Get up close to manatees in Crystal River. (Photo: Alamy)
It’s hard not to be smitten with Florida’s large, lumbering manatees. Often referred to as “sea cows” thanks to their enormous bodies and gentle mannerisms, manatees are among nature’s most beloved creatures — the so-called gentle giants of Florida’s waterways. Glimpsing a manatee — or swimming in proximity to one — can be the pinnacle of a Sunshine State vacation.
Manatees swim through the coastal ocean throughout the much of the year, but because they’re sensitive to cold temperatures, during winter months, they swarm toward warmer waters, like hot springs, along with canals, creeks and rivers. Keep a keen eye toward the water and look out for large gray shadows gliding past!
Three Sisters Springs, Crystal River
A mecca of manatees, Three Sisters Springs‘ warm water lures manatees to the Crystal River region during winter’s chill. The area is one of the most notorious gathering spots for manatees in the state. In fact, some visitors have reported encountering up to 100 manatees in the area all at once. The springs resemble an enormous swimming hole and are enclosed and protected. Still, area outfitters, like Plantation Adventure Center, provide kayaking and boating tours that bring you up-close to the 2,000-lb. beasts, and even offer the ability to snorkel and swim alongside the manatees.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville
Stretching across 140,000 acres between the Indian River Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is home to scores of birds (more than 300 species!), waterfowl and, you guessed it, manatees. The refuge lies on Merritt Island, where you’ll find hiking trails, boardwalks and a specially designated manatee observation deck.
While there, you can gear up for some manatee spotting throughout the observation area, where Haulover Canal connects to the Indian River Lagoon and Mosquito Lagoon. The spot is ideal, and you’re likely to see manatees silently swim past. Keep an eye out for interpretive signs offering information on what you’re eyeballing, and don’t forget your binoculars; the variety of creatures makes for excellent bird watching.
TECO Manatee Viewing Center, Apollo Beach
Tampa Electric Company (TECO) may seem like an unlikely advocate for the sea cow, but they’ve unintentionally donned the hat. In 1986, residents living near Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach began to notice manatees flocking to the plant’s warm discharge waters in large numbers. The sightings gained the attention of the power company, which then created the TECO Manatee Viewing Center, complete with platforms, tidal walkways and an educational facility.
Today, Big Bend’s discharge canal is a state and federally designated manatee sanctuary that provides protection from the cold for the gentle giants. Visitors can observe the manatees gliding past viewing platforms and wander to the 50-foot viewing tower to catch a glimpse of the wildlife that calls the 50-acre center home.
Where to stay: Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina
Blue Spring State Park, Orange City
The clear, turquoise waters of Blue Spring State Park have been enticing visitors since 1972 when the state granted the area — and its plethora of manatees — protection. During summer months, the park’s brilliant blue waters are a popular spot for swimming, snorkeling and diving. But as winter’s cooler temperatures arrive, manatees begin to flock toward the park’s warm springs, and the water is closed off to visitors. Still, boardwalks and overlooks line the pathway, and it’s exceptionally easy to spy manatees in the water.
Lee County Manatee Park, Fort Myers
Another win for manatees cruising near power plant discharge areas, this time in Fort Myers. Florida Power and Light pumps out heated waters throughout the year, and as temperatures cool, the bubbling warmth draws manatees into the region. The Lee County Manatee Park lies alongside these waterways, and visitors will find ample viewing areas from which to watch the creatures.
If you want a closer look, and really, why wouldn’t you, rent a canoe or kayak from a park outfitter (or bring your own), and paddle into the waters. It’s not unusual for dozens of manatees to swim toward your vessel, nosing and pawing at it in an utterly precious display of curiosity. Pro tip: arrive in the early morning hours, as that’s the ideal time to spot the most manatees!
Where to stay: Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa
This story first appeared on The Florida Buzz, a collection of blog posts about all things travel in the Sunshine State, powered by Florida Marriott Resorts.