“Look at that big, fat beaver!” my 6 year old shouted as the cumbersome manatee slowly glided towards us. Its snout briefly surfaced for air before continuing its approach along the crystal-clear river. I found myself getting just as excited as my children. Granted, the manatee has a face only a mother could love but it’s hard not to find these gentle creatures endearing. Growing up in Florida, I would see them frequently during school field trips or boat rides in the intercostal waterways, but it had been years and my kids had certainly never seen one. We had a spring break trip to Florida planned and I was on a mission to encounter the elusive sea cow. I discovered that finding them is easy if you know where to look.
So, where are the best places in Florida to see a manatee?
That depends on the time of year. Manatees are migratory and seek out warm water in the winter and cooler water in the summer. When the cold temperatures arrive, manatees congregate by the hundreds in the many natural springs in north/mid Florida in search of warmth. They scatter during the summer and many make their way up as far north as Virginia.
Here are two fantastic manatee spotting locations:
During the winter, the wild manatee population here swells to over 100 as they come in droves to bask in the warm 72 degree temperatures. A natural spring feeds the Homosassa River and the shallow waters offer a safe haven from the ever-present threat of boat propellers. Is your Florida trip planned for the summer? Don’t worry! You WILL see a manatee at this park. They take in injured manatees and rehabilitate them, allowing for several resident manatees roaming the river. You can get up close and personal with them via the underwater observatory; they schedule feedings every few hours. In addition, this park boasts an impressive population of local wild cats, birds and reptiles. Plan to spend a few hours (and a hefty admission fee).
The sound effects were added in case you were wondering
It may seem strange to travel to a power house to see manatees but during the winter, you can count on it. Tampa Electric started seeing an increase in the manatee population in the 80’s, when they noticed a side effect of their electricity production (warm, clean, salt water discharge) attracted them by the hundreds. Now they have a well maintained manatee viewing center, complete with a boardwalk, restrooms and interesting information. There is even a touch tank with sting rays!
Looking for more options? Check out this handy map created by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission: