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8 Best Places to See and Swim with Manatees in Florida

Do you love manatees as much as I do? As a longtime Florida resident, I consider myself lucky to be able to see and swim with manatees, or sea cows, several times throughout the year.

Whether you are visiting Florida or live here, I’ll share my tips for seeing and swimming with manatees in the sunshine state.

The author passively observes a manatee in Florida waters - 8 Best Places to See and Swim with Manatees in Florida - unofficialflorida.com.
The author passively observes a manatee in Florida waters.

Where Do Manatees Live?

Manatees are native to Florida waters and live in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, canals, rivers, and natural springs. In the summer months, manatees travel as far as Texas, the Carolinas, Mexico, and Central America.

When is the Best Time to See Manatees?

The best time to see manatees in the wild is during Florida’s winter, often referred to as manatee season. Depending on the weather, this is usually November to late May or early April.

Why? Manatees cannot tolerate cold water. When the oceans and rivers cool, manatees seek warmer water and head into Florida’s springs – which stay a consistent 72 degrees all year long.

During the summer, you may see single manatees in the rivers, springs, gulf, or ocean. Since manatees have no natural enemies, they do not live in herds. They congregate in herds only to breed and to stay warm during the winter months.

A juvenile manatee stares into the author's camera in Jurassic Springs located in King's Bay - 8 Best Places to See and Swim with Manatees in Florida - unofficialflorida.com.
A juvenile manatee stares into the author’s camera in Jurassic Springs located in King’s Bay.

Is It Illegal to Swim with Manatees?

Citrus County, Florida is the only place in the United States that you are legally able to swim with manatees. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission goes into detail about laws related to manatees.

How Do You Swim with Manatees?

While people may say ‘swim’ with manatees, the best way to see manatees is to stay still. In the water, it is best to float at the surface keeping your hips up and your feet off the bottom. Always practice passive observation, which means simply watching, while viewing these wild animals. Wearing a wet suit can help keep you buoyant, as well as keeping you warm. Additionally, using a pool noodle will help keep you at the surface.

Splashing, chasing, or reaching out to touch manatees becomes dangerous for the manatees and it is illegal. Spooked or scared manatees may swim away quickly and could get hit by a boat. Additionally, you could interfere with them as they eat or sleep.

8 Places to See and Swim with Manatees in Florida

Blue Spring

One of the best places to see manatees is Blue Spring State Park located in Orange City, Florida. In the summer months, you can float down the short spring run in a tube. But in the winter, the spring closes to humans so the manatees can use it uninterrupted.

Visitors to Blue Spring during winter months can enjoy manatees from the boardwalk and from several viewing platforms. Rehabilitated manatees are also often released into this spring. If you are lucky, you might even get to watch a release.

Best time to visit to see manatees: Winter.
This location has manatee viewing only in the winter, you cannot swim with the manatees.

A manatee tracker floats along the surface of the water in a manatee sanctuary area - 8 Best Places to See and Swim with Manatees in Florida - unofficialflorida.com.
A manatee tracker floats along the surface of the water in a manatee sanctuary area.

Apollo Beach

One area that manatees congregate in the winter months is Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center. The power plant uses cold water from Tampa Bay and recycles clean, warm water back into the bay. Manatees gather at the plant by the hundreds to stay warm during winter months.

This facility is a designated manatee sanctuary. Tampa Electric offers free parking and admission to the Manatee Viewing Center. The facility is open to visitors November 1 – April 15.

Best time to see manatees: Winter.
This location has manatee viewing only, you cannot enter the water.

Silver Springs State Park

Silver Springs State Park in Ocala is named after its silver tinted water. While you cannot swim at Silver Springs State Park, it’s a popular place for canoeing, kayaking, and paddle boarding. Don’t have your own gear? You can rent canoes and kayaks right in the park.

After you leave the boat launch area, start watching for manatees immediately. No matter what time of year, we have always seen a couple. And, watch for wild monkeys. No, that isn’t a misprint. In the 1930’s Silver Springs State Park was a privately owned roadside attraction with a jungle cruise. The owner at the time released a population of rhesus macaques monkeys on an island – not realizing they could swim. The monkeys now live in the areas around Silver Springs State Park.

If you’d like to swim, once you are out of the state park waters, you can swim in the Silver River. Beware though, the Silver River is home to many large alligators.

Best time to see manatees: Winter, but some reside in the park year round.
This location has manatee viewing only, you cannot enter the water within the park. However, you can swim in the Silver River – outside of the boundaries of the state park.

A manatee surfacing for air next to the author's kayak - 8 Best Places to See and Swim with Manatees in Florida - unofficialflorida.com.
A manatee surfacing for air next to the author’s kayak.

ZooTampa

ZooTampa, located in Tampa, is home to the David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center. Opened in 1991, it was the first ever facility built to care for injured and sick manatees.

Manatee Mangroves is an exhibit which houses several manatees that cannot be released back into the wild. These manatees call ZooTampa their forever home. Manatee Mangrove offers plenty of air conditioned benches to sit and observe the manatees.

Best time to visit to see manatees: Year round.
This location has manatee viewing only, you cannot enter the water.

Manatees seen from the underwater viewing area at ZooTampa's Manatee Mangroves exhibit - 8 Best Places to See and Swim with Manatees in Florida - unofficialflorida.com.
Manatees seen from the underwater viewing area at ZooTampa’s Manatee Mangroves exhibit.

Crystal River and Three Sisters Springs

Crystal River Florida is one of the most well known and popular places to see and swim with manatees. In the summer months, you can enter and swim in Three Sisters Springs, but you must arrive by water either in your own boat or through a tour. In the winter, Three Sisters Springs closes so that manatees can use the area uninterrupted.

The best way to swim with manatees is to book a tour through one of the many tour companies offering manatee tours. When looking for tour companies, consider choosing a tour with one of the recognized Guardian Guides. These companies participate in a voluntary manatee stewardship program and are listed online. Have a large group? Many tour companies offer private tours as well.

During your tour, you’ll be given a snorkel, mask, pool noodle, wet suit – and sometimes hot chocolate. You’ll then board a pontoon boat and set off to find manatees in their natural habitat. Tour guides will demonstrate how to mind your ‘manatee manners’ while in the water. I highly recommend bringing an underwater camera to document your unique experience with these gentle giants.

If you’d like to stay dry and see the manatees in Crystal River, you can visit the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and view the manatees from the boardwalk. But, if you view from land, you cannot enter the water.

Best time to visit to see manatees: Winter.
This location has manatee viewing and you can enter the water.

Crystal River on a December day outside the manatee sanctuary. Both the tour boats and the people are being watched by FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in yellow kayaks and vests - 8 Best Places to See and Swim with Manatees in Florida - unofficialflorida.com.
Crystal River on a December day outside the manatee sanctuary. Both the tour boats and the people are being watched by FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) in yellow kayaks and vests.

SeaWorld Orlando

SeaWorld Orlando plays an important part in manatee rescue and rehabilitation. As of the time of writing this article, SeaWorld Orlando has rescued 866 manatees. The goal of any wildlife rescue is to rehabilitate the animal and release them back into the wild. When the animals cannot be released, they find a permanent home at SeaWorld Orlando or another location.

Visitors to SeaWorld Orlando can view both the manatee rescue area and the resident manatee population. The resident manatees can be viewed both above and below the water.

Best time to visit to see manatees: Year round.
This location has manatee viewing only, you cannot enter the water.

The manatee rescue area at SeaWorld Orlando. The smallest manatee was a day old and born at the manatee rescue area - 8 Best Places to See and Swim with Manatees in Florida - unofficialflorida.com.
The manatee rescue area at SeaWorld Orlando. The smallest manatee was a day old and born at the manatee rescue area.

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a park dedicated to animals that cannot be released into the wild. In addition to their resident manatees, you can see birds, alligators, a hippo, Florida panthers, black bears, and more. Homosassa Springs is wheelchair and stroller friendly, as most habitats can be viewed from a boardwalk.

One unique aspect of Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is that you can see both resident and wild manatees in their natural habitats. Don’t forget to check out the Fish Bowl and see fish and manatees in the headspring underwater.

Best time to visit to see manatees: Year round.
This location has manatee viewing only, you cannot enter the water.

A manatee in a rehabilitation tank at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park - 8 Best Places to See and Swim with Manatees in Florida - unofficialflorida.com.
A manatee in a rehabilitation tank at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.

Weeki Wachee River

Weeki Wachee River is a crystal clear, spring fed river that is home to manatees year round. The best way to see manatees in the Weeki Wachee River is by kayak. If you don’t have your own kayak, you can rent from either the outfitter at the Weeki Wachee State Park or privately.

If you choose to launch your kayak from the Weeki Wachee State Park, you’ll be able to paddle only the first few miles of the river before the designated take out point. Unfortunately, you cannot swim in the river within the state park boundaries.

A better option for paddling the Weeki Wachee River is to rent privately or bring your own gear and paddle upstream from Rogers Park. But, you’ll be paddling against the current – so prepare for a workout.

Best time to see manatees: Winter, but some reside in the river year round.
This location has manatee viewing only, you cannot enter the water within the state park. However, you can enter the water outside the Weeki Wachee State Park boundaries.

The author passively observes manatees from a distance in the Weeki Wachee River - 8 Best Places to See and Swim with Manatees in Florida - unofficialflorida.com.
The author passively observes manatees from a distance in the Weeki Wachee River.

Manatee Conservation

If you haven’t already fallen in love with West Indian Manatees, I know you will after the first time you see them in the wild. But, manatees are in peril despite being removed from the Endangered Species List. Their biggest threat is humans. In fact, in Florida, manatees are dying at an alarming rate. I urge you to donate to non-profits like the Save the Manatee Club which actively campaigns to strengthen laws and policies aimed at saving this threatened species.

As a friendly reminder, all images seen on this page were taken by the author and the rights belong to the author. They cannot be used without written permission.

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