The lovable manatee aka the sea cow is one of Florida’s favorite (and most protected) creatures. For much of the year, the Florida manatee lives widely spread throughout the waterways of Florida and south Georgia. When winter hits, their patterns change and the manatees migrate to Florida’s warmest waters – more specifically the freshwater springs.
They have an internal thermometer that tells them when the ocean dips below 68 degrees. As soon as that happens, they head for the Sunshine State. It’s remarkable. The water temps in Florida springs hold in the mid-70s year round.
To ensure the safety of the gathering manatees, many of these destinations are closed to swimming and other aquatic recreation in winter and early spring. However, you can still observe sizable clusters of these gentle giants cuddling up in the warm spring waters from designated viewing areas.
Florida is one of the best places to see manatees in probably the whole world. The clear water allows you to see the entire animal, not just a snout or fin. You’ll want to visit in November through March, because after the first quarter these beautiful beasts head back to their “summer” homes.
Grab your binoculars and your sense of wonder and head to the following areas to see manatees in Florida. You’ll also read about the best times of the year to see manatees in the sunshine state.
Where to see manatees in Florida:
Within Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is the Haulover Canal, a warm water area that manatees absolutely love. Located on the eastern coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge comprises 140,000 acres of undisturbed wildlife habitat that is home to more than 1,500 plant and animal species — 21 of which are listed on endangered species lists. The canal between the river and lagoon was eventually dug in the 19th century, giving humans (and 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.
No boat? No problem. Blue Spring State Park is pedestrian-friendly manatee viewing. With several overlooks and boardwalks for your viewing pleasure, make a full day of exploring gorgeous Blue Spring State Park. Don’t forget your camera! Sometimes there are over 100 manatees swimming here. (You can see up-to-date information on how many manatees are in the spring at this website.) Situated on the St. Johns River near Orange City, Florida, Blue Spring State Park was established in 1972 by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and represents one of the state’s first efforts to protect these vulnerable giants. If you go to Blue Spring State Park in the winter, be aware that at times the park closes its gates when it reaches capacity.
Ready to see huge groups of manatees? Make your way to lovely Crystal River and see the Three Sisters Springs. This area was established in 1983 with a specific goal of protecting that manatees that dwell here. Comfortable waters beckon these beautiful beasts year round. Beyond walking in, visitors can kayak or take a boat tour. There are actually more than 70 springs here as the Crystal River wraps around what’s known as King’s Bay. Spot the manatees from the water or on land as a visitor boardwalk stretches out from the most beautiful spot on the river. During the winter water access is strictly limited and sometimes prohibited, depending on the number of manatees in the water. You might find up to 30 manatees in the summer from April to November. 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.
Situated directly on a warm water discharge cancal, Lee County Manatee Park is a siren song to manatees. Bath temperature water awaits cuddly sea cows each winter thanks to the former power plant nearby. Don’t worry it’s perfectly safe! For humans, there’s the opportunity to see dozens of manatees plus enjoy a stroll through the butterfly garden or picnic areas. There’s an observation platform for safe viewing and all 17-acres are gorgeous. Take a guided tour to get a good look at the park’s most stunning features. Since the water is not clear like Florida springs, the best way to see manatees is from a kayak in the water and you can launch here or rent kayaks here. Manatee Park is five minutes off I-75, so it can be a quick and easy stop.
Make your way to the Suwanee River and Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland for a close look at dozens of manatees. Chiefland, for those who don’t know, is an hour drive from Gainesville. This warm water haven for manatees is the star of the area from November to April. It’s also a popular area for snorkeling and scuba diving as this spring produces 100 million gallons of clear water daily. The connected waterways are perfect for canoeing, kayaking, and swimming gently like these gorgeous creatures. Spend the rest of the day with your family grilling on the BBQ, having a picnic, hiking, and enjoying the park’s playground.