Sea cows. Mermaids. Gentle giants. Whatever adorable name you call 'em, there's no denying that manatees are quite possibly the most lovable creatures on Earth-- just above sloths and red pandas (in my book, anyways). Sadly, though, these beautiful, sweet-tempered marine mammals are an endangered species; pollution, dangerous motor boats, and the loss of their habitat is taking a toll on the manatee population. Thankfully, humans have taken an interest in saving the sea cows-- and you will too, once you see them and how cute they are in their natural habitat! Florida is known for its populations of manatees, which swim into the rivers looking for food and warmer waters, especially in the fall, winter and spring. Here are some of the best spots to spot a manatee!
The naturally warm spring waters that flow into the river at Three Sister Springs attract tons of manatees all year-round. During the winter, the spring is closed off so that the manatees can warm up (there can be up to 200 at once in here!) but during the summer, you're free to kayak or canoe with the peaceful beasts-- it's so much cooler than just watching them from the boardwalk!
Admission to Homosassa Springs State Park gets you access to a boat ride up Pepper Creek to its special Wildlife Park. Spy deer, wolves, otters, gators, cranes, and, of course, West Indian manatees, who flock to the warm spring during cold winter months. The park has a floating underwater observatory where you can find unparalleled views of the sea cows, and they offer manatee programs where rangers give tons of great information on manatees (and other native beasts here.) Don't miss the reptile house, either!
Like at Three Sisters, swimming and boating are prohibited during the winter at Blue Spring State Park so that the hoardes of manatees and forage for sea grass and sleep in peace-- did you know that manatees can spend up to 50% of their day snoozing? When it isn't manatee season, guests are welcome to swim and snorkel in the springs. If you can't make it down to see the manatees during the winter, they offer a wild manatee webcam; it's pretty mesmerizing and relaxing!
Lovers Key State Park is awesome for manatee-spotting because it's less crowded than others, and it's a little more undeveloped and natural. It's perfect if you want to kayak with the manatees-- you can bring your own or rent one there, and have the park rangers point you towards the sea cow herds. And, on the bright side, if you don't see manatees, you'll probably at least spot a few bottle-nosed dolphins!
Merritt Island Nat'l Wildlife Refuge: Weirdly, we have NASA to thank for this manatee-spotting preserve. NASA purchased the land to build the Kennedy Space Center and turned the leftover land into a wildlife preserve. Originally intended to protect migratory birds, they've found that all kinds of endangered species have settled into the park. From scrub-jays to wood storks to Eastern Indigo snakes and gopher tortoises, it's definitely been a haven for wildlife-- and yes, you'll see manatees here, too! It's one of the few places where you'll have a chance to spot them all year round.
Manatee Springs State Park didn't get its name by NOT having lots of manatees, so this is another great stop for those who are in search of a close encounter of the adorable kind. The manatees like to visit in the winter, but in the warmer months, you can scuba dive, swim, and snorkel here. Kayaking and canoeing are permitted year-round though, so feel free to rent a boat and hit the river.
The best time to see a manatee is the winter, but you might still be lucky enough to spot one in the spring. Keep in mind that most springs and rivers close to swimmers, snorkelers, scuba divers, and sometimes canoers and kayakers, so that the manatees can warm up in the springs in peace, so if you're looking to fully experience the springs for yourself rather than spot a manatee, spring and summer are better bets.