Jess Swanson, Senior Editor
Jess Swanson, Senior Editor
Feb 2021

Florida’s official state marine mammal spends its days lackadaisically grazing along the water’s surface, not bothering anyone—and yet its existence is threatened by frequent watercraft collisions with humans: 41 percent of all manatee deaths are human-related. These docile giants are listed as “threatened” by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, as they often become entangled in monofilament fishing line and scarred from watercraft collisions.

Since manatees do not hunt (they’re herbivores) and have no known predators, the species never evolved to swim fast. Despite their buxom figures (they weigh between 800 and 1,200 pounds), they are graceful swimmers, spending most of their time near the water’s surface with their nostrils poking out (wearing polarized glasses can help you spot them underwater). These docile creatures have good hearing and sense of motion, yet often can’t escape a boat speeding through their habitat. Manatees can live to be more than 60 years old.

As a warm-blooded species, these marine animals can’t tolerate water temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit for long. Like senior citizens and other snowbirds, hundreds of manatees congregate in Florida every winter (December to March). 

Manatee Etiquette 

Manatee with calf Getty images
Credit: Getty Images

Because manatees are a threatened species, they’re protected under the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which makes it unlawful to annoy, molest, harass or disturb them. Don’t feed, chase or restrict a manatee, and never touch, pet or splash at them. Avoid separating a mother manatee from her calf.

While boating, follow posted speed limits. Keep on the lookout for manatees in the boat’s path (they look like smooth, gray boulders floating near the surface) and avoid passing directly over one. As always, do not litter into waterways—fishing lines and hooks especially.

Splashing and loud noises can startle manatees. Bubbles from scuba gear can cause them to flee an area. When possible, float at the surface and avoid stirring up the seafloor.

Where to Spot Manatees


Courtesy of Jason Frankle and Scott Wesson / Visit Florida

Three Sisters Springs

The bright turquoise waters are perennially 72 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes this wildlife refuge a prime spot for an up-close manatee encounter. Guests can park and take a short trolley ride to the park. In off-peak manatee season (April to November), guests can even kayak or use a paddleboard via public launches nearby at Hunter Springs Park or Kings Bay Park—and still expect to spot a few manatees, especially on chillier days. During peak season, some guests have reported spotting more than a hundred manatees in a single day—along with turtles, fish and myriad birds.
threesistersspringsvisitor.org

Blue Springs State Park Alamy
Credit: Alamy

Blue Spring State Park

Considered one of the largest winter gathering sites for manatees, this blue-green spring has been hosting the animals since at least the 1970s. Back then, only 36 of them were spotted. But today, more than 500 manatees can be seen in a single day. It’s also an ideal spot for manatees to be released back into the wild after being rehabilitated for cold stress and watercraft injuries. Winding through a hammock with dangling Spanish moss and palms, a wooden boardwalk spans a third of a mile from the headspring to the St. Johns River. On-site camping, guided kayak tours, scuba diving, snorkeling and tubing are available. Pick up sandwiches and ice cream at the quaint café for an easy picnic.
floridastateparks.org

Merritt Island Peter W. Cross for Visit Florida
Credit: Peter W. Cross for Visit Florida

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Just east of Titusville, this 140,000-acre preserve is Florida’s largest barrier island, and a popular location for scouting animals such as alligators, armadillos, bobcats and more than 50 species of waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds. There’s also the Manatee Observation Deck beside the Haulover Canal, which connects the Indian River and the Mosquito Lagoon. The maritime mammals’ signature smooth gray back or nostril whiskers can be seen peeking out in flat water. Staff at the visitor center are always happy to divulge where the manatees are congregating that day. They’re at the refuge year-round, but most reliably in fall and spring (en route to and from the warmer waters in the winter).
merrittislandwildlifeassociation.org

Lee County Manatee Park
Courtesy of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

Lee County Manatee Park

This refuge in Fort Myers is named for the park’s marine stars. Since the nearby Florida Power & Light station outflows into the Orange River canal, the water temps there are warm, which the manatees like. A covered concrete path offers many spots for viewing. Between April and November, visitors can also rent kayaks and canoes to get even closer to the manatees. Hiking trails, a wild butterfly garden and plenty of manatee sculptures (for selfies) complete the experience.
leegov.com

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park Alamy
Credit: Alamy

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

These blue-green springs have been luring admirers to their shores for more than a century: Three saltwater vents blend together in the basin before winding down the run to the Homosassa River. The warm water also lures manatees, and the park acts as a refuge for captive-born calves before sending them into the wild. The park’s Fish Bowl Underwater Observatory allows guests an up-close view of manatees and fish. The trails and elevated boardwalks wind past endemic wildlife, including alligators, black bears, red wolves, Key deer, flamingos, whooping cranes and Lu, the oldest hippopotamus in captivity (who turned 61 last month).
floridastateparks.org

Manatee Springs State Park Alamy
Credit: Alamy

Manatee Springs State Park

Just west of Gainesville in the lower Suwannee River area, this spring—one of the state’s largest, releasing 100 million gallons of water daily—gets its name from the manatees that return here every winter when the Gulf of Mexico and Suwannee River are colder than the springs’ 72 degrees. There’s snorkeling, scuba diving and swimming at the springs, but those looking to keep dry can traipse along the 800-foot boardwalk that meanders through the park’s cypress forest.
floridastateparks.org

Adopt a Manatee

Save the Manatee Club is a national nonprofit started in 1981 by singer Jimmy Buffett and former Florida Governor Bob Graham. Through the Adopt-A-Manatee program, individuals can support a specific manatee, with a name and biography. Funds from the program go to conservation efforts.  

Here, four manatees available for adoption:  

Una Save the Manatee Club
Courtesy of Save the Manatee Club

Una

Orphaned as a calf near Jacksonville, Florida, this sweet gal is a social butterfly, chilling in the warm spring waters with her fellow sea cows. She’s easily recognizable by the bracelet-shaped scars on both flippers after being entangled in monofilament fishing line for three years.  

Brutus Save The Manatee Club
Courtesy of Save the Manatee Club

Brutus

Brutus is what researchers call “one big dude.” While most Florida manatees weigh between 800 and 1,200 pounds, Brutus weighs 1,900. He’s at least 50 years old and fiercely independent, often hanging by himself or with his old friend Merlin.  

Millie Save the Manatee Club
Courtesy of Save the Manatee Club

Millie

This long-distance traveler, who has been seen up and down the east coast of Florida, is known for her fork-shaped tail, the result of a collision with a motorboat. A mother of nine, Millie has also been spotted nursing an orphaned calf. Her daughter Michelle has had six known babies, which makes Millie a grandmother.   


Courtesy of Save the Manatee Club

Gator

This young juvenile is considered “a bit of a runt,” but that didn’t stop him from chasing and playing with an alligator (hence his name). A curious lad, Gator is known to frolic with other manatees and often stops to examine passing turtles. He has survived at least two boat hits, with nine propeller cuts and a large gash down his right side.   

For you

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