Have you ever seen a sea cow? One of Florida’s most beloved native inhabitants, the endangered West Indian manatee spends its winters the way many of us would like to–in Florida. Although they range as far north as Massachusetts in the summer, by winter they crave the warm waters of Florida’s coasts and springs. And when cold fronts strike, bringing chilly winds and chillier waters to their home rivers, manatees swim for places where they know the water will be reliably warm all the time. Florida’s natural springs, bubbling up from the limestone with fresh water at a relatively comfortable 72 degrees Fahrenheit, draw hundreds of manatees at once when the air temperature drops.
Although it’s illegal to touch a wild manatee, you can still get a close view of these slow-moving gentle giants both in the water and out. Whether you’re a diver or a bystander, here are three places you can meet manatees in Central Florida.
Blue Springs State Park, Orange City
Blue Springs State Park is one of Florida’s most visited spots for manatee viewing. Blue Spring, the largest spring on the St. John’s River, welcomes hundreds of manatees on cold winter days. Recently, there were as many as 400 manatees reported! And while there’s no diving or swimming allowed during the winter months, you’ll find the view from above the water is as good as below–the water in Blue Springs and Blue Springs Run are crystal-clear, a shimmering turquoise filter through which you can view the gracefully floating manatees.
Blue Springs also offers boating opportunities, the historic Thursby house from 1872, and river boat tours. This is a popular Florida attraction, so if you visit Blue Springs State Park on a cool winter day, leave early–the park will close to capacity if necessary. Visit the Florida State Parks website for details.
You can check the Blue Springs manatee live-cam here to see if any manatees are visible right now!
Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, Titusville
If you’re visiting Kennedy Space Center or Cocoa Beach, the manatee observation deck at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is a good place to view manatees on mild days. Haulover Canal, where the deck is located, is also a popular fishing spot. While it’s not a warm-water refuge for manatees the way the springs are, manatees often graze on aquatic plants here on more normal Florida days. The refuge Visitor’s Center offers Manatee Programs which focus on education and observation — to find out if one is offered during your visit, call 321-861-5601. You can learn more about Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to Kennedy Space Center, at their website.
Three Sisters Springs, Crystal River
In west-central Florida, Three Sisters Springs is a complex of three springs which bubble into Kings Bay, the headwaters of Crystal River. The river itself offers many boating opportunities, including manatee tours, but at Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge, winter viewing of the springs’ massive manatee population is available from a shoreline boardwalk. A trolley runs from the Visitor’s Center to the springs during the winter months, where you can enjoy guided walking tours, spot wildlife, and watch the manatees swim in the incredibly clear water. For more information and to purchase trolley tickets, visit the Three Sisters Springs Visitor Center website.
Are you visiting Florida in the summer? Manatees range farther afield in the warm season, and while there are some year-round residents, finding them can be challenging. If you’re limited on time but still want to spot some manatees, visit these locations:
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Homosassa
Manatees are easy to spot in their native environment at Homosassa Springs, with an underwater observatory built right into the main spring. The park also showcases Florida native wildlife, where you can meet local residents such as river otters, black bear, and bobcats. Visit their website for details and directions.
Orlando Theme Parks
Both Walt Disney World Resort and SeaWorld Orlando are active participants in manatee rescue, rehabilitation, and research. At Walt Disney World, visit Epcot’s The Seas with Nemo and Friends to see their manatee pair from both above and below the water. At SeaWorld Orlando, the park’s real-life rescue center has added a richly themed visitor’s area, The Manatee Rehabilitation Area, where you can see rescued manatees living in a habitat which closely resembles their natural home.
For companies offering guided boating, diving and nature tours that take you closer to the Florida manatee, visit Save the Manatee’s directory.
Planning your Central Florida vacation? Explore our Destinations tab to find out about a stay at Summer Bay Orlando by Exploria Resorts, with amazing amenities and room to stretch in vacation condos and villas, or access all the fun of Summer Bay Orlando from your resort hotel at Crown Club Inn Orlando.