Plan Seasonal Visits to Local Manatee Habitats
Feb 05, 2020 10:02PM
By Sheila Mahan
by Nancy DeVault
Thousands of manatees migrate through Florida during cooler months in search of warmer water. Though these bulbous beings can reach up to 13 feet in length and tip the scales at 3,000 pounds, they have relatively little body fat compared to other mammals, and thus tolerate withstand water temperature lower than 68 degrees, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Manatees, which can range from Virginia to Texas in summer months, instinctually find refuge in the Sunshine State, typically from November to March, affording Floridians seasonal opportunities to observe these aquatic snowbirds in their natural habitats. Federal and state parks present the best sightseeing options.
“Manatees are more vulnerable in the winter months, and it’s important not to disturb them, especially at warm-water sites,” advises Ron Mezich, head of FWC’s imperiled species management section. “Getting too close to manatees can cause them to leave these critical areas at a time when it is important for them to stay in warm water habitats.”
Also known as sea cows, manatees have a gentle demeanor, despite their mammoth physique. They glide slowly, often in herds, usually where seagrass beds flourish, such as shallow rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, canals and coastal areas.
A 75-minute drive from both Gainesville and Ocala, Manatee Springs State Park, in Chiefland, is home to one of Florida’s first-magnitude springs, gushing out 100 million gallons of water daily. Manatee Springs is 25 feet deep and has more than 26,000 feet of cave passageways, making it one of the longest systems in North America. Swimming, canoeing and kayaking are prohibited during manatee season for their protection. But visitors need not take the plunge, because viewing is best from this state park’s 800-foot-long elevated boardwalk spanning the cypress forest. True to its namesake, an abundance of manatees retreat to this spot annually. The eight-and-a-half miles of trails are meander through other fauna and flora on the grounds.
Further south, off U.S. 19, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge preserves an unspoiled habitat in Kings Bay, which forms the headwaters of the Crystal River and encompasses more than 70 natural springs. While Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is the only haven created specifically for the protection of the manatee species, people can actually swim there alongside them. When the refuge was established in 1983, about 30 educated guides were grandfathered in with special permits to operate these encounter tours.
“We have interactions with manatees much more than anywhere else in the state of Florida,” proclaims Miles Saunders, media manager at Discovery Crystal River. It’s a breathtaking experience, in spite of snorkel gear, to watch their wrinkly, whiskered faces nosh on aquatic plants, consuming 10 to 15 percent of their body weight daily.
Still, precautions are taken to ensure the safety of both manatees and swimmers. Participants must watch the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service produced Manatee Manner video. “It gives you a primer on passive observation, or not initiating contact, with manatees. It’s up to the manatees to decide whether they want to have contact with us,” Saunders says. In fact, it’s illegal to pursue or chase a manatee.
“Our guides tell people on tours that you’re really not here to ‘swim’ with manatees… you’re here to ‘float’ with manatees. Because the best way to see a manatee is to be like a manatee; so if you float, they might think you are a manatee, and that’s when they approach you to see who or what you are,” Saunders describes. Plus, the use of wetsuits and flotation devices for buoyancy are encouraged by conservation-focused guides.
If the 72-degree spring is too chilly, wander the boardwalk at neighboring Three Sisters, the only spring in Crystal River accessible by land, rather than boat. Visitors will see manatees popping their snouts to the surface to breathe about every three to five minutes.
Just south of Crystal River, in Homosassa, Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is home to a few manatees year-round, in addition to the seasonal migrating manatees. That’s because this setting is a rescue and rehabilitation facility for injured animals that cannot be released back into the wild. It’s possible to appreciate manatees from a unique vantage point while sauntering through an underwater observatory and viewing them from a boardwalk. This park also has educational programs, a wildlife zoo and a picnic area.
A 75-minute drive due east of The Villages, Blue Spring is the largest spring on the St. John’s River, the longest in Florida, emitting 104 million gallons of water every day. Blue Spring State Park, in Orange City, likewise transforms into a manatee sanctuary, so water activities are seasonally suspended there. Observe the mellow marine mammals from walking paths and designated viewing areas. Researchers have tracked migrating manatees at Blue Springs State Park since 1970, and in recent seasons, counted close to 500 at this location.
A road trip to Apollo Beach will lead to perhaps the most unique locale for visiting manatees at the Tampa Electric Company Manatee Viewing Center. For more than 30 years, manatees have flocked to the warm water outside of the station, which prompted the establishment of a 50-foot viewing tower. Overhead, butterflies flutter in the onsite garden.
It is important to remember that manatees are a state and federally protected species. Thanks to conservation measures, the FWC estimates that Florida’s manatee population has risen to 7,520, and as a result, the Florida manatee was reclassified from an endangered to a threatened species in 2017. “The manatee population is growing, but not yet recovered. Work is still being done to ensure that critical warm water and foraging habitats will be available in the future. Continued monitoring of potential threats to manatees such as red tide is necessary, and maintaining existing conservation strategies to prevent potential population declines will remain important,” says Carli Segelson, communications liaison for the FWC Division of Habitat and Species Conservation.
People can support the species by ensuring their safety: learn and adhere to boating and water activity rules, report injured animals to the FWC by calling 888-404-3922, participate in coastal clean ups, purchase a Save-The-Manatee specialty license plate, contribute to the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida’s Marine Mammal Fund and “Adopt-A-Manatee” through Save the Manatee Club, a nonprofit focused on protecting manatees and their aquatic habitats for future generations.
For a comprehensive list of manatee viewing locations throughout Florida, visit MyFWC.com. To see manatees in action, check out underwater webcams at SaveTheManatee.org.