The Best Place to See Manatees on Florida’s Nature Coast Year-round
A strange sound erupts from the mist filled cove. It’s a cross between a male turkey puffing and a whale blowing air from its spout. A grey mound breaks the calm surface of the water before sinking below the waterline- a flash. Just long enough of a change to make you aware and short enough to make you think you’re seeing things. A sturdy round flipper rises before disappearing, leaving a large swirl of water in its wake.
Manatees average around 10 feet long, and weigh about 800 – 1200 pounds. If you’re not expecting one nearby, the sight of a giant torpedo shaped water monster can be startling to say the least.
Every year visitors flock to Florida’s Nature Coast to get a glimpse of these gentle giants during the winter months. Manatees cannot survive for long periods in water below 68F, so when the cold weather settles in, these mammals flock to the warmer temperatures of Florida’s natural springs until their summer seas warm up again. The manatee wintering season lasts from mid-November to late March.
A Gathering of Manatees
The freshwater springs in Crystal River are the best place to see manatees and the population swells of up to and above 300 manatees during severe cold snaps such as one in 2014. This winter, a daily average of 100 manatees gathered around the Idiots Delight Springs and Three Sisters Springs at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Local manatee tours fill the channel, launching wet-suited guests fitted with snorkels into the cold water. Kayaks bob in the waters beyond the marked off ‘manatee only’ zones. All gathered with one goal in mind- to get a closer glimpse of these curious creatures.
Despite being water-bound, manatees are not related to whales. In fact, they are genetically closer to an elephant. Their front fins have 3-4 nails reminiscent of an elephant’s toenails. And like elephants, they carry hearty appetites. They can spend up to eight hours a day grazing on eel grass and other aquatic vegetation, consuming 1/10th of their body weight in food daily.
Unfortunately, the mass winter gatherings of manatees around the springs also mean the area’s aquatic vegetation gets depleted. So as soon as the water temperatures begin to rise, the manatees ‘check out’ of their winter resorts and head to greener pastures. But they are never really that far away. Even if you miss the winter ‘gatherings’, you still have the opportunity to spot manatees any time of year on the Nature Coast. The Nature Coast is the best place to see manatees. Here are a few special places manatees love to visit in the warmer seasons too.
Weeki Wachee River
This 7.4-mile rivers runs from the headsprings at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to the Gulf of Mexico. Manatees are often spotted along the crystal-clear waters of the river. Launch a kayak from the 3-acre riverside Rogers Park on Shoal Line Boulevard and head upriver to 140-foot-deep Hospital Hole, a popular manatee hangout. Although Rogers Park does not rent paddle crafts, the Kayak Shack outfitters is located just across the river from Roger’s Park.
The Weeki Wachee is a disposable-free zone. It is a patrolled river so leave those plastic water bottles in the car for this river trip.
Rogers County Park is located at 7244 Shoal Line Blvd in Spring Hill, FL 34607. $10 parking fee
Linda Pedersen Park
The spring waters of the 2nd magnitude Jenkins Creek Spring at Linda Pedersen Park draws manatees like a siren’s song from the Gulf of Mexico. It is the best place to see manatees in Hernando County. As of this writing, the park’s beach area is still closed, but you can climb the wooden observation tower, hang out on the bridge over the water or chill on the banks while you watch for manatees in the water below.
Linda Pedersen Park is located at 6400 Shoal Line Blvd in Spring Hill, FL 34607.
Manatees have a fondness for the ‘Chaz’. Perhaps they like the shady coves on a hot summer’s day or the abundant vegetation everywhere. There is something special about the Chaz that draws them. But you do have to paddle out to see them. Forgo the swimming crowds at Chassahowitzka main springs and paddle downstream towards the Gulf to get a glimpse of these gentle giants. This tidal river runs 5-miles to the Gulf of Mexico. There are no marked manatee zones on the river, so keep to the side, as motoring boats tend to run fast through the river.
River access is from the Chassahowitzka River Campground at 8600 W Miss Maggie Drive in Chassahowitzka, FL 34448
Parking fee: $5 per vehicle; $7 vehicle with trailer. Boat rentals (kayaks to jon boats) available.
The Homosassa River is a manatee hot spot, especially upriver near the springs by the state park. The headsprings are blocked from river access, but manatees seem to like to chill in the area right outside of the park boundaries. You’ll need a boat to reach this section of the river (put in at Halls River) or reach it by land. Enter the state park and take the left path to the river for a view of this area. Of course, you’ll be passing the sweetest manatee zone of them all 😉
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
This state park is one of only five manatee rehabilitation places partnered with the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC). Here they rescue, rehabilitate and release manatees back to the wild.
Visitors can visit the rehab area, a series of concrete water holding tanks (go over the hippo bridge and past the deer area) where rescued manatees are treated. The historic Fishbowl Underwater Observatory located in the actual headsprings of Homosassa River offers a unique perspective of fish life and an up-close view of the manatees released to this lagoon ‘safe haven’.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is located at 4150 S Suncoast Blvd, Homosassa, FL 34446.
Park fees: Adults (aged 13 and up) $13; children aged 6-12, $5; children 5 and under free. Parking is free.
Kings Bay Crystal River
Three Sisters Springs (Crystal River NWR)
Although the Three Sisters Springs at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is the best place to see manatees during the wintering season, the up-to-$20.00 per person park admission fees have been known to scare people away. Those fees go back into the refuge, and discounts are available for Citrus County residents & National Park passholders. Paddling into the Three Sisters Spring Basin (from the river) is prohibited from November 15th to March 31st.
You can reach Three Sisters Springs by shuttle from the Three Sisters Springs Center. It’s located at 123 NW US Hwy 19 (behind city hall) in Crystal River, FL The shuttle trolleys depart every 30 minutes for the boardwalk at Three Sisters Springs
You can access the Three Sisters Springs by foot or bicycle at 601 Three Sisters Springs Trail, Crystal River, FL. Limited handicapped parking is available there. A daily manatee count is marked on the chalkboard at this entrance as well.
Fees: (Winter) Adults $20.00; Seniors (55+) $17.50; Children (aged 6-15) $7.50; Children (5 & Under) Free. Summer admission is reduced, but manatees are fewer and farther between.
You can reach the Three Sisters Springs from the water by launching your paddle craft from Hunter Springs Park at 104 NE 1st Ave, Crystal River and King’s Bay Park at 268 NW 3rd St, Crystal River or scheduling a manatee tour with a local operator. Parking fees apply at both parks via automated system. Both parks are good places for manatee spotting- even from land.
When paddling, tour the canals in the area. Manatees are seen swimming through the residential area even in the summer.
Things to Know about Interacting with Manatees:
- Manatees are Florida’s original visitors and are protected by federal and state laws: The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. They are the most protected mammal in the state. Harassing, molesting, or disturbing any manatee comes with heavy consequences.
- When it comes to Florida’s manatees, you can look, but don’t touch. Passive observation is the name of the game.
- If you are in the water with a manatee, give it space. Never bring your boat (or yourself) between a calf (baby) and the cow (mother). Calves feed and rely on their mothers for up to two years.
- If you are in a paddle craft, don’t float over a manatee- they can get startled and capsize you.
- Don’t feed a manatee, chase it down, poke or prod it.
- And always, when boating, watch out for manatees and respect the manatee zone signs.
- Don a pair of polarized glasses (it IS Florida after all) and bypass the visiting masses to try your own manatee spotting on Florida’s Nature Coast – any time of year.