Best Places to See Manatees in Florida (and Swim with them too!)

Snowbirds aren’t the only ones flocking to Florida for the bright sunshine and warm coastal waters. It’s also the winter home to thousands of Manatees, who migrate south to the warmer turquoise waters and blue springs in the coastal inlets. But, where are the best places to see manatees in Florida?

Before we learn where the best places to see manatees in Florida, let’s first learn a few things about these giant aquatic mammals.

Best Places to See Manatees in Florida

Florida Manatees resting on bottom

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Manatee Behavior

Manatees are named for their slow meandering to graze on vegetation. They are non-territorial, non-aggressive and eat 6-8 hours a day; primarily feeding on grasses and aquatic plants. They spend the rest of their day socializing with other manatees as well as strengthening their curiosity. Manatees are inquisitive yet very docile.

According to Sea World, “Manatees are best described as semi-social. The basic social unit is a female and her calf. Groups of manatees gather and disperse casually.”

A group of manatees is called an aggregation. When they are grouping, they are either sharing a large grazing location, in search of a Cow, or just meandering as a herd. They do tend to herd in the winter with other manatees in warmer and peaceful aquatic environments and disperse casually.

While aggregating, they play games like follow-the-leader and they love to bodysurf. Their snout nuzzles and vocals are signs of friendly communication, similar to human hugging or shaking hands.

Where do Florida manatees migrate from?

Best Places to See Manatees - Migrating

The Florida manatee, a sub-species of the West Indian manatee, inhabits the state’s coastal waters, rivers and springs when the northern water temperatures drop below 68°F (20°C). Some Florida manatees migrate up the Atlantic coastline to Georgia and the Carolinas. Sometimes hundreds of these gentle aquatic creatures travel as far north as Massachusetts during warm summer months.

Manatee mating

Female manatees are called cows while naturally, male manatees are called bulls. Males are typically smaller measuring about 9′ long and weighing 1200-1800 pounds. Whereas, female manatees grow to be anywhere from 10′ to 14′ long and up to 3500 pounds!

Unlike other animals, manatees are not monogamous. Both, cows and bulls reach sexual maturity at about 5 years. They do not create permanent relationship bonds with the bull they mate with. During mating, a dozen or more bulls will follow a cow until one makes his move. Females have a live birth to one calf once every 3 years. 

Manatee face under water

Is the Florida Manatee protected?

The Florida Manatee is protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. Violations of these acts may result in fines up to $100,000 and/or 1 year in prison.

How many Manatees are in existence in the United States?

Best Places to See Manatees - Manatee Aggregation

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “the current (as of 2021) range-wide population is estimated to be at least 13,000 manatees, with more than 6,500 in the southeastern United States and Puerto Rico. When aerial surveys began in 1991, there were an estimated 1,267 manatees in Florida. Today there are more than 6,300 in Florida, representing a significant increase over the past 25 years. Learn more about the manatee’s road to recovery.”

What do Manatees eat?

Florida Manatee Eating Aquatic Plants

Manatees are herbivores that eat submerged and floating aquatic plants such as seagrass and other natural underwater vegetation.

According to Save the Manatee organization, “Manatees can eat 10 – 15% of their body weight in vegetation daily. A 1,000-pound (453-kilogram) manatee, for example, would probably eat between 100 – 150 pounds (45-68 kilograms) of food a day. Listed below are some main types of marine and freshwater vegetation in Florida that manatees prefer to eat.”

Although manatees mainly eat a plant-based diet, they may inadvertently supplement their diets with zooplankton, mollusks and even sea squirts while munching on the aquatic vegetation.

Are Alligators a threat to Manatees 

Alligators generally hang out in marshes whereas manatees hang out in more clear waters where they can swim freely.

So, to answer the question, ‘are alligators a threat to Manatees?”, the short answer is very rarely do alligators attack or interact with manatees. Manatees aren’t predatory. So, they don’t pose as a threat. Even so, due to their large size and the ability to swim faster than alligators, they’re not in the alligator’s food chain. Manatees have no natural predators.

Best time of the year to see Manatees

While you can spot the Sea Cows year round, the months of November through April are the best time to see manatees in Florida. However, from December through February, their population is at its’ largest. The summer months aren’t as favorable for manatee sightings due to the water temperatures being too warm for their liking.

Best time of the day to see Manatees?

The best time to see or swim with the manatees is early morning 6:00 am to 8:30 am when they are most active. Some locations have tours during those times. So, set your alarm to go before the sun rises!!

Can you snorkel or swim with manatees?

One of the most exhilarating experiences during your visit to Florida is to swim with the manatees! However, as you’ll learn deeper into this article, you can’t swim or snorkel just anywhere there are manatees.

Florida Manatees - Snorkel

According to Captain Mike’s at Crystal River, Florida, it’s possible to get to swim with the manatees but only if you are a local who knows where to go, what to do, and how to conduct yourself properly in their habitat. Swimming with the manatees requires planning and knowledge, including locating the right place to snorkel with them legally, bringing the right gear, and mastering manatee manners.

But, once you find out where you can swim with manatees, you’ll need to set your alarm clock for sunrise. You’ll want to be out there early in the morning when the tide is in and when there’s less people. We found weekdays are also best as weekends can get a bit crowded.

So, while you can swim with the manatees, it’s best for these gentle giants too not touch, pet, feed, molest or harm them. Also, snorkelers should never pursue them nor block their transit routes. Just watch them. And, if you have your underwater camera or GoPro outfitted with underwater videoing, you can record some great memories.

However, before donning your snorkel gear, I encourage you to watch the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service video on Manatee Manners:

Check out this cool manatee gear:

Manatee Ceramic Cup

Manatee Mug

Manatee Pajama Set

Manatee Pajama Pants

Manatee Face Mask

Manatee Mask

Now that we’ve learned all about the Florida manatees, let’s check out those best places to see manatees in Florida!

Crystal River

Florida Manatees in Crystal Springs - Always On Liberty
Always On Liberty©

I’m a bit partial here saying that Crystal River is one of my favorite places to see the Florida manatees. The aquatic gentle giants arrive in mid November at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to escape the cold Gulf of Mexico waters. 

Crystal River is located in Citrus County about 90 minutes north of Tampa, on the west coast of Florida. The headwaters of Crystal River are known as Kings Bay, where the water temperature is a consistent 72 degrees year-round. 

Kings Bay hosts the largest aggregation of manatees in the entire world! In fact, Citrus County is known as the Manatee Capitol of the World! And it’s no wonder! Kings Bay has more than 70 springs that produce about 240 million gallons of fresh water daily. The bay flows into Crystal River which discharges into the Gulf of Mexico.

To protect manatees from harm, harassment and disturbance, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and Manatee Sanctuaries were created in parts of Kings Bay.

Three Sisters Springs  is the most beautiful spring system in Kings Bay and the most important for wintering manatees. Shuttles to the Three Sisters Springs boardwalk are available daily but reservations are needed. 

But, the reason why Crystal River’s Three Sisters Springs is my favorite manatee sighting location is it’s the only place you legally swim with manatees in North America!

However, Crystal River NWR strongly urges everyone to review their video Manatee Manners before initiating any recreation activity in Kings Bay. For more information on the Refuge and manatees, visit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge Crystal River

Also, manatee sightings are often reported near the Chassahowitzka River boat ramp and feeding along the riverbank. Also, if you’re kayaking or canoeing, paddle to the Seven Sisters Springs or journey up Baird Creek to Maggie’s Crack, another beloved local spring.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Best Places to See Manatees - Homosassa

Also in Citrus County near Crystal River, Homosassa Springs is a great place to see manatees by tour companies or nature guides. The Homosassa spring system pumps 65 million gallons a day from three spring vents into the Homosassa River flowing to Homosassa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

At Homosassa, visitors can see the manatees at the Park’s “Fishbowl”; an underwater observatory where you can get face to face with the manatees without getting your head wet.

Visitors can also take in their daily programs to learn about the manatee and how the Refuge and Rehabilitation Center helps injured or orphaned manatees. And, the outdoor protected area, Blue Water, a freshwater spring under a natural aquifer that provides a nice warm and peaceful place for manatees to congregate.

Blue Spring State Park

Best Places to See Manatees - Manatee On Gulf Floor

Over 600 manatees gather at Florida’s Blue Spring State Park from about mid-November to March to escape the cold waters. In fact, last count was about 624 according to Save the Manatee‘s 2020-2021 Manatee Reports. Visitors can get a great view of the gentle giants from the boardwalk along the St. John’s River to the headspring.

Can’t get down to Florida to see the manatees? You can check out their multiple webcams above water and underwater

Destin

Wakulla River and the St. Marks River are great locations to watch for manatees in the summer months. The sea creatures oftentimes congregate at the headwaters in Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park throughout the year. They can be seen in the Wakulla River. You may also may score a manatee sighting at Miramar Beach.

Everglades National Park

This is another place we’ve visited to see the manatees. However, it was purely by accident that we found them at the Flamingo Visitor Center at the end of the Everglades National Park in Homestead, Florida.

The visitor center is helpful for getting suggestions on the best places to view wildlife and has some interesting displays. From the visitor center, just walk the short distance to the marina, where you can see the manatees sunning themselves. And, if you’re lucky, you may have one even come close to the dock to say hello.

Fort Pierce

Fort Pierce is a great place to see the manatees during your Florida vacation as it’s home to another group of manatees who made their way from the Gulf up along the east coast. So, you’ll need to check out the Manatee Observation and Educational Center in Fort Pierce. As well, you can also see the manatees at Moore’s Creek throughout the year. However, your best bet is to come during winter time.

Florida Keys

Best Places to See Manatees - Florida Keys

There are several locations for manatee sightings in the Florida Keys. In the Middle Keys that encompass Islamorada, Marathon, and Big Pine Key, there’s a good chance to see them in the seagrass at the inlet at Lorelei’s Restaurant and Cabana Bar on the waterfront. So, you can rent a kayak or bring your own and explore Indian Key Historic State Park and have a sunset dinner to close your day.

In Key Largo, there are regular manatee sightings at the Pilot House restaurant, behind the Murray Nelson Government center and the Hampton Inn. You can also get to see manatees while enjoying a beer at Sharkey’s Sharkbite Grill while looking out at the canal. Or, I’ve heard you can have a nice lunch at Skippers Dockside and sit along the rail bordering the canal. Both are located at mile marker 100 in Key Largo.

Islamorada Eco-Tours and Wildlife Displays offers great opportunities to see manatees, dolphins, sea lions, sting rays, crocodiles, birds and other wildlife. You can snorkel and swim the coral reef or end the day with an amazing sunset! However, as mentioned earlier, the only place you can actually swim with the manatees is at Crystal River.

At the southern most Key, the West Indian Manatee claims the waters around Key West. I’ve learned that this particular breed likes warm, shallow water and can in fact die in water colder than 60 degrees.

There have been sightings around the Key West Bight Area; off the beach at the Pier House and around Garrision Bight and the Ocean Key House Pier.

Jacksonville

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has a Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation critical care center. It’s one of four in the state of Florida. If you see a manatee in distress, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hotline at 1-888-404-3922 (FWCC).

I’ve learned another great place to get a view of the manatees is around the power plants in Jacksonville, Florida.

Lee County Manatee Park

Best Places to See Manatees - Chubby Manatee

Lee County Manatee Park in Fort Myers, Florida has a great viewing area for spotting lots of the sea mammals. Manatee Park is ideal refuge for the Florida Manatee because of the warm protected waters.

The park is located at Palm Beach Boulevard in Fort Myers. Do know there’s a $2/hour or $5/day parking fee and a $10 for a Shuttle Van or $20 for a Tour Bus per visit. Visitors can also rent kayaks or pick up souvenirs at their gift shop at the Manatee Kayaking Company. If you bring your own kayak, there is a kayak self-launch area. Group Tours and programs are available on request. Call (239) 690-5030 for more information

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Best Places to See Manatees - Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Manatees frequent Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge mostly during the Spring and Fall months. Visitors can see them best at the Manatee Observation Deck on SR 3 at Haulover Canal. Another manatee zone is near the Bairs Cove boat launch.

Sarasota

A few of the popular tour companies in the Siesta Key may get you a great view of manatees. However, never assume you’ll see them so it would be best to ask before booking your tour.

If you’re visiting off season or you prefer not to get into the water, Mote Marine Aquarium is a great viewing manatee viewing option.

Oh, and while you’re in Sarasota, if you’re into great seafood, drop into Walt’s Fish Market Restaurant and Tiki Bar at 4144 South Tamiami Trail in Sarasota to get the best Grouper sandwich EVER!! (Speaking from experience).

TECO Manatee Viewing Center, Apollo Beach

Tampa Electric and Emera Company’s Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach is an exceptional place where manatees gather. Big Bend’s discharge canal is a state and federally designated manatee sanctuary that provides critical protection from the cold for these unique, gentle animals.

Visitors can hike the Manatee Viewing Center’s habitat loop trail; a winding route through natural Florida terrain to the wildlife observation tower. Climb up the 50 foot high tower to get a fantastic view of the surrounding habitat and estuary below. Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center is open from November 1st to April 15th from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. The Nature Trail and Wildlife Observation Tower close at 4 PM.

Check to see if manatees are at the center using our east and west Web cameras from home!

Weeki Wachee State Park

Best Places to See Manatees - Weeki Wachee

The last of our best places to see the manatees in Florida is Weeki Wachee State Park. And for good reason.

And even though we’ve not kayaked Weeki Wachee yet, we’ll take the Florida Rambler word in his article Weeki Wachee Springs: Kayaking, manatees and mermaids, “You can see manatees at any point along the Weeki Wachee; sometimes there are manatees right at the springhead. Kayakers who start at the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park no longer paddle as far as Hospital Hole.”

 

Florida Day Trips

Florida Backroads Travel: Day Trips Off The Beaten Path

Fodor’s Florida Travel Guide

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How can we help the Manatees?

Best Places to See the Manatees - Sign

As visitors, we can help the manatees by maintaining a healthy distance from them in their natural habitat.

When boating, stay in the deep-water channels whenever possible and follow the speed zones. And when in doubt, move slower. Manatees can be severely and lethally injured by boat collisions. Avoid boating over seagrass beds and shallow areas, as this is where manatees feed, sleep and hang out. 

Keep your trash in an enclosed bag or can on your boat and away from the water; making certain none of your trash exits the boat. 

When fishing, never discard monofilaments fishing lines, hooks, any foreign matter or litter into the water.

But lastly, keep the Wildlife Alert Hotline number in-hand: 888-404-FWCC (3922). Cell phone users may dial *FWC or #FWC to report an injured, dead, harassed, or orphaned manatee. It’s a good idea to keep those numbers on your watercraft; including kayaks, paddle boards and canoes. Your call could be what saves a distressed manatee’s life.

Final thoughts on the best places to see Manatees in Florida

Manatee Underwater

WOW! What do you think of our list of the best places to see manatees in Florida? Does it make you want to go on a road trip or plan a trip down to the Sunshine State? I promise, once you see the grace of these gentle chubby sea creatures, you’ll understand the allure to see them up close. In fact, I bet you’ll want to book a stopover to swim with the manatees!

If you have any other places to see the manatees, we’d love for you to let us know in the comments so other readers can take note.

Always On Liberty - Places to See Manatees

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