Sea cows. Sea potatoes. Chubby mermaids. Whatever you want to call them, manatees are gentle giants and are among Florida’s lovable creatures. So it makes sense that you would want to visit them, whether you’re a local or a visitor. As a local myself, I still get excited every single time I see a manatee!
There are between 5,700 and 7,500 manatees in Florida. This might not sound like a lot, but in 1991 (when the surveys began), there were under 1300 manatees in Florida. Even though this is a good thing, manatees in Florida are still vulnerable. In recent years, the manatees have been dying of starvation. So visit, appreciate, and love these beautiful creatures. But please be respectful while you are in their home.
So where are the best places to see a manatee in Florida? Well, keep reading.
Best Time of Year to See Manatees in Florida
It’s worthwhile to mention that when to see them is perhaps more important than where to see them. With each of the places I’ll mention, there is no guarantee that manatees will be present. But in most cases, you’re more likely to see manatees during manatee season, which is November 15 through March 31 when the temperatures are cooler. This is especially true in the Florida springs. Manatees tend to flock to the various Florida springs in the chilly months because the water tends to be warmer.
Florida springs are very clear and offer the best views of manatees. It’s ideal to see manatees in clear water because in murky water, typically all you’ll see is their nose pop up. While this can still be special, nothing beats having a full view of a manatee.
Best Places to See Mantees in Florida’s Nature Coast
Florida’s Nature Coast is a loosely defined region of 8 counties on Florida’s Gulf Coast. It begins just north of Tampa Bay and extends north, consisting of around 1 million acres. In this area, outdoor activities are popular such as hunting, fishing, boating, and taking in nature. It’s a quieter place to enjoy Florida than many of the big cities you might be used to. Since I’m mentioning it in this article, it’s fair to say it’s a great spot to see manatees, too.
Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida
Crystal River is a good place to see manatees in Florida in general. You can even swim with manatees in Crystal River and there are several companies who offer this option. Once you arrive, you’ll be see a lot of advertisements on billboards and across town of companies offering to take you kayaking or swimming with the manatees. I don’t have personal experience swimming with them but have heard feedback from friends that it’s a great experience and that the tour guides are respectful, making sure guests are respectful of the manatees.
Three Sisters Springs is a spot within Crystal River where manatees tend to congregate in the cold months. There is a boardwalk path to Three Sisters Springs which offers a great vantage point. To access the boardwalk to Three Sisters Springs, you’ll park at the Visitor’s Center located at 915 US 19 in Crystal River then take a trolley. There is also an entrance fee of approximately $13 in the summer and $20 in the winter. The cost of admission is for a good cause as it goes back to the refuge in order to support the manatees. We visited on a very cold day in February and saw around 60 manatees gathered in the area. I’ll never forget the sight!
Kayaking is a popular activity in Crystal River and Three Sisters Springs. If you decide to kayak, you’re likely to see at least one manatee, even in the non-winter months (though course, there is never a guarantee). During manatee season, Three Sisters Springs will be closed to kayaking in order to protect the manatees. So in the winter months, I personally enjoy seeing them from the boardwalk. I also think the boardwalk offers a better vantage point than a kayak. On the coldest days, up to 200 manatees may be gathering here!
Hunter Springs Park in Crystal River, Florida
Hunter Springs doesn’t tend to get as much popularity as Three Sisters Springs, but it’s still a great place to see manatees. There is no boardwalk here, so your best bet in this area is to see manatees by kayak. A bonus of Hunter Springs is that it has its own parking lot with a reasonable fee ($5 for the full day at the time of this writing) which is especially convenient if you’d like to bring your own kayak. Hunter Springs is just a couple of miles from Three Sisters Springs so you could kayak to both spots. You won’t be able to enter Three Sisters Springs if it’s manatee season, but you could kayak around the general vicinity. There are plenty of kayak rentals in Crystal River and most have great reviews. We used Paddles Outdoor Rentals to rent our kayaks. It was an easy paddle to Hunter Springs from their launch site and they also provide a map so you’ll be sure not to get lost.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Spring Hill, Florida
I have a lot to say about Weeki Wachee because it’s the first Florida spring we visited and definitely one of my favorites. I highly recommend reading my blog post on kayaking at Weeki Wachee that covers everything you need to know about kayak rentals, Buccaneer Bay, and visiting Weeki Wachee in general. But suffice it to say, this is a great spot for spotting manatees. We have seen a manatee every time we have kayaked at Weeki Wachee, even in the warm months. We rent our kayaks through the Weeki Wachee State Park but you could launch from Roger’s Park if you have your own.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
Homosassa Springs is just down the road from Crystal River and serves as a manatee rehabilitation center for injured and orphaned manatees. Manatees will stay here to get acclimated before being returned to the wild. Your admission to the park includes a boat ride to the state park’s wildlife park. This is where you will find their floating underwater observatory which offers a unique view of manatees. Some of the manatees live there year-round while others come to visit the warm waters in the cooler months. In addition to seeing manatees, Homosassa Springs has a lot of other wildlife such as the Florida panther, bears, bobcats, alligators, and more. There are also manatee programs where rangers and volunteers offer information on manatees, so this is a great place to learn more about them if you are interested. Adult admission is $13 and kids over 5 are $5. There are also tours in the area that will take you to see, or swim with, the manatees. I have not taken a tour in Homosassa, but Homosassa Manatee Snorkeling Center has really good reviews.
Best Places to See Manatees on Florida’s East Coast
There aren’t as many springs in this area, but there are still plenty of places to see manatees on Florida’s east coast.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville, Florida
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, located in the Indian River Lagoon, is where a third of the nation’s manatees either live or migrate to in the winter! Manatees visit here year-round and you can view them from the observation deck or rent a see-through kayak if you’d like to get a little closer. I recommend stopping at the Visitor’s Center to get the most up to date information on where you might be most likely to see manatees if that is your main focus. They are really helpful at the Visitor’s Center and can tell you where manatees have been seen most recently. The refuge is free and welcomes donations.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is 140,000 acres, so it’s a great place to see a lot of wildlife, not just manatees. Over 500 species of wildlife call this large refuge home. You may see birds, alligators, dolphins, and more. While you are here visiting the manatees, I recommend checking out Black Point Wildlife Drive. It’s a 7 mile self-guided tour you can take from your car for a $10 fee.
Manatee Observation and Educational Center in Fort Pierce, Florida
The Manatee Observation and Educational Center is located on the Indian River Lagoon. The Fort Pierce power plant discharges warm water which attracts manatees on colder days. They have a boardwalk and observation deck where you can observe the manatees and it is $3 to enter. There is also a small aquarium and an educational video you can watch while you visit.
Manatee Lagoon in Riviera Beach, Florida
Manatee Lagoon is an Eco-Discovery Center by Florida Power and Light Company. This is a free attraction located on the water with an area dedicated to see manatees. They also have hands on exhibits for visitors where you can learn not only about manatees but also about other wildlife and the ecosystem in Lake Worth Lagoon. The observation deck is a great spot to see manatees on cold days. If you can’t visit but still want to see manatees, they even have a manatee cam you can live stream online.
Places to See Manatees in the Ocala Area
There are a lot of springs in the Ocala area, which means there are many different places to see manatees. Ocala is in North Central Florida, a little over an hour northwest of Orlando. It’s also an easy day trip from Gainesville or Tampa.
Silver Springs State Park in Silver Springs, Florida
Silver Springs is one of America’s largest springs, making your opportunity to spot a manatee pretty good! They also have famous glass bottom boat rides, making it a unique way to see manatees in Florida. The glass bottom boats were invented in Silver Springs and have been around since 1870. The glass bottom boat tours are around 30 minutes long and run every 15-20 minutes, though you can catch a 90 minute ride Fridays through Sundays at 11 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm. Kayak, canoe, and paddleboard rentals are also available.
Silver Glen Springs
Just in case it looks a little confusing, there is a Silver Springs State Park (located at 5656 E Silver Springs Blvd in Silver Springs) discussed above and also Silver Glen Springs (located at 5271 N Highway 19 in Fort McCoy).
Silver Glen Springs is a popular place to visit for day use and is also an important archeological site due to its fossilized snail shells. It is located in the Ocala National Forest. Many other springs make up the water of Silver Glen Springs, which then flows into Lake George. This is another place you can swim so you may want to bring your own snorkel equipment. If you’d rather rent a kayak or canoe, you are able to do that there or you can also launch your own. There is an admission fee for Silver Glen Springs Recreation Area, which is $8 on weekdays and $11 on weekends. Hours are generally 8 am to 8 pm but they do vary a bit by season.
Silver Glen Springs has historically served as a refuge for many manatees but there have been less in recent years due to human activity. It’s still a great place to see manatees, there just might not be as many as in the past. Silver Glen Springs can fill up fast and reach capacity, so I recommend getting there early.
Salt Springs Recreational Area is also in the Ocala National Forest. The water temperature here maintains an average of around 74 degrees. There is even a guided kayak manatee tour if you’d like to increase your chances of seeing a manatee. The tour is educational and family friendly. Entrance to the Ocala National Forest is free, but you’ll need to pay $8 (weekdays) to $11 (weekends) to enter the recreational area.
Best Places to See Manatees in Southern Florida
Southern Florida also offers some great spots to see manatees. Some of these locations are currently closed due to Hurricane Ian. I have linked each spot, so feel free to click on the link for any updates. Southern Florida is working hard to rebuild and I’m hopeful that these locations will reopen. If you’d like to donate to Hurricane Ian efforts, Volunteer Florida is a great option and you can select your donation to be sent directly to Hurricane Ian relief efforts.
Lee County Manatee Park in Fort Myers, Florida
The water here is not clear like it is at the springs, but there are a lot of manatees. The best way to see the manatees is from a kayak. Manatee Park was formed to help protect the manatees. They find warm water here from runoff after clearing off equipment from the Florida Power and Light Power Plant across the street. When it’s really cold, it’s not uncommon to see up to 50 manatees here! You can see the manatees from the boardwalk or you can rent a kayak from Manatee Kayaking Company. You can also bring your own kayak to launch. Parking is $2/hour or $5/day.
Lover’s Key State Park in Fort Myers, Florida
Lover’s Key is situated between Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Springs. It’s 2.5 miles that consist of 4 barrier islands (Black Island, Inner Key and Long Key are the other three). Because it’s a state park, entrance is $8 per car at the time of this writing. One place manatees tend to congregate in Lover’s Key is just inside the park entrance at the viewing deck, especially in winter months. This is actually located before you pay the $8 fee, so you could try your luck here first but Lover’s Key is beautiful whether you see manatees or not and I do recommend checking it out.
If you are dead set on seeing manatees, Lee County Manatee Park will give you a better chance during manatee season than Lover’s Key State Park, especially in the winter months. But nevertheless, you’re likely to see one or two here. If you take the estuary tour with Lovers Key Adventures, your guide will know the best chances of where to see a manatee based on where they’ve been recently seen. The tour is around 3 hours long and very informative. If you have your own kayak, you can launch it here as well.
Other Places in Florida to see Manatees
There are a few other places in Florida to see manatees, which I’ve listed below.
Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, Florida
Blue Spring State Park has a boardwalk along the spring run. It’s about a half a mile long, offering different views of the manatees. During manatee season, they do close the springs to swimmers and kayakers to protect the manatees. Another fun (and exciting!) fact is that the park reached a new record in their manatee count last year when they counted 663 manatees! There is also a Blue Spring webcam where you can watch the manatees live. It can get busy here and at times, they will close the gates at capacity. Therefore, it may be helpful to get to the park early.
TECO Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach, Florida
This is Tampa Electric’s power plant, where the manatees enjoy warm waters from the plant. They have a viewing platform and education center at their 50 acre facility. There is also an on site cafe in case you get hungry. They are only open seasonally from approximately November to April, so you may want to double check that they are open before you plan a trip. They also have two webcams to see the manatees, manatee webcam east and manatee webcam west.
Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland, Florida
Manatee Springs State Park is located in Chiefland, Florida, just under an hour from Gainesville. It’s home to one of Florida’s largest freshwater springs and while it is a popular place to visit in the summer, it’s also a refuge in the winter for Florida manatees. You can swim or scuba, and they also rent canoes. There is a boardwalk trail that’s around a quarter mile with some overlooks where you may be able to see the manatees.
How to Visit Manatees Respectfully
I know how exciting it can be to see the manatees. No matter how many I see, it never gets old! And in the excitement, sometimes it can be easy to forget how to respectfully treat them. While manatees are no longer endangered, they’re not out of the woods yet. In fact, many environmental groups are seeking to get manatees back on endangered status. Manatees are protected by federal and state laws and are the most protected mammals in the state.
While you are visiting and enjoying the manatees, here are some tips on how to do it respectfully:
- Practice passive observation. This means look at the manatees but don’t touch them.
- Give manatees space when you are in the water with them. This is especially true if you see a mom with her baby. Manatees feed and rely on their moms for up to two years.
- Don’t feed manatees
- Avoid chasing, poking, and prodding manatees
No matter where you are in Florida, you probably aren’t too far away from an opportunity to see a manatee. Of course, there is never a guarantee and seeing a manatee will likely depend on external factors, such as the weather. But hopefully this guide gives you the best chance to see a manatee in Florida! There may be more places to see manatees in Florida that I didn’t include in this article. For example, we have even seen them at the beach multiple times! But I tried to include the places that may give you the best chances.