Floating potatoes, chubby mermaids, sea cows. No matter what you call them, everyone loves a manatee. Seeing a manatee in person is on many visitor’s wishlists. So where are the best places to see manatees in Florida? We’ve got some locations you can see these loveable creatures both in the wild and in rehabilitation when you’re in the Sunshine State.
Before we get into that, let’s go over a little info about the state marine animal of Florida including a few do’s and dont’s when you get lucky enough to see one.
When Is Manatee Season In Florida?
Officially, the best time to see manatees in the wild is between November and March. That’s because the waters of the rivers and Gulf of Mexico begin to get colder. Anything water that’s less than 68 degree Fahrenheit is dangerous for manatees. Too cold waters can make manatees get what’s called ‘cold stress,’ which can eventually kill them. So as water gets colders, manatees begin to migrate to the warmer waters of the natural springs of the state.
Why The Springs?
The natural springs in Florida are a constant temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit, no matter what time of year it is. It’s thought that manatees tend to go back to the same springs every year. Oh and btw, manatees aren’t fat! They’re mostly made of muscle. Weighing anywhere between 900-1200 lbs, they just appear chunky.
Is It Illegal To Touch A Manatee In Florida?
Yes! Manatees are classified as threatened in the state so touching them, feeding them, riding them and even using a hose to drizzle water on them is illegal. Manatees swim very slow, around 19 mph, and are naturally curious. So people take those as an invitation to get too close. Not only is the fine up to $500 and or jail time up to 60 days, but it’s just mean. So look but don’t touch when you see manatees.
Can I Swim With Manatees In Florida?
Citrus County on the west coast of the state is the hotbed of manatees. And the only place in the state where it’s legal to swim with them. How can you swim with the manatees if it’s illegal to touch them you might be asking. On a guided tour. There are many tours so investigate well and ask questions. As stated above, manatees are very curious so if they come up and touch you, it’s not illegal. You can’t reciprocate though. Learn everything you need to know about swimming with manatees from Outdoorsy Diva, who took a tour and gives some great tips.
So let’s find out the best places to see manatees in Florida. We included seeing them in the wild and also some places they are rehabilitated when they get sick or injured by boats, in case you’re visiting when the waters are warmer.
Where To See Manatees In Florida In The Wild
Blue Spring State Park – Orange City in Volusia County
Located close to Daytona Beach and DeLand, Blue Spring State Park can at times get up to 400 manatees a day in their springs. The guard gate at the entrance shows the daily number that were observed first thing in the morning. Make sure to arrive early. It’s a popular park during manatee season.
Merritt National Wildlife Refuge – Titusville in Brevard County
The west coast and central Florida have more places to see manatees, but there are a few locations on the east side of the state as well. Home to Kennedy Space Center, Merritt National Wildlife Refuge has a manatee observation deck.
Three Sisters Springs – Crystal River in Citrus County
One of the locations in Citrus County where you can swim with the manatees, Three Sisters Springs is also a great place where you can see manatees from land. The walkways extend into the river and allow you to see people swimming with the manatees and the manatees that are behind the lines where no one can disturb them. Another plus – Three Sisters is also one of the locations of the annual Florida Manatee Festival that takes place every January.
Manatee Lagoon – Riviera Beach in Palm Beach County
Another opportunity on the east coast to look at manatees in the wild is Manatee Lagoon. Run by Florida Power & Light, the manatees congregate here for the warm waters that come out of the FP&L energy plant.
TECO Manatee Viewing Center -Apollo Beach in Hillsborough County
Another energy company in the state, TECO, also has a manatee viewing center. Located just outside of Tampa, it also has a habitat trail and observation tower.
Manatee Springs State Park – Chiefland in Levy County
Of course a park called Manatee Springs is a great place to see manatees! The boardwalk through the cypress forest is a great way to view them. Swimming in the springs is prohibited while the manatees are congregating in season.
Where To See Manatees In Florida In Rehab
As stated above, manatees are never kept in captivity unless they are being rehabilitated from injury or sickness or can’t survive in the wild on their own. Once they’re reported, they’re taken to federally permitted manatee critical care facilities. If they can’t be returned to the wild because of their injury, there are several partner programs where they can live or get additional treatment. Luckily many of them are open to the public so if you can’t see manatees in the wild in Florida, there are other opportunities.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park – Homosassa Springs in Citrus County
A former roadside attraction, Homosassa Springs State Park is a great place to see a wide variety of animals that have been injured or are accustomed to humans and can’t be returned to the wild. The residents include several manatees you can view from the walkway above their pool.
ZooTampa at Lowery Park – Tampa in Hillsborough County
ZooTampa’s critical care center was the first built to care for rehabilitated injured manatees. In addition to critical care pools, there’s also an observation area for the public to view the manatees above and below water. Note that ZooTampa’s manatee center is just for rehab and manatees are routinely moved in and out as they improve.
Bishop Museum of Science and Nature – Bradenton in Manatee County
Bishop Museum of Science and Nature has a Stage 2 rehab facility. Their newly renovated manatee area mimics manatee habitats in cypress groves and visitors can view the manatees from above or from an underwater area.
Jacksonville Zoo – Jacksonville in Duval County
The first ever manatee rehab center in northeast Florida, Jacksonville Zoo is large enough to hold up to 6 manatees at a time.
Mote Marine Aquarium – Sarasota in Sarasota County
Mote Marine has two resident manatees, Hugh and Buffett (named after, of course, singer Jimmy Buffett) Both were born into captivity and are trained to help with research projects that gain more information for scientists about their species. Hugh and Buffett can’t be released back into the wild so Mote is their permanent home.
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