One of the best things about life in Florida is our unparalleled opportunity to view rare species in the wild. If you haven’t yet seen the docile manatee, it’s time to go—while they still inhabit the warm waters off our ample coastline.
Now that the weather has gotten cooler, our native populations of Florida manatees are heading inland, toward warmer springs and inlets. It’s the perfect time to catch a glimpse of these lumbering yet surprisingly graceful marine mammals, since they congregate in shallow waters accessible to boats and kayaks. In some places you can even swim with the gentle “sea cows,” but it’s important to keep your distance and not threaten the animals, since they are endangered and sensitive to human threats.
One of the best places for manatee viewing is on the Gulf Coast, at Three Sisters Springs, on the Crystal River. Here manatees congregate in huge numbers—as many as 100 at a time. And you can get up close and personal (though not TOO close), since it’s possible to snorkel, kayak, boat, or stand-up paddleboard in their midst.
On the East Coast, Blue Spring State Park on the St. John’s River is a designated West Indian manatee reserve. It has even begun to serve as the winter home to a growing population of the creatures. There are strict rules against swimming or snorkeling with the manatees here, but they can be seen in vast numbers from viewing platforms overlooking the springs. And you can always indulge in the other park activities as well—hiking, camping, boating, fishing, and wildlife viewing are all part of the experience.
In a curious confluence of human environmental impact and wildlife preservation, manatees also gather in Tampa Bay, in the warm discharge waters of the Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station. The area has become a designated manatee sanctuary, and the utility has erected a 50-foot viewing tower and nature-oriented loop trail as part of their Manatee Viewing Center. Also check out the environmental education center and butterfly gardens on site.
A mere hour from metro Orlando, on Merritt Island is a vast, 14,000-acre get-away-from-it-all national wildlife refuge that is situated along a major bird migration route. It offers prime manatee viewing, as well, though the creatures tend to congregate here in the warmer months. Catch them on the east side of the Haulover Canal Bridge, where there’s a viewing area overlooking the intersection between the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon.
Have any favorite viewing spots you’d like to share? Tell us in the comments section!