You can't possibly forget the first time you see a manatee in the wild. From their chubby, puppy looking faces, to a body that seems far too large to navigate with any efficiency, manatees are a gentle and playful species. While you're paddling through one of Central Florida’s many springs or rivers during the cooler months from November-April, you may see one of these prehistoric creatures surface to breathe, similar to that of a whale or dolphin, and it's wonderful to watch. Many of the waters they inhabit are very clear, allowing for easy visibility of their blimp like bodies effortlessly floating mere feet from you.
When the Florida weather cools down, and the waters of the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts drop below 70-degrees, the manatee looks inland to natural springs for warmer waters. There, they find constant 72-degree waters and a perfect area to congregate in large numbers for rest, food, and mating. With males growing up to 13 feet long and weighing in at 1,300 pounds, they are the true definition of gentle giants. They have no natural predators, but unfortunately, they are sometimes on the losing end of inadvertent human encounters, such as boating collisions or entanglement in fishing gear.
So knowing best practices on where and how to see manatees is good for both you and them.
Where to See Manatees in the Central Florida/Orlando Area:
The best way to interact with manatees is from a distance, so that you don't interrupt their feeding or resting habits and so they can behave naturally within their environment. That being said, there are some options where you can get a little closer while still not disturbing them.
The most popular area to see manatees is the Crystal River, Kings Bay Area on the western end of the state near Ocala. Here, you can walk or paddle to Three Sisters Spring where hundreds of manatees gather every cold season. Sometimes the headwaters are closed, but you are always allowed to swim or kayak in the surrounding waterway. Here, among the multiple protected areas for the manatees, the Manatee Patrol, consisting of volunteers on kayaks, enforce the guidelines to protect the animals. The weekends are very crowded due to diving, motorboat, and kayak tours all operating at once, so expect murky water and other visitors during those times. Sometimes the crowds drive the manatees away by the early afternoon, so paddle or tour in the mornings. There is a public kayak launch onsite.
Blue Springs State Park is another popular area to view manatees, located just north of Orlando. Here, however, the spring is completely closed to any sort of recreation when manatees are present, so you will not be able to go near their resting area. Instead, check out the boardwalks around the spring and look out for baby manatees, alligators, and turtles. If you would like to paddle, the St. John’s River is accessible from the state park and offers a great area to explore. In the cooler months you will often see manatees coming or going from the springs via this river.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge lies on the eastern end of the state, near Titusville, and has a viewing area for manatees along with sheltered picnic areas and a polarized set of binoculars to see beyond the water’s surface glare. To the south, for 8 miles, is the No Motor Zone, which is a remarkable place for an extended paddle. There are areas of shallow water, and the lack of boats means manatees love hanging out in this area. Launch your kayak at KARS Park or Kelly Park in Titusville to easily access the No Motor Zone.
If you are lucky enough to swim or kayak with these great creatures, be sure to follow these general guidelines to avoid breaking any laws in place to protect the species.
-Do not feed or give water to manatees.
-Do not separate a calf from its mother.
-Do not chase or pursue any manatee.
-Do not poke, prod, or stab at the manatees.
-Stay at the surface and use a snorkel. Do not dive after a manatee.
-Practice standard Leave No Trace principles (pack out trash, do not disturb wildlife, etc.)
Be sure to take a waterproof camera on your trip to visit the manatees. As you can see, there are excellent underwater photo opportunities. A wrist mount is an excellent accessory that has the camera at hand while paddling or swimming. From a kayak, extended poles are useful tools to extend the reach both above your boat and under the water around it, but be sure this doesn't get close enough to disturb the manatee!
Remember, as always, you are entering the manatee’s habitat, so be a kind guest.