When temperatures drop to 68F (20C) and below, Florida’s native manatees make their way toward warmer waters, and that means the months of January and February are peak viewing season. Freshwater springs and rivers generally remain above 71F (22C), attracting these gentle mammals in their hundreds, and due to the clarity of many of their gathering grounds, it is truly a spectacular sight to behold. Where can you find them? Here are the Top 5 viewing spots:
1) Crystal River is an ideal location, and the absolute best place to seek out Florida’s gentle giants from a landside vantage point is Three Sisters Spring, one of three springs that feeds into Kings Bay at Crystal River. The water is crystal-clear (hence the river’s name), and there is a walkway that surrounds Three Sisters Spring, with an inlet connecting it to the river. Kayakers are not allowed into the spring area during manatee season, so you’ll have a perfect view, often of hundreds of manatees gathered together. In fact, Crystal River is known as the largest gathering point for manatees in the whole of the United States.
Kayaks and pontoon boat tours can be hired for a closer view of the manatees in the river, though they are not allowed to enter Three Sisters Spring. But for the absolute best view—and some unforgettable photos!—you’ll want to get right in the water for a snorkelling encounter with these spectacular animals.
Manatee swims are by reservation only, so be sure to book in advance. Your ATD Florida Adventure Tour—Swim with Manatees also includes breakfast, lunch, an airboat and pontoon boat ride, and admission to another fantastic place to view manatees, which is:
2) Homosassa State Wildlife Park. The iconic “sea cow” can be seen year-round here, along with other native Florida wildlife, including black bears, roseate spoonbills, panthers, cougars and bobcats. While it may look like a zoo with superbly landscaped, natural habitats, this is actually a rehabilitation centre for injured and orphaned animals. The park has a large freshwater spring, dubbed “The Fish Bowl,” where manatees can be viewed underwater, and there are plenty of kid-orientated experiences, terrific educational programmes, and a concessions court and gift shop as well.
3) Blue Springs State Park has been designated as a manatee refuge, and the half-mile boardwalk around Blue Springs Run offers terrific viewing. There is a nature walk for strolling along the river, and, in winter months, you may find hundreds of manatees seeking relief in the Saint John’s River’s warmer waters. A bonus here is the boardwalk’s interpretive displays, with information about the history of the area’s flora and fauna.
The river varies from somewhat brackish to ultra-clear, and sea cows can easily be seen the full length of the springs, along with a wonderful variety of native and introduced fish, gators, shorebirds and more. While swimming, snorkelling and kayaking are allowed outside manatee season, winter and early spring visitors are restricted to the walkway along the river. But fear not; there are lots of overlooks, and crowds are somewhat lighter on weekdays.
4) Although it isn’t their natural environment, SeaWorld has a superb manatee viewing area, and, even more importantly, they have a rescue centre that is especially active in cooler months. Every year there are manatees who, for various reasons, don’t make it to the warmer waters and suffer a potentially life-threatening condition known as ‘cold stress’. SeaWorld’s rescue team is always on call when manatees run into trouble, providing veterinary care and a warm, secure place for their gigantic patients to recover until they are able to be returned to the wild. On the rare occasion a manatee cannot be returned to its former territory and is deemed un-releasable by the U.S. government, SeaWorld makes room for it for the duration of its life. An expert is on hand at the Manatee Rehabilitation area to answer any and all questions.
5) Other locations for viewing manatees near Orlando include Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, where kayak hire is available for one-way, three-hour excursions along the clear shallows of the Weeki Wachee River, and it’s all downstream, so it’s an easy paddle. Shuttle vans will return you to your starting point.
Less reliable for sightings, but within easy reach from Kennedy Space Center, is Merritt Island State Park’s Haulover Canal, at the junction of the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon (don’t be put off by the lagoon’s name; this is winter we’re talking about, and the mozzies are nowhere to be seen…or felt). Simply park your hire car in the small car park (it’s free) and take a very short stroll to the dedicated Manatee Observation Deck overlooking the river. It’s a popular spot, and it can get crowded at weekends, so weekdays are your best bet, ideally after a day at the Space Center.
What if you’re not visiting during Florida’s cooler months? Don’t worry. It is possible to see manatees any time of the year, though not in the enormous numbers you’ll see in winter, and not as reliably in any one location. However, they do have their favourite grazing grounds, and many of Florida’s coastal boat tours trundle around the sea grass areas with an eye toward possible viewings, though it is more likely you’ll see a head, a tail, or a cute, whiskery muzzle poking above the water as the manatee takes a breath, rather than seeing the whole animal. Again, booking a Manatee Swim greatly increases your chances of seeing several of these curious creatures up close, especially mothers with youngsters who aren’t quite ready to take to the open water.
As Florida residents, we’re extremely protective of our “gentle giants,” who should never be approached, harassed, or fed, but we’re equally eager for visitors to observe this iconic animal in the wild, and now is the perfect time to add them to your upcoming Orlando plans.
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