Where To See Manatees in Florida: 10 Best Spots To Check Out · Compass and Coastline | Eco Travel + Ocean Conservation (2024)

Wondering where to see manatees in Florida? Before your trip to the sunshine state, check out this travel guide to narrow in on the 10 best spots to find manatees. From crystal-clear springs to hidden coastal gems, get tips from a local, a helpful map, and some fun facts so you know exactly where to see manatees in Florida!

Where To See Manatees in Florida: 10 Best Spots To Check Out · Compass and Coastline | Eco Travel + Ocean Conservation (1)

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Taking a trip to Florida without seeing manatees is like going to Las Vegas and not seeing the Strip. You’ve gotta see it for yourself at least once!

The first time I saw manatees in Florida, it was wintertime and I was in the Orlando area for a work trip. Honestly… I was bummed that it was too cold to be in a swimsuit. I wanted to explore, so I started looking for things to do that weren’t beach related, and that’s when I discovered that winter and spring are actually prime viewing for manatees!

I got up really early one morning (not a morning person) and drove to Blue Spring State Park and I gotta say… it was AMAZING and one of my favorite things I’ve done in Florida to date. That’s saying something because I ended up living in Florida!

So I thought I would share my take on where to see manatees in Florida, because I remember searching for these spots myself. I hope this helps you plan your trip to Florida. I truly think that manatees, often called “sea cows,” add an extra layer of charm to the Sunshine State! Seeing them in their natural habitat is a MUST if you’re looking for a unique and heartwarming experience on your trip to Florida.

It’s not just a sightseeing adventure; it’s a chance to be a part of something bigger, a reminder of the delicate balance between humans and the incredible marine life that call Florida home.

Where To See Manatees in Florida

Did you know manatees are listed as a threatened species? That means that seeing manatees in Florida will not only be a unique experience, but your visit will also contribute to ongoing conservation efforts to protect manatees and their habitats for years to come.

So, when planning your Florida itinerary, make sure to include a manatee encounter! For a few tips on choosing the right one, check out my post on A Guide to Responsible Animal Encounters.

Ready to see manatees in Florida? Let’s go!

1. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge (Gulf Coast, south of Gainesville)

There’s only one refuge in the whole United States solely dedicated to protecting manatees’ habitat, and it’s the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in central Florida. Crystal River is a haven for manatee enthusiasts, and the year-round warm waters of the Crystal River Springs attract manatees seeking refuge during colder months.

With snorkeling and kayaking options, you can get up close and personal with these magnificent creatures. Transitioning from freshwater to saltwater, the adjacent Kings Bay provides an ideal habitat for manatees, offering a unique blend of environments for them to thrive. Tour companies on Kings Bay in Crystal River operate under Special Use Permits issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which makes this a great, reputable spot to see manatees in Florida!

TIP: Want to swim with manatees? This is the spot

2. Blue Spring State Park (Central Florida, near Orlando)

Where To See Manatees in Florida: 10 Best Spots To Check Out · Compass and Coastline | Eco Travel + Ocean Conservation (2)

Head over to Blue Spring State Park, an underwater paradise where manatees congregate in large numbers during winter. Something unique about this spot is that it’s a designated manatee refuge, which is awesome for the animals. It also means that water activities like boating, kayaking, etc. aren’t allowed, to provide a peaceful sanctuary for the manatees.

However, the boardwalks along the spring offer a literally perfect vantage point for observing manatees in their natural habitat. I would go to Blue Spring if you don’t necessarily want to get in the water and are looking for a “no boat needed” manatee hotspot.

TIP: Get there early in the morning to beat the crowds! This is a popular spot and will get super busy

3. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (East Coast, in Titusville)

Where To See Manatees in Florida: 10 Best Spots To Check Out · Compass and Coastline | Eco Travel + Ocean Conservation (3)

If you’re looking for a more remote, peaceful spot for manatee viewing and love the idea of a scenic drive to get there, check out Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Manatees love it here because it’s located on the Indian River Lagoon, where the average water depth is only 4 feet. The sun warms the water, allowing food to grow and creating a cozy sanctuary for the manatees.

When I went, I visited the Manatee Observation Deck and loved the tranquility I found there. There’s a small parking lot, benches, and a few educational signs to learn more about the manatees while you wait for them to make their appearance. Another plus of this location is that Merritt Island is located on Florida’s “space coast”, so you can easily see the manatees and also head out to Kennedy Space Center on the same trip. Highly recommend!

TIP: Check out the nearby pristine beaches of Canaveral National Seashore

4. Manatee Lagoon (East Coast, in West Palm Beach)

Want to not only see manatees but learn more about them? Head to Manatee Lagoon in Riviera Beach. Unlike the natural landscape of a state park or wildlife refuge, this spot is an Eco-Discovery Center and offers educational programs, exhibits and an observation deck, making it a family-friendly spot to see manatees up close. Be sure to check out the picnic area while you’re there.

A few things to know before you go – Manatee Lagoon is only open during manatee season, (November 15 – March 31) and admission is free. They host fun events seasonally, like Nature Fest in March and guest speakers. You can even host an event or have your wedding at Manatee Lagoon!

TIP: Can’t visit in person? Check out their manatee webcam

5. Lee County Manatee Park (Gulf Coast, in Fort Myers)

If you find yourself in south Florida and want to see some manatees, head over to Lee County Manatee Park, a charming and unique spot to see manatees in their natural environment. I love that this park has viewing areas, picnic shelters, native plant and butterfly gardens, and kayak/canoe rentals.

Don’t want to kayak or canoe? This is a lovely little spot has paved walkways to see the manatees hanging out in the canal, and 3 covered viewing platforms which is nice in the Florida sunshine!

TIP: Take a picture by the manatee mural on the Visitor Center building or the sculptures by the park entrance

6. Everglades National Park (Southern tip of Florida)

One of the largest wetlands in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Everglades National Park is home to so much nature and wildlife, and manatees love it here too. The park’s brackish waters provide a unique haven, allowing them to move seamlessly between freshwater and saltwater environments.

The best way to see the Everglades (and find manatees) is to take an airboat tour through the winding waterways, and keep your eyes peeled for the gentle snouts of manatees breaking the surface. I recommend visiting the Everglades if you want to see manatees… and more! There are tons of birds, reptiles and mammals within this ecosystem and manatees are just the beginning.

TIP: Work with a tour guide and let them know you want to see manatees so you can pinpoint the best viewing locations

7. TECO Manatee Viewing Center (Gulf Coast, in Tampa)

Have you heard of the Tampa Electric Company Manatee Viewing Center? Yes you read that correctly, an electric company! They circulate warm water into the Tampa Bay, and manatees just love it! In fact, their discharge canal is a state and federally designated manatee sanctuary.

The TECO Viewing Center is a must-see if you’re in the Tampa area, and has won the USA TODAY 10Best Readers’ Choice Travel Award for best free attraction. It’s totally free (parking included) and open daily from November 1 – April 15. You can walk down the ADA-compliant walkway, explore a coastal habitat trail, or climb the wildlife observation tower in addition to seeing manatees of course. They even have a stingray touch tank and education building with exhibits!

TIP: Talk to the volunteer staff for fun facts! (Here’s a sneak peek: In 2023, a record-setting 1,100 manatees came together at a single time at TECO)

8. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park (Gulf Coast, between Tampa and Gainesville, FL)

Weeki Wachee is a Florida icon, and for good reason! I mean, where else can you see live mermaids, take a trip on a river boat cruise, learn about Florida wildlife, and swim in the pristine waters? Weeki Wachee has been open for 75 years and is a great spot for manatee viewing if you want to spend a full day exploring with lots of things to see and do.

The 7.4-mile Weeki Wachee River runs from the headsprings at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to the Gulf of Mexico and is a literal highway for the manatees when they’re looking for warm, cozy waters to relax in.

TIP: Check out clear kayaks for a truly unobstructed view of the manatees as they swim around and under you.

9. hom*osassa Springs Wildlife State Park (Gulf Coast, between Tampa and Gainesville, FL)

Right next to Weeki Wachi is its neighbor, hom*osassa Springs Wildlife State Park. hom*osassa is home to a collection of springs – there are over 30, and collectively they are one of the largest springs in Florida! What’s cool about this location is their Manatee programs that are offered daily at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. and the Fish Bowl Underwater Observatory that allows you to see manatees in their element without getting wet.

The park has a Visitor’s Center and a tram that takes you from the parking lot to the paved paths and elevated boardwalks where you can see the manatees. The Wildlife Walk will take you in a loop where you can see rescued manatees that call hom*osassa Springs their home.

TIP: Make sure you see Lu the hippo! At over 60 years old, Lu is a rescued former actor and honorary Florida resident at the spring.

10. Manatee Springs State Park (Gulf Coast, near Gainesville, FL)

With manatees, over 8 miles of trails, and a spring that releases an astounding 100 million gallons of water daily, Manatee Springs State Park lives up to its name! What’s nice about this park is that it’s wild… yet has lots of amenities. They offer camping, trails, canoe rental, swimming, snorkeling, diving and have pavilions, picnic tables, a concession stand, and restrooms.

The best place for viewing manatees is the boardwalk that winds through the cypress swamp from the spring to the river.

TIP: Want to spend the night at Manatee Springs? Check out the glamping options

BONUS: Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park (Panhandle, near Tallahassee, FL)

That was the top 10 best spots to see manatees in Florida, but I couldn’t leave out Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park because it’s actually the world’s largest and deepest freshwater spring. Cool right? It’s the northernmost location on this list and located in Florida’s “panhandle”, less than an hour south of Tallahassee.

There’s an ancient, swampy feel to this park – so much so that Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) movies were filmed there! As far as manatees go, they can be found in the river and spring at any time of year but most commonly October through January. You’ll want to book a river tour for the best viewing.

TIP: Stay at the Lodge at Wakulla Springs, an on-site hotel from the 1930s. Can’t stay? Grab a root beer float at the Soda Fountain or lunch/dinner at the Dining Room

Other Ways to See Manatees in Florida

Want to come along with me to see manatees in Florida? Come join me on Instagram @compassandcoastline. Each March, I share fun facts and explore manatee hotspots for Manatee Madness and it’s a ton of fun. I’d love for you to join me!

Now that we’ve explored the 10 best spots to see manatees in Florida, it’s time for your trip!

As you embark on your manatee adventure, remember to approach these creatures with respect and follow all guidelines to ensure their well-being. Florida’s waterways hold the key to unlocking the magic of manatees, and each spot on this list offers a unique and unforgettable encounter with these gentle giants.

You’re Gonna Love This

If you made it all the way to the end of this post, THANK YOU for reading! Here are a few other posts I think you’ll find helpful

  • Ethical Animal Experiences: A Guide to Responsible Wildlife Encounters
  • What To Pack For Florida: Essentials You’ll Need
  • How To Protect the Environment While Traveling: 8 tips you need
  • Reef-Safe and Biodegradable Sunscreen: 16 Options To Choose From
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Where To See Manatees in Florida: 10 Best Spots To Check Out · Compass and Coastline | Eco Travel + Ocean Conservation (2024)
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