee Tours, Gulf Coast Expeditions or Nature Coast Manatee Tours.
Short Video Preview of swimming with Manatees in Florida
Manatees of Florida – the Habitat
In addition to manatees in zoos and aquariums, there are about 6.000 animals living in the wild in Florida. Their habitat includes the whole state. However, in the following places chances of seeing manatees are especially high:
Manatees in Miami
If you want to see manatees in Miami, you have come to the right place. Nowhere else in the state are there more spots for manatee watching. The following places are particularly worthwhile:
- Black Point Park & Marina: This marina features a protected area for manatees where many sick and injured animals are brought for medical care.
- Manatee Lagoon: In addition to an observation platform, you will find an interesting exhibition about manatees. Chances of seeing manatees are especially good when temperatures are cool and the sky is slightly overcast.
- Manatee Observation and Education Center: Here, you can watch manatees from an observation tower. Alternatively, you can book a kayak tour on the Indian River Lagoon.
- Crystal River, especially King’s Bay: This place is perfect if you want to swim with manatees.
- Three Sisters Springs: There are often groups of up to 100 manatees that gather at these warm springs.
Manatees in the Everglades
The “River of Grass” offers ample opportunities to watch wild animals – among them the iconic sea cows. Especially in the winter months, manatees in the Everglades are a common sight. You have the choice: Do you want to watch the animals on an airboat tour or on a hiking trip?
Guests in Everglades City should try their luck at the canals near the Gulf. A well-kept secret among manatee fans is the Port of the Islands Resort. The port of Flamingo is another perfect spot to see manatees in the water.
Manatees in Ft Myers
There is no better place to see manatees in Ft Myers than the Lee County Manatee Park. There, the animals frolic in the warm waters of a power plant. Multiple observation platforms, picnic tables and canoe rentals are available at the Manatee Park Fort Myers.
If you want to see manatees in Fort Myers Beach, you should head for the secluded Lovers Key State Park. There, you can rent a kayak and observe the animals on the water.
Manatees in Naples
Like in other cities on the Gulf of Mexico, you might see manatees in the canals of Naples if you are lucky. The animals come here mostly in the summer and autumn months.
However, if you want to increase your chances of spotting manatees in Naples, you should book a tour with Manatee Sightseeing Eco-Tourism Adventure. This company knows the perfect spot for manatee watching, and will even give you your money back if you do not see any manatees on the tour.
Manatees in Tampa
If you want to see manatees in Tampa, you should take a trip to the Apollo Beach Power Plant. Granted, a power plant might be the last spot where you would expect manatees; however, the animals love swimming in the warm water and can be seen from the Manatee Observation Tower.
And you do not have to drive far: Even when taking a stroll on the Tampa Riverwalk, you should keep your eyes open. It is not rare for manatees to stick their snouts out of the water of the Hillsborough River.
Do you want to combine manatee watching with a boat trip in the Tampa Bay? Then, Anna Maria Island is the perfect place for you. This barrier island is one of the state’s best spots to observe the animals. It is no coincidence that the area where Anna Maria is located is called Manatee County.
Speaking of which: Visitors in the town of Bradenton can see manatees in the Parker Manatee Rehabilitation Habitat. Here, the sea cows live in 60.000 gallons of fresh water. The Habitat focuses on treating and studying the animals. In addition, guests can watch manatees above water and through glass walls.
Manatees in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
This nature reserve with the difficult name is a hotspot for kayaking. The crystal-clear water makes it easy to see manatees in Weeki Wachi. Especially in winter, the animals seek refuge around the park’s warm springs, so that is where you should steer your boat.
Manatees in Wakulla Springs
In general, fresh water springs are a favorite winter refuge for manatees. In addition, this State Park has a remarkable characteristic: Manatees in Wakulla Springs stay for the whole year. What is more, females use this place to give birth to their young.
Manatees im Blue Springs State Park
Blue Springs State Park is a popular recreational area north of Orlando. Big groups of manatees are a common sight in the shallow, crystal-clear waters of these springs. The winter months in particular are a perfect time to see manatees in Blue Springs State Park. Oftentimes, injured manatees are brought here for rehabilitation. From the wooden boardwalk, you will enjoy amazing views, and if you are lucky, you might see females with their calves.
Manatees in Homosassa Springs
At the moment, Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park houses two manatees that live there permanently. The park also serves as a rehabilitation center for injured animals that are released back into the wild after treatment. In winter, you can observe even more manatees in Homosassa Springs.
Manatees in the Florida Keys
Thanks to their warm, tropical waters, the Florida Keys are an ideal place for manatees – at the beach as well as in marinas. In winter, you can even see them in the canals of Key West. Generally, the best thing is to go where water temperatures are the highest. Manatees in the Florida Keys prefer these spots. For example, you could try your luck in the following places:
- Key Largo: especially Manatee Bay and the beach of the Hampton Inn
- Vaca Key, near West Sister Rock
- Little Palm Island, especially the East Docks
- Marco Island, e.g. South Marco Beach
- Hurricane Hole on Stock Island.
Manatees in Florida Zoos and Aquariums
Of course, you cannot only observe the marine mammals in the wild. If you want to have a hundred percent chance of seeing manatees, you should visit Florida’s zoos and aquariums. Places that feature manatees are:
- ZooTampa at Lowry Park
- Miami Seaquarium
- SeaWorld, Orlando
- Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens
- Epcot, Walt Disney World
- Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, Sarasota
Manatees of Florida FAQ – Frequently asked Questions
How old do manatees get?
Manatees in the wild can live for up to 60 years. However, the oldest manatee in captivity reached the age of 69.
Where can I see manatees in Florida?
The short answer: everywhere on the coast, even in marinas, canals and the basins of power plants. As a rule of thumb: Bodies of water that are warmer than the nearby coast provide a good chance of seeing manatees.
Which time is best to see manatees in Florida?
It depends where you are staying. On the coast, you can theoretically see the animals the whole year round. However, keep in mind that only 6.000 manatees remain in the wild, and that they spread across a large area. In winter, manatees tend to concentrate in Florida’s warmer waters where they can easily be observed.
Where can I swim with manatees?
If you want to swim or snorkel with manatees, you can take a trip to the Crystal River. King’s Bay is the only place in Florida where you can legally swim with the animals, and there are many tour providers.
Are manatees dangerous?
No. As herbivores, manatees do not harm humans. Should a manatee swim close to you, just remain calm. The animals are very curious and like to feel foreign objects with their snouts. Nonetheless, you should not swim towards manatees, but keep your distance in order to not disturb them.