Best Places to See the Manatees in Florida

Are you headed to Florida to escape the winter snow? Then you should definitely fit into your schedule one, two or all of the best places to go see the manatees. However, you have to time it just right to see gentle sea cows in action! In this article we’ll show you not only where to get the best views of the manatee sightings, but also, where you can actually swim with the manatees too!

So, let’s dive right in to learn a few manatee fun facts, why they come to Florida and where they come chillax for the winter!

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The Best Places to See the Manatees in Florida

Where can you actually swim with the Manatees too!

Where do the 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). 

These gentle sea cows and bulls migrate to the warm turquoise artesian springs, coastal inlets and power plant discharge canals for refuge, rest and relaxation! And they’re all in the state of Florida!

But, did you know that some Florida manatees migrate even further up the Atlantic coastline to Georgia and the Carolinas?

And, sometimes hundreds of these gentle aquatic creatures travel as far north as Massachusetts during warm summer months.

Manatee’s 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.

How many manatees are 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. They 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.”

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

Do alligators attack or eat manatees?

Alligators generally hang out in marshes. Whereas manatees tend to hang out in the crystal clear warm spring 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.

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 nor are they predatory. They don’t pose as a threat or seek out other wildlife for food.

In other words, the manatee and alligator do coexist together in the same habitat!

When is manatee mating season?

Florida Manatees resting on bottom

Manatee mating season usually happens in shallow coastal waters between March and September. Manatees will congregate in groups of 10-15 to breed.

The reproductive rate for manatees is surprisingly low. And both, cows and bulls reach sexual maturity around their 5th birthday.

But, did you know that it’s not the male that’s looking for a little tail? Female manatees in heat (estrus) are actually the pursuers. Sea Cows will seek out a dominant male manatee to breed with.

Unlike most other mammals, manatees are not monogamous. 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 she decides on ‘the one’.

Females have a live birth to just one calf once every 3 years. Twin births are a rare phenomenon, but it does occur.

Although breeding and birth may occur at any time during the year, there appears to be a broad spring-summer calving peak season.

Newborn calves are capable of swimming to the surface on their own and vocalize soon after they are born.

How big do manatees get?

Female manatees, also known as cows, can grow to be anywhere from 10′ to 14′ long and up to 3500 pounds!

Whereas males manatees, also known as bulls, are typically smaller measuring about 9′ long and weighing 1200-1800 pounds.

Is the Florida Manatee a protected species?

Manatee face under water

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.

When is the best time to see the manatees in Florida?

While you can spot the manatees year round, the months of November through April are the best time to see manatees in Florida.

However, from December through February, the manatee 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.

The best time of day to see the manatees is early morning from about 6:00 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. when they are most active. So, you may want to set your alarm before the sun rises and meander to any of the manatee sighting locations.

Can you swim with manatees?

Florida Manatees - Snorkel

One of the most exhilarating experiences during your Florida vacation is to actually swim with the manatees!

However, as you’ll learn deeper into this article, you can’t swim or snorkel just anywhere there are manatees.

You need to know where to go, what to do, and how to conduct yourself properly in the manatee’s 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. This is why we highly recommend joining in an underwater snorkel tour to get the best experience possible.

However, be aware you may need to set your alarm clock. You’ll want to be out there early in the morning when the tide is in and when there’s less people.

And, we found weekdays are also best time of the week to see the manatees as weekends are more crowded with people.

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, you need to watch the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service video (below) on Manatee Manners:

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

Crystal River

Florida Manatees in Crystal Springs - Always On Liberty
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I’m a bit partial here saying that Crystal River, Florida is one of my favorite places to visit for a variety of reasons. Located on Florida’s Nature Coast, it has a lot of awesome eco-incredible stuff going on.

But, it’s also because of the star of the show; the Manatee! Crystal River is, hands down, the absolute best place to see the manatees in Florida!

And so, the show begins as 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! Hence why Citrus County is known as the Manatee Capitol of the WorldAnd 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 the 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, while you can swim with the manatees, Crystal River NWR strongly urges swimmers and snorkelers to watch 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.

And, 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.

And now you know why Crystal River is the best place to see manatees!

✰ RELATED   Check out our Things to Do at Crystal River Florida – Complete Visitor’s Guide

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Best Places to See Manatees - Homosassa

Also in Citrus County near Crystal River, Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is another great place to see manatees in Florida.

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 Springs Wildlife State Park, visitors can see the manatees at the Park’s “Fishbowl”. It’s an underwater observatory where you can get face to face with the manatees without even getting 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 provides a nice warm and peaceful place for manatees to congregate, eat their salad and show their cute faces.

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 mid-November to March to escape the cold waters. This makes Blue Spring another of Florida’s best places to see manatees!

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

DID YOU KNOW?  ✰  Blue Space is Linked to Boosting Mental Health & Well Being

Destin

Wakulla River and the St. Marks River are great viewing locations to watch for manatees during 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

It was purely by accident that we got to see manatees at the Flamingo Visitor Center at Everglades National Park in Homestead, Florida.

However, we noticed the manatee’s skin looks a little rougher and sadly scarred. We’re thinking it may be from the airboats zipping around the tributaries.

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. If you’re lucky, you may have one even come close to the dock to say hello.

Fort Pierce

Fort Pierce is another of the best places to see manatees but this time on Florida’s east coast. It’s home to another group of manatees who make their way from the Gulf of Mexico up along the east coast to cooler waters.

So, you’ll need to check out the Manatee Observation and Educational Center in Fort Pierce.

As well, you can also see manatees at Moore’s Creek throughout the year. However, your best bet is to visit during winter time.

The 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 manatees and their calves 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 enjoy 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 grab some 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, it bears repeating though, 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.

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Jacksonville

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has a Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation critical care center. It’s one of four manatee rescue programs in the state of Florida.

I’ve learned another of the great manatee viewing area 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 (2022 prices).

Visitors can also rent kayaks or pick up souvenirs at their gift shop at the Manatee Kayaking Company. Group Tours and programs are available on request. Call (239) 690-5030 for more information.

And if you bring your own kayak, there is a kayak self-launch area. 

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 these gentle giants best at the Manatee Observation Deck on SR 3 at Haulover Canal. Another manatee viewing 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. It’s 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, we highly recommend dropping in for lunch at Walt’s Fish Market Restaurant and Tiki Bar on the Tamiami Trail. Trust me, speaking from personal experience, they have the best Grouper sandwich EVER!

TECO Manatee Viewing Center, Apollo Beach

Tampa Electric and Emera Company’s (TECO) Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach is an exceptional place where manatees gather. In fact, it’s one of the best places to see manatees in Florida and hike too!

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.

You’ll definitely want to 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

Our last best place 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, according to the Florida Rambler“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.”

How can we help keep the manatees safe?

Best Places to See the Manatees - Sign

As visitors, we can help the manatees thrive 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.

MANATEE ALERT

If you see a manatee in distress or report an injured, harassed, orphaned or deceased manatee, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hotline at 1-888-404-3922 (FWCC). Cell phone users may dial *FWC or #FWC.

Planning your RV vacation to Florida?

If you’re planning on taking your RV to Florida to see the manatees, it’s important to plan ahead so your experience will be less stressful.

Anytime we plan our RV destinations, we start our research using RV LIFE Trip Wizard. RV Trip Wizard gets you to your camping destinations utilizing RV-friendly routes specific to your RV and travel preferences. You can try it FREE for 7-Days!

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Wrapping up the best places to see Manatees in Florida

Manatee Underwater

So, what did you think of this awesome list of places to see the Florida manatees?

I promise, once you see the grace and grandois of these gentle chubby sea creatures, you’ll understand the allure.

If you have any other cool places to see the manatees, let us know in the comments so other readers can take note.

Check out this fun manatee gear:

Manatee Mug

Manatee Mug

Manatee Pajamas

Manatee Pajama Pants

Manatee Face Mask

Manatee Mask

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