Manatees are one of Florida’s most beloved animals, and many people visit Florida hoping to see manatees during their trip. These gentle giants spend most of their lives grazing and floating around Florida’s springs and rivers.
If you’re looking to catch a glimpse of our State Marine Mammal, we’ve rounded up our favorite ways to see manatees. There are options for those who want to get in the water with them, and those who prefer to stay on dry land!
When Can I See Manatees in Florida?
The easiest time of year to see manatees is during the winter and early spring. Manatees will naturally flock to wherever the warmest water is. During wintertime when the air and ocean waters are cold, springs and spring-fed rivers are still a constant 72-degrees. If you are looking to see wild manatees, the winter months are your best bet.
Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center
Manatees like warm water, but that doesn’t mean you’ll only find them in springs. You can often see them around power plants where warm water is discharged into bodies of water. Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach has taken advantage of this and created a viewing center for the hundreds of manatees who come to the warm waters each winter.
“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.”
The power plant takes the water from Tampa Bay to cool the power units. Then clean warm water flows back into the bay. Manatees love hanging out in this canal, and visitors can see them by the dozens from multiple observation decks.
Other things to do at the park include a nature trail, 50-foot observation tower, boardwalk, picnic tables, concessions, gift shop, environmental education building, kids activities, butterfly garden and more.
The Manatee Viewing Center is open each year from November 1st to April 15th, 10am to 5pm daily. Admission and parking are free.
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park aims to educate guests about native Florida wildlife through immersive habits and informative programs. If you are looking to see manatees up close, this is one of the best places in Florida.
Unlike zoos or aquariums, this is the only place to see a manatee face-to-face in it’s natural spring habitat without getting wet. Thanks to the park’s unique underwater observatory right above Homosassa Spring.
During the manatee educational program, the manatees gather at the feeding areas and you’ll be able to catch a great view of the gentle giants up close, year round.
Florida Rivers and Springs
A visit to almost any Florida spring or river during the winter months will give you a great opportunity to see manatees. You may be lucky enough to spot them while you’re swimming or boating. However, some of the popular springs are closed for swimming during winter to protect the manatees. You’ll still be able to observe them from the boardwalks or during special guided tours.
Crystal River might be the most popular location to swim with manatees. There are many guided manatee tours available in the area where a knowledgeable guide will take you into the water to swim with the gentle giants. These guided tours in Crystal River are the only situation where you are allowed to approach and swim with wild manatees.
At Three Sisters Springs, hundreds of manatees flock during the winter months. In November – March the spring is a designated manatee sanctuary. Another thing to note is you are not able to enter the spring from land, only by boat. The boardwalks around the spring allow you to see the manatees from above.
Not to be confused with any of the other three Blue Springs State Parks in Florida, this park is north of Orlando. The main spring is closed during the winter to protect the manatees. But there are overlooks and boardwalks around the park where you can still get a great view of the animals.
Although you probably won’t see any manatees inside Weeki Wachee Springs State Park due to the large number of tourists, you do have a good chance to see them along the river. The Weeki Wachee River is gorgeous for paddling and will make a great trip on its own, but during the winter you’ll almost certainly see manatees. Hospital Hole is a popular place where they seem to congregate during the cold months.
Bishop Museum of Science and Nature
This museum located in Bradenton showcases Florida’s ecosystems and natural history. Plus its home to The Parker Manatee Rehabilitation Habitat. The facility “provides a temporary home for manatees that will be released back into the wild after having received treatment”. You can view manatees from above and below water and enjoy their educational programs.
The Habitat has housed 38 manatees as part of the rehabilitation program. It was also the permanent home to the oldest known manatee, Snooty, who sadly passed away in 2017 at the age of 69 years old.
Is it legal to swim with manatees? Yes – but you are not allowed to approach the manatees. You must keep a reasonable distance and respect the animals. That being said, manatees are generally very curious and will sometimes come up to you or your boat. You are not allowed to touch them because they are a protected species. Always be respectful of these beautiful creatures and never chase or tease them.
If using a boat with a motor, be cautious and obey any no-wake zones. One of the most common causes of manatee injury and death is from boat motors.
Follow nature’s golden rule – take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. Keeping our manatee habitats safe and clean will help the species thrive.