Classified as an endangered species since 1967, Florida manatees are as endearing as they are fascinating. These curioius animals have no natural enemies and are, in fact, quite friendly with humans—although we’re the primary cause of their decline via boating incidents and our contributions to environmental decay. Their designation in the 1973 revision of The Endangered Species Act is crystal clear: anyone who harasses, harms, hunts, wounds, pursues, shoots, captures, kills, or collects them will pay a hefty fine and spend up to a year in jail.
Interacting with manatees in a legal and ethical way, though, is easy if you know where to go. The springs of Kings Bay, for example, at the end of Crystal River in Central Florida is a hotspot for the aquatic mammals, chiefly because of its constant 72-degree temperature. Manatees migrate there each winter to protect themselves from the cold waters of the Gulf of Mexico just as many northern-dwelling birds fly south for the winter, and while most return to the gulf in the warmer months, a few “permanent residents” remain in Kings Bay throughout the year. A handful of other manatee-rich environments exist throughout the sunshine state as well. Here are the ins and outs of visiting them.
Manatee Encounter Etiquette
Florida’s laws protecting manatees date all the way back to 1893. With so much history bolstering the state’s dedication to keeping them safe and with strong federal enforcement bringing up the rear, it’s obvious that obeying laws is critical while planning or enjoying any interaction with them.
About 10 feet long and weighing more than 1,000 pounds, the average adult manatee is friendly but easily scared. That’s why it’s important to follow some basic guidelines when they’re near: Chiefly, whether you’re encountering them while paddleboarding, kayaking, or swimming, it’s important to give them their space and let them come to you.
If you’re in a place where swimming with manatees is allowed by law, it’s wise to mimic the slow-motion grace of the animal itself, to refrain from kicking up sand with your flippers, and to never isolate a manatee away from the others. In designated places where it’s lawful to touch one, it must be done gently and with an open hand. As huggable as these sweet creatures might be, a light, one-handed touch is all that’s permitted.
While the occasional manatee can be found in many parts of the sunshine state, they congregate in the greatest numbers in three select places: Blue Spring State Park, the Cape Canaveral National Seashore North District, and—the holy grail of manatee-spotting—Crystal River, where it meets Kings Bay just east of the Gulf of Mexico. Each location features very different restrictions and guidelines for human interaction with manatees, but you’ll find unique and profound opportunities to see them up close and admire their gentle beauty at all of them.
Blue Spring State Park in Orange City is home to growing numbers of manatees. A designated manatee refuge, it offers views of several hundred manatees at a time from its overlooks during colder weather, and while swimming and diving with manatees in the park is strictly prohibited (and the rule strongly enforced), the spectacle of so many beautiful creatures converging in one place is nonetheless unforgettable.
The Cape Canaveral National Seashore North District, 65 miles northeast of Orlando, is a popular destination for coastal paddlers who love manatees. The wildlife sanctuary is a mecca for the gentle creatures, thanks in part to its designation as a wildlife sanctuary where their safety is a top priority.
And over toward the Gulf of Mexico, a three-hour manatee swim tour with River Ventures puts you directly into the waters of Crystal River, allowing you to interact with any and all manatees who swim by to say hello. During the winter, the area is home to a large population of manatees, although some remain in the summer months as well. Since 1988, Kings Bay has been the site of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge offices and visitor's center, dedicated to protection and public education, and it’s an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to enforcing conservation and ensuring that the manatee population is able to flourish once again.