8 Great Places to See Wild Manatees in Florida

Florida manatees gathered at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
Florida manatees congregate at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

Getty Images

For most of the year, the endangered Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) lives in waterways throughout Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. But because manatees are sensitive to cold temperatures, their patterns change in the winter, and they migrate south in search of warmer waters. This annual ritual provides unique opportunities to observe these gentle giants up close and in the wild.

To ensure the safety of gathering manatees, many destinations are closed to swimming and other aquatic recreation in winter and early spring. However, you can still observe sizable clusters of  these exceptional mammals cuddling up in the warm spring waters from designated viewing areas. If you're interested in observing manatees first-hand, there are several sea-cow hot spots throughout the state.

Here are eight places in Florida to see manatees in the wild.

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Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

Manatees cuddle up on a cold day in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1983 with a specific mission: protecting the endangered Florida manatees that live within its waters.

Located west of Orlando and north of Tampa, the refuge is an important winter manatee haven. One of the most well-known sea cow gathering areas within the refuge is the Three Sisters Spring. This area receives extra protections as a designated manatee sanctuary between November and March.

During this time, water access is strictly limited and sometimes prohibited, depending on the number of manatees in the water.

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Blue Spring State Park

Manatees cuddle up in Florida's Blue Spring State Park.

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Situated on the St. Johns River near Orange City north of Orlando, Blue Spring State Park was established in 1972 by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and it represents one of the state's first efforts to protect these vulnerable giants.

The spring's enchanting, crystal-clear water makes it a popular destination for humans looking to swim, snorkel, dive, and kayak in the summer. In the winter, human access to the spring is prohibited as the constant flow of 72-degree water attracts a growing population of heat-seeking manatees. However, there is a boardwalk where visitors can observe these gentle giants at a safe, respectable distance.

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Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

baby manatee riding on its mother in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

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Located on the east coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge comprises 140,000 acres of undisturbed wildlife habitat that is home to more than 1,500 plant and animal species, including 15 federally listed species. This includes the Florida manatee, which can often be spotted on the northern end of the refuge in Mosquito Lagoon and Haulover Canal.

Built to connect the lagoon with the nearby Indian River, Haulover Canal gives manatees (and humans) easier access between the two bodies of water.

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Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park

Manatee swimming near the surface at Wakulla Spring State Park

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South of the state capital of Tallahassee, Wakulla Springs is situated underneath a canopy of scenic bald cypress and hardwood hammock. Wakulla Springs is perhaps best known for the manatees that visit during the winter. These gentle giants, along with alligators and other wildlife, can be observed from a diving platform or a riverboat.

Beyond the excellent aquatic recreational options, the park boasts one of the world's deepest and largest freshwater springs. It's also a site of rich archaeological significance, with evidence of human occupation going back 15,000 years.

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Manatee Springs State Park

Two manatees swimming in the blue water at Manatee Springs State Park

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Manatee Springs State Park is situated along the Suwannee River, which begins around southern Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp and runs through northern Florida before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Located in the small town of Chiefland in North Central Florida, Manatee Springs is aptly named for its numerous sea cow sightings.

An 800-foot boardwalk provides views of manatees and other wildlife in the springs.

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Fanning Springs State Park

A pair of manatees swimming underwater at Fanning Springs State Park

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Located just 14 miles north of Manatee Springs on the Suwannee River in Fanning Springs, the state park by the same name provides ample opportunities to view manatees in their natural environment.  The mammals can be spotted in the river, but they gravitate to the springs in the winter due to the water’s consistent temperature.

The springs are also popular for swimming, boating, and snorkeling, and the park is home to other wildlife including deer, hawks, and owls.

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Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Mother and calf manatees at Homossasa Springs State Park

Frank Staub / Getty Images

North of Tampa along Florida’s west coast, the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park offers a number of places to view manatees. The park has platforms where visitors can observe manatees from above ground, but the Fish Bowl Underwater Observatory offers a chance to see manatees, as well as a number of fresh and saltwater fish species, below the water’s surface.

The park has boardwalks for viewing wildlife and is part of the Great Florida Birding Wildlife Trail.

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Lovers Key State Park

Boardwalk at Lovers Key State Park, Fort Myers

Ebyabe / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Located between Fort Myers and Naples on Florida's west coast, this 1,616-acre park is comprised of four barrier islands. In addition to miles of sandy beaches, the Lovers Key State Park offers opportunities to view wildlife, including manatees, along a mangrove-lined estuary.

Manatees can be observed from elevated boardwalks and trails as well as by paddling through the park’s waterways.