Last Updated on February 22, 2024
If your question is “where can I see manatee in Florida,” my question back is, “when will you be here?”
I’ve lived in Florida since 2012 and have been visiting my whole life. Manatee can be seen across the state, but where, exactly, depends on when you’ll be here.
During the warmer months, April through October, manatees can be found almost anywhere in Florida with a fresh water supply and access to larger bodies of water to roam like rivers. During the colder months, November through March, Florida manatees congregate around warm water springs and powerplant water discharge areas.
Manatees are mammals, like dolphins and whales, but are marine mammals, not aquatic mammals, and thus need to stay warm, necessitating their congregation around warm water sources when its cold out. They don’t dive as deep as dolphins and whales and also don’t eat fish or plankton; they’re herbivores.
When can I see manatees in Florida?
Manatees can be seen year-round in Florida, but the best chance to see them is during the winter months as they congregate, often in large numbers, around warm water, fresh water sources. At Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, 30 miles from downtown Orlando north on I-4, manatees can gather there into the several hundreds at a time.
During warmer months, manatees can be seen more places across Florida, but since they’re dispersed – some travel all the way up the East Coast and west to Texas – they can be harder to find with spotting one mostly a matter of chance.
When it’s cold, you can GUARANTEE finding manatees in big numbers at a handful of spots across Florida.
What is manatee season in Florida?
Florida manatee season occurs from November through March. The “manatee season” marks when the animals begin congregating in fewer and fewer warm water locations in larger and larger numbers. Don’t confuse this with a “hunting season.” It is illegal to touch these threatened animals, let alone harm them under any circumstance.
Really, manatee season is more like December through February, that’s when air temperatures – and thereby water temperatures – across the state can plunge forcing the warm-blooded animals to warm water springs and other reliable sources of warmth.
Where to see Manatee in Florida?
The absolute best place to see manatee in Florida is Blue Spring State Park. It’s not uncommon for 500, 600, 700 manatees at a time to congregate there during the depths of winter. Blue Spring maintains a constant, 72-degree year-round temperature.
Blue Spring State Park is about an hour’s drive from Disney World and the major Orlando tourist attractions, less so from Daytona Beach, and well worth a visit.
I wrote an entire separate article on the ins and outs, dos and don’ts, of visiting Blue Spring State Park to see the manatees.
Also during the winter months, manatees gather in big numbers at the Tampa Electric Company (TECO) discharge at Apollo Beach in Tampa Bay. The power company has set up a manatee viewing center there to accommodate all the visitors coming to see the animals.
As mentioned previously, during the summer months, manatee can be found just about everywhere around the state, but they’re harder to locate because they’re more spread out. If you’re on the coasts and looking to see one in the summer months, call up a dolphin watch or ecotourism tour operator – or even a fishing charter – to see if they can take you out to see them. If you’re willing to pay for their time in taking you around, chances are they’ll do it.
A popular tourist spot I’ve seen manatee is at the St. Pete Pier in St. Petersburg.
Unbelievably, you can also spot them around Brickell Key, a manmade island of super-luxury high rise condos in Miami. There’s a walking path around the “key” that makes for easy viewing.
Where to See Manatees in Central Florida
Again, Blue Spring State Park is tops for finding manatees at any time in Central Florida.
Homosassa Springs State Park on the Gulf Coast 70 miles north of Tampa is also good, as is Three Sisters Springs (915 N. Suncoast Blvd, Crystal River, FL 34429).
Where to See Manatees in Crystal River Florida
Crystal River, FL on the Gulf of Mexico 40 miles west of the ghastly The Villages super-sprawl development and I-75 calls itself “Home of the Manatee.” With good reason. Year round and especially during the winter months, you’re sure to find manatees there.
Three Sisters Springs located directly in the small town of Crystal River, and Homosassa Springs State Park eight miles south, as mentioned above, are primo winter locations to find huge numbers of manatee congregating and easily observed. Like Blue Spring, these springs are 72-degrees year-round.
In Crystal River right next to Three Sisters Springs is the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge established to protect the Florida manatee – the West Indian Manatee to be exact. Another wonderful, easy to find and easy to navigate place you’ll reliably see manatee at any time.
Where is the Best Place to See Manatees?
- Blue Spring State Park – Orange City, FL
- Three Sisters Springs – Crystal River, FL
- Homosassa Springs State Park – Homosassa, FL
- Tampa Electric Company discharge – Apollo Beach, FL (Tampa)
Where You Won’t See Manatees in Florida
Remember, manatees need fresh water so you’re not going to find them way offshore in the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic Ocean. It is rare to see them in the Florida Keys because the Keys don’t have fresh water, but it is possible. Surprisingly, you’re also unlikely to find them in the Everglades despite all the fresh water, but the water there is not usually deep enough for them to move around. In the Everglades, your best bet to see manatee will be the Guy Bradley Visitor Center in Flamingo.
You can find manatees in Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest lake and one the largest in the Southeast, but not in big numbers, particularly as the lake becomes more and more polluted.
Manatees don’t hang out in the state’s thousands of residential stormwater and runoff retention ponds. They’re too polluted, too small and not connected to larger bodies of water.
The best place for finding manatees in summer used to be the Indian River Lagoon, an ecological marvel running 156-miles along the Atlantic Coast from the Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville in the north all the way south to Stuart. Sadly, the Lagoon has become so terribly polluted in recent years as a result of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide runoff from residential laws as well as discharges of polluted water out of Lake Okeechobee at the behest of the Big Sugar plantations south of the lake, the manatee have been dying and leaving the area.
An historic manatee die-off occurred in 2021, centered on the Indian River Lagoon. Polluted water and algae blooms killed the once abundant seagrass beds in the Lagoon, depriving manatees of their primary food source and starving them.
What Can You do to Help Manatees?
- If you’re boating, slow down. Manatees hang out around the surface – they breathe air – and boat strikes remain a major risk for them.
- If you have a lawn in Florida – or anywhere – don’t use fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides. These poisons all end up in the groundwater sickening rivers, lakes and springs and killing the plants and animals that live there.
- Leave be. Don’t touch manatees if you see them in the wild.
- PROTECT FLORIDA’s SPRINGS! Anything you do to protect Florida’s springs – like not buying bottled water – and not using fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides, will protect Florida’s manatees.
- Support the manatees. Numerous non-profit organizations like Save the Manatee Club – co-founded by Jimmy Buffet – advocate on behalf of manatees and can always use donations.
- Vote for candidates dedicated to the environment, a rarity in Florida, but they do exist.