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Meeting Massive Manatees on Florida's Northwest Coast

Meeting Massive Manatees on Florida's Northwest Coast


avatar   Stacy
Trip Date 02/14/2020
Posted On 04/03/2020 14:30:00

Destinations | Camping | Florida | Crystal River | Homosassa | Wakulla Springs | Tallahassee | Chassahowitzka | Apollo Beach | Tampa | Fort Myers | Manatees | Wildlife Refuges | Snorkeling | Swimming | Tours



Have you ever thought about going on a manatee hunt (a hunt to meet manatees, that is)? You're in the right place if meeting manatees sounds even a little intriguing to you.

From Wakulla Springs (Tallahasee) in the north to Fort Myers in the south, northwest Florida is a great place for an introduction to these "gentle giants". There are opportunities for swimming or snorkeling near manatees as well as guided tours to give you a glimpse into the life of a manatee. If you follow the laws, you can even kayak along the same waters where manatees live such as in the Chassahowitzka River.

In this article, we'll give you the ins and outs of the best places to find manatees in the wild. Ranging from Wildlife Refuges such as Crystal River or Homosassa Springs to power plants, the warm waters which manatees seek out are quite diverse. Many places, like Apollo Beach (Tampa), even offer more than meeting manatees. Read on to get some background on these massive beasts, learn the basic rules and see where to go for your manatee meeting!

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Fun Facts about Florida Manatees

A subspecies of the West Indian manatee, Florida manatees can be found in the rivers, springs and coastal waters within the state throughout the year. The number of manatees during the peak season months of December, January and February are significantly greater, however, than during the remainder of the year. (We've tried to find manatees in late November, early December and early March, but were always unsuccessful.)

It's the warmer temperatures that attract manatees to Florida. When the water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico drops below 68 degrees, that's when the manatees travel inland. When on the move, manatees are often described as slowly gliding through the water. You might be surprised to know that they can actually swim as fast as 20 miles per hour!

Manatees breathe by sticking their snout out of the water and opening their nostrils. When active, you may seen them take a breath every 3 minutes. When resting or when staying submerged to avoid cold air, however, they may go as long as 20 minutes between each breath! At rest, manatees keep their eyes closed and remain still for as many as 12 hours each day.


Time to Breathe!

Time to Breathe!

Manatees are warm-blooded, plant-eating mammals. (Did you know that researchers believe manatees are most closely related to elephants?) On average, manatees are about 10 feet long and weigh about 1,200 pounds. They can eat as much as 15% of their weight each day. They use their flippers to help them hold the aquatic vegetation that they eat.

A female manatee carries her calf for about 13 months. Calves weigh up to 80 pounds at birth and are about three feet in length. After birth, the "cow" (mom) and calf hang out together for about two years. It actually takes that entire length of time for the internal organs to develop so that the "baby" can digest its diet of greens.

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Know Before You Go!

Manatees are endangered marine mammals protected by both state (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) and federal (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) laws. Federal, state and local law enforcement officers can issue citations to anyone who breaks protection laws which include disturbing, feeding, harassing, harming, pursuing or touching a manatee. Those convicted can face fines as high as $500 (state level) and $100,000 (federal level) and/or 60 days to one year of imprisonment. (Learn more in Living with Florida Manatees.)

Because of their color and where they may be resting in the water, manatees can be very difficult to see - especially to those on a boat. Signs of a nearby manatee may be as simple as hearing one take a breath or seeing a swirl on the surface. You might get lucky by seeing the back, flipper, snout or tail of a manatee.


Always Look Out for Manatees!

Always Look Out for Manatees!

Visitors to the waters in Florida, which are considered the manatees' home, should keep their distance. Manatees must be allowed to move freely in their home. The goal is for manatees not to notice either swimmers or boaters sharing their water.

There are some Manatee Refuge areas where no people are allowed. Other areas allow limited in-water activity near manatees. Swimmers should quietly float on the surface and should always wear snorkel gear. It's important to make sure that the manatees have the space that they need to rest, glide in the water or get to the surface when they want to take a breath. The only time when it is ok to touch a manatee is when the manatee touches you first!

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Now that you have some background information on the Florida Manatee and know the basics on sharing their home, it's time for our ranking of the best places to see manatees on Florida's northeast coast:

1. Three Sisters Springs at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

Three Sisters Springs

123 NW Highway 19, Crystal River, Florida 34428; (352) 586-1170

At the top of our list is Three Sisters Springs, a part of the 57 acre Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Why did it rank number one on our list? For two reasons. First, the crystal clear spring waters make it so easy to see underwater. Second, there was the largest concentration of manatees as compared to all other manatee meeting sites that we visited while in Florida.


It's a Manatee Party at Three Sisters Springs!

It's a Manatee Party at Three Sisters Springs!

Although Three Sisters Springs is accessible by both land and water, visitors are not permitted to enter the water from the refuge nor vice versa. Motorized boats can be launched from Kings Bay however are not permitted inside the springs. Passengers must swim, snorkel or paddle to access the springs. During peak manatee season (mid-November through mid-April), access to the springs is restricted to a designated area of the main spring.


Approaching Three Sisters Springs

Approaching Three Sisters Springs

After purchasing our admission tickets at the Three Sisters Springs Center, we rode the trolley directly to the boardwalk. (Parking at the refuge is limited to vehicles with valid handicap parking permits. We did, however, find plenty of parking at the "center", with overflow parking lots available as well.) It was at the viewing platforms where we spent most of our time gazing in amazement at the hundreds of manatees.


Manatee Gazing at Three Sisters Spings

Manatee Gazing at Three Sisters Spings

In addition to "meeting manatees", the refuge is home to birds, reptiles, amphibians and other mammals common in the Florida springs. The hiking and nature trails at the refuge are also a great place to get some steps! For those interested, you can even take free guided walking tours within the refuge.


Nature Trail at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

Nature Trail at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

The standard admission fee to the refuge is $20.00 per adult (or $17.50 per senior). A $5.00 discount per person is available to those with an America the Beautiful National Parks Pass. Check Ticket Information for additional available discounts. Included in the cost of admission are trolley stops at Hunter Springs Park, South Citrus Avenue and Heritage Village. If you do want to exit at one of these stops, be sure to let your tram driver know as the additional stops seem to be by request only.

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2. Swimming with Manatees in Kings Bay

Sea Daddy's Dive Center

565 NW 1st Ave., Crystal River, Florida 34428; (352) 794-3452

Three hours with Sea Daddy's Dive Center, where we actually swam with the manatees, ranked second on our list. Why did this excursion rank second? The only reason that swimming with the manatees did not rank first on our list is because the water in Kings Bay was much cloudier than the spring water.

Although there are plenty of operators offering tours, we made our selection based on the small group size. What was guaranteed to be a semi-private tour (maximum of six persons) ended up being Scott and I plus our guide and captain.

Upon your arrival, you'll be required to sign disclosures and then invited to enjoy hot drinks (coffee, tea and hot chocolate) and light snacks while waiting for the rest of the snorkeling group. Before leaving the dive center, you'll watch a video which includes the do's and don'ts, meet your guide and get fitted with wetsuits. You can ride or choose to walk the short distance to the dock where you'll meet your captain.


In our Wet Suits and Ready to Meet Manatees

In our Wet Suits and Ready to Meet Manatees

Masks and snorkels will be provided before your swimming stops. Although there is no guarantee, the chances were good that we would meet some manatees on the day of our visit. You never know how close you will get until you are actually in the water hoping that a manatee will approach you. As guests in their home, humans are not allowed to touch a manatee - unless the manatee initiates the touch.

Although they can be hard to see due to the cloudy water, these massive animals are definitely easy to feel when they brush up next to you as they glide by. We felt really lucky and won't soon forget the "hugger" that paid us lots of attention. It's truly an amazing feeling to have a thousand pound manatee hug your leg much like a child hugs. After this experience, I am definitely convinced that these mammals are extremely loving and kind!


Face to Face with a Manatee

Face to Face with a Manatee

Manatee Hugging Manatee

Manatee Hugging Manatee

Excluding tips for our captain (Bam) and guide (Brandy), we paid $65.00 per person for our tour. Brandy also took a number of videos and photos which were available for online purchase about a week following our excursion. There are plenty of tour operators offering similar excursions. Knowing what we know now, we would search for a small group tour which offers swimming in the spring water.

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3. Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife Springs State Park

4150 S. Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa, FL 34446; 352-628-5343

Next on the list of our favorite spots to meet manatees on Florida's northwest coast is Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. This state park ranked in the top half of our list due to it having several different venues to learn about manatees, watch them and even see them underwater.

A Wildlife Walk consisting of a boardwalk and paved trails winds through the park. The trails pass through a community of captive animals native to the state, many of whom aren't able to survive in the wild on their own. Along with getting exercise while strolling past the Florida wildlife, guests can easily walk to the Manatee Care Center, over the Homosassa River and to the Fish Bowl.


Flamingos along the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Walk

Flamingos along the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Walk

In Ground Manatee Pool at The Manatee Care Center

While the talks vary in location, during our visit the Manatee Educational Programs were all held at the Manatee Pool. Attending a talk is a great opportunity to learn about the manatee rescue, rehabilitation and release program. Park visitors are also able to watch the manatees enjoy a meal (which mirrors their natural diet) while inside the park.

We also "met" the three injured manatees permanently residing at the park. These giant mammals unfortunately can't survive in the wild. The good news is that they have access to some of the best manatee medical care available anywhere!


Homosassa Springs Resident Manatees

Homosassa Springs Resident Manatees

Homosassa River

Not far from the manatee pool, there's the Long River Bridge boardwalk which crosses over the Homosassa River. Similar to other viewing locations in the state, you are able to watch wild manatees from above as they swim from one side of the bridge to the other.


Playful Manatee in the Homosassa River

Playful Manatee in the Homosassa River

Fish Bowl

An Underwater Observatory, nicknamed the Fish Bowl, is located in the main Homosassa Spring. It can be a great place to get a close-up underwater view of the manatees without getting wet. We lucked out during one of our visits as there was a manatee swimming nearby.


Gliding by the Homosassa Springs Fish Bowl

Gliding by the Homosassa Springs Fish Bowl

Swimming Away from the Underwater Observatory

Swimming Away from the Underwater Observatory

The entrance fee to the wildlife state park is $13.00 per person ($5.00 for children aged 6 - 12). Holders of Florida State Parks Annual Passes are eligible for free admission for 1 or 2 guests, depending on the pass. Admission includes an optional pontoon boat tour or tram ride from the Visitor Center to the park.

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4. Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park

Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park

465 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs, FL 32327; (850) 561-7276

Wakulla Springs is one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world! It was here where I first had success at seeing manatees in the wild. We ranked the state park as the 4th best place for manatee meetings. Having both a Dive / Observation Tower and River Boat Tours allowed the park to claim the spot right in the middle of our list.

Dive / Observation Tower

The temperatures were too cold to consider jumping from the dive tower into Wakulla Springs during our visit. It is, however, a good place to observe the manatees from above.


Wakulla Springs Observation Tower

Wakulla Springs Observation Tower

Submerging for More Rest at Wakulla Springs

Submerging for More Rest at Wakulla Springs

River Boat Tours

Ranger Charlie, our River Boat Tour guide and captain, had excellent experience with slowing our speed immediately upon spotting wildlife. After all, he was the first person to successfully point out a manatee in the wild for me to see!


Wakulla Springs River Boats

Wakulla Springs River Boats

In addition to seeing a number of manatees, you'll likely see plenty of alligators of all ages and various species of wading birds. You'll learn about environmental impacts to the water during your 45 - 55 minute, two mile loop in the Wakulla River. (Charlie even shared some fun trivia about "Tarzan's Secret Treasure" and "Creature from the Black Lagoon" along the way.)


Wakulla Springs Boat Side Manatee Meeting

Wakulla Springs Boat Side Manatee Meeting

A $6.00 entrance fee is charged for vehicles with 2 - 8 passengers ($4.00 for a single passenger). Depending on the pass type, those with a Florida State Parks Annual Pass may be eligible for free or reduced price admission. Admission includes the dive / observation tower, swimming and picnic areas and over nine miles of hiking trails. There is also an interesting 1930s era historic lodge located within the park grounds.


The Lodge at Wakulla Springs

The Lodge at Wakulla Springs

River Boat Tour tickets are sold on a first come, first served basis for the upcoming tour only. The tour is priced at $8.00 per person ($5.00 for children aged 3 - 12). Due to poor visibility, Glass-Bottom Boat Tours haven't been offered in over 2 1/2 years. If and when they again become available, pricing is identical to the River Boat Tour.

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5. Chassahowitzka River

Chassahowitzka River Campground

8600 W. Miss Maggie Drive, Chassahowitzka, FL 34448; (352) 382-2200

Ranking fifth on our favorite places to see manatees in northwest Florida is the Chassahowitzka River. We hoped to have an opportunity to explore more of the river by kayak, however ended up not having time. Had we been able to rent a kayak and paddle along, it is likely that we would have ranked the river even higher.

Alongside a spring-fed lagoon, there's a general store and a bait house offering kayak, canoe and boat rentals. Those with their own watercraft have access to a double-boat ramp plus a large parking lot.


Kayaks Available by the Chassahowitzka River

Kayaks Available by the Chassahowitzka River

With no time to venture from the lagoon to the nearby creeks or Seven Sisters Springs, we settled for watching manatees from the benches alongside the lagoon. Although each of our lagoon-side visits were relatively short, we had successful manatee sightings on every one of our return visits.


Meeting Manatees from the Lagoon Side Benches

Meeting Manatees from the Lagoon Side Benches

Other than for boat rentals and purchases at the General Store, the only fee charged for manatee viewing at Chassahowitzka River Campground is for parking ($5.00 per vehicle / $7.00 per vehicle with trailer).

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6. The Manatee Viewing Center

Tampa Electric Company Manatee Viewing Center

6990 Dickman Rd., Apollo Beach, FL 33572; (813) 228-4289

In sixth place and next up in our ranking is Tampa Electric's Manatee Viewing Center. With a number of interactive displays, there's more to do here than just seeing manatees. Had we been traveling with children, the center would definitely have ranked higher!

Beginning in 1986, the year that Big Bend Unit 4 opened, manatees started congregating in the power station discharge canal when Tampa Bay's water temperature was 68 degrees or less. Almost immediately, the state of Florida recognized the area as a Manatee Sanctuary, and it became a federal sanctuary in 2002. We spent the better part of an hour trying to find the best manatee viewing vantage points on the large outdoor platform!


Entering the Manatee  Viewing Center

Entering the Manatee Viewing Center

View from Tampa Electric's Manatee Viewing Center

View from Tampa Electric's Manatee Viewing Center

The Environmental Education Building is the place to learn about manatees, electricity, hurricanes and more. There's a gift shop, a "touch tank" home to stingrays (two fingers only!) and even an opportunity to "feel" a tornado or make a wax manatee. For those interested in some exercise, a walk along the Tidal Walk and out to and up the steps of the Wildlife Observation Tower will be a good start!


Wildlife Observation Tower

Wildlife Observation Tower

There is no parking nor entrance fee for the Manatee Viewing Center (MVC). For the busiest days, there's also an overflow parking lot. There is a free shuttle bus from the lot to the MVC, and it is also a relatively easy walk.

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7. Lee County Manatee Park

Manatee Park

10901 State Road 80 (Palm Beach Blvd.), Fort Myers, FL 33905; (239) 690-5030

Rounding out the top seven is Lee County Manatee Park. The weather was warmer on the day that we visited the park, and we didn't arrive until mid day. Had we arrived earlier when it was cooler, there would likely have been more manatees.

The 17 acre regional park is a warm water refuge for manatees. We took advantage of the walking paths within the park, but not the kayak or canoe rentals. I found the educational signage about manatees quite interesting - especially the comparison between manatees and humans!


Lee County Manatee Park

Lee County Manatee Park

The Manatee - Human Comparison

The Manatee - Human Comparison

Other than boat ramp and watercraft fees, the only fee at Lee County Manatee Park is for parking ($2.00 per hour or $5.00 per day).

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Other Manatee Meeting Locations Worth Considering

Having success on a hunt to meet manatees is very weather dependent. On the days that we visited the following three locations, temperatures were warmer so the manatees were not venturing as far inland. According to reports from employees at or visitors to each of these locations, manatees had been seen within a couple of days prior to our arrival.

Manatee Springs State Park

Manatee Springs State Park

11650 NW 115 St., Chiefland, FL 32626; (352) 493-6072

According to the manatee sighting reports kept by the staff at Manatee Springs State Park, there had been 7 and 4 manatees on the two days prior to our visit. With its 800-foot long boardwalk, crystal clear waters and over eight miles of nature trails, the park is truly beautiful. If we had seen manatees during our visit, I'm guessing the park would have made the top half our list!


Manatee Springs State Park

Manatee Springs State Park

An entrance fee of $6.00 is charged for vehicles with 2 - 8 passengers ($4.00 for a single passenger). Depending on the type, holders of a valid Florida State Parks Annual Pass may be eligible for free or reduced price admission.

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Fanning Springs State Park

Fanning Springs State Park

18020 NW Highway 19, Fanning Springs, FL 32693; (352) 463-3420

Although it is reportedly common to see manatees in the Suwannee River and Fanning Springs, luck was not on our side during our visit. Again, the temperature on the day of our visit was higher so the manatees didn't need to swim inland to find warm waters. Seeing the springs and walking along the boardwalk through the cypress swamp was still quite enjoyable!


Fanning Springs State Park

Fanning Springs State Park

Vehicles with 2 - 8 passengers are charged a $6.00 entrance fee ($4.00 for a single passenger). Florida State Parks Annual Pass holders may be eligible for free or reduced price admission depending on the pass type.

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Hart Springs

Hart Springs Park & Campground

4240 SW 86th Ave., Bell, Florida 32619; (352) 463-3444

Rumor has it that there was a manatee in the springs just one day prior to our arrival in the RV Park. We walked the 1/2 mile from the campground to the park at least three times but never saw any manatees. In addition to several hiking trails and the 1/2 mile long boardwalk leading to the Suwanee River, the spring water was clear and looked inviting!


Hart Springs Park

Hart Springs Park

Peak season entrance fees are $5.00 (weekdays) and $8.00 (weekends) per person aged 6 - 64. Rates during the off-season are $3.00 per person. Children aged 5 and under as well as seniors aged 65 and over are free at all times during the year.

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Florida State Parks Annual Pass

With so many of the best places to see manatees being in Florida State Parks, it might make sense for you to purchase a Florida State Parks Annual Pass. Before heading to Florida, be sure to check out our article titled "Florida State Parks Annual Pass: Should You or Shouldn't You?" to find out if it makes sense for you.

Best Places to Meet Manatees

What suggestions do you have for anyone hoping to see some manatees and where have you had the best success in finding them?




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Meeting Massive Manatees on Florida's Northwest Coast







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