When most people think of a visit to the Florida during the winter months of December through early April, it’s usually to escape the bitter cold of more northern climates. But an added bonus of warm sunshine and not having to shovel snow is seeing the Florida manatees in their natural winter habitat. Going to “visit the manatees” has become a popular tourist (and local) attraction for all ages. It’s a great way to see these gentle giants and enjoy the Florida outdoors when temperatures are comfortable.
What type of sea creature is a Florida manatee?
These enormous vegetarians are related the elephant (and look quite similar) with thick grey, wrinkly skin and small eyes. Florida manatees are warm-blooded, so when the water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico begin to cool, they head inland to find warmth in the 72 degree water of fresh water springs or to bask in the outflow of warm water from local power plants. They need to surface to breathe every 5 minutes or so and don’t move very fast, so it’s easy to catch a good look. Manatees weigh in anywhere from 1,000 to 3,500 pounds and need to eat 150 to 350 pounds of marine vegetation every day!
The Florida manatee is unique in that it can live in salt, brackish, or fresh water. They prefer water that’s only 3-7 feet deep, so you’ll see them in rivers and coastal estuaries most. Often, when they’re congregated together, you’ll hear someone say “oh, I thought those were rocks!” and they do appear to be giant grey boulders just under the surface – until a little nose pokes up to the surface to breathe!
Where are the best places to see the manatees?
Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River
Managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Three Sisters Springs is perfect for spending several hours observing the Florida manatee. The boardwalk circles the springs area and is accessible for everyone. This is a perfect example of the real Florida – crystal blue springs, Spanish moss and oak hammocks provide a safe haven for the manatees to snooze and keep warm.
Big Bend Manatee Viewing Center
The TECO power plant at Big Bend Manatee Viewing Center is well worth a visit during the winter months in Florida. Salt water from Tampa Bay is used to cool one of the electric power generators and when that (now toasty-warm) water is pumped back out, the manatees flock in to bask in the warmth. When the bay waters are coldest, you may see hundreds of manatees from the observation deck. There is also a conservation center and loop trail for closer observation of Florida’s unique flora and fauna.
Homosassa Springs State Park
In addition to the amazing assortment of wildlife being cared for on the grounds, the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Park offers an underwater observatory of manatees. During the winter, the gates to the spring are opened and the wild manatees can be viewed.
Snorkel with the Manatees
It’s an incredible thrill to be in the water with these mammals – as long as you afford them the space and respect they deserve. Several companies offer snorkeling trips to see the manatees up close in the water. The waters are typically 72 degrees or colder, so wet suits are recommended. This is an excellent opportunity to learn about the manatees and enjoy a unique Florida experience at the same time.
Tips for Underwater Viewing
Passive observation (observing from a distance) is the best way to protect manatees and all wildlife, courtesy of Save The Manatee Club. If you see manatees while swimming, diving, or boating, please follow these suggestions:
- Do not enter designated manatee sanctuaries for any reason
- “Look, but don’t touch” — observe manatees from the surface of the water and at a distance
- Avoid excessive noise and splashing
- Use snorkel gear when attempting to watch manatees — the sound of scuba gear may cause them to leave the area
- Don’t feed manatees or give them water
- Call 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or *FWC or #FWC on your cellular phone or send a text message to Tip@MyFWC.com. You can also use VHF Channel 16 on your marine radio if you see an injured, dead, tagged or orphaned manatee, or if you see a manatee being harassed
When it’s not possible to be here in person, you can always have the manatees close by via the internet! Webcams from Blue Springs State Park and the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park bring the manatees to you in the comfort of your home. But we do hope that you’ll visit us here in Florida at least once to see them in person – it’s truly a heart-warming experience!