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About Manatees

Manatees are one of the most playful, curious, and enjoyable underwater creature to see ... at times, they have the same playfulness that one normally associates with bottle nose dolphins. Other times, they will rest nearly motionless on the bottom of the river for long periods of time, surfacing only occasionally to breathe.

But, without any doubt, experiencing a manatee close up is one of the highlights of anyone who enjoys nature.

Where to See a Manatee

Manatees can be found in shallow, slow-moving rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, and coastal areas — particularly those areas where seagrass beds or freshwater vegetation flourish. Within the United States, they are concentrated in Florida in the winter. In summer months, they can be found in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

In the US, by far the best place to kayak, swim or snorkel with Manatees is in Citrus Country Florida. In particular, the manatees gather in the Homosassa River, Kings Bay, and Crystal River. Several Eco friendly tour operators provides boats and snorkeling gear to take guests out to experience the manatees swimming in these locations. I've done it, it is an amazing experience, and one I highly recommend.

Top Wildlife Photographs -- Click Photo for a Slideshow

Manatees in Homosassa

Endangered Manatees in the United States

Florida Manatee

The West Indian Manatee is listed as Endangered in the US, under the Endangered Species Act. The United States has a manatee population of just over 5000, according to a January 2010 survey which counted 5067 manatees in Florida (which, during winter, is the primary location for manages, which will spread out to other states during the warmer summer months). While 5000 is a very small total, it does represent an increase from the 2000-3000 counts that were typical during surveys done during the previous decade.

Other than habitat destruction, the main threat to manatees is collisions with boat propellors. The slow-moving and curious nature of the manatee has led to many violent collisions with propeller-driven boats and ships, leading frequently to maiming and death. As a result, a large proportion of manatees exhibit spiral cutting propeller scars on their backs.

During my snorkel with manatees in Homosassa Springs in 2012, many of the manatees that we saw exhibited scar on their back from collisions with boats. We also watched manatees swimming in the boat channel at the same time boats raced by, narrowly missing the manatees. For example, if you click on the photo to the left to enlarge it, you will notice that one of the manatees has a large taken out of it back from a boat collision -- this maiming isn't too bad, but other manatees were much worse.

Based on research in 2003, the U.S. Geological Survey predicted that, "In the absence of any new management action, that is, if boat mortality rates continue to increase at the rates observed since 1992, the situation in the Atlantic and Southwest regions is dire... Hurricanes, cold stress, red tide poisoning and a variety of other maladies threaten manatees, but by far their greatest danger is from watercraft strikes, which account for about a quarter of Florida manatee deaths," said study curator John Jett.

Of the 429 Florida manatees recorded dead (both natural and accidental deaths), 97 were killed by commercial and recreational vessels in 2009. This set the record, as the highest total killed by collisions. And in one river/bay in Florida, Kings Bay, 16 manatees have been killed by collisions with propellors in the last year alone.

To help protect manatees, some of the best things one can do is to contribute to organizations that protect manatees, like Save the Manatee Club, and to support legislation and regulations limiting the boat speed in areas frequented by Manatees.

For extensive details on the Endangered status of the manatee, see the IUCN Redlist entry for West Indian Manatees.

Rules for Swimming with Manatees

Snorkeling with Florida Manatees in Homosassa

From the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission:

  • Look, but don't touch manatees. Passive observation is the best way to interact with manatees and all wildlife.
  • Do not pursue or chase a manatee if you see one while you are swimming, snorkeling, diving or operating a boat.
  • Never poke, prod or stab a manatee with your hands, feet or any object.
  • If a manatee avoids you, you should avoid it.
  • Give manatees space to move. Don't isolate or single out an individual manatee from its group, and don't separate a cow and her calf.
  • Keep hands and objects to yourself. Don't attempt to snag, hook, hold, grab, pinch or ride a manatee.
  • Avoid excessive noise and splashing if a manatee appears in your swimming area.
  • Use snorkel gear when attempting to watch manatees. The sound of bubbles from SCUBA gear may cause manatees to leave the area.
  • Float at the surface of the water to passively observe the manatees. Remember, look, but don't touch.

Snorkeling with Florida Manatees

Crystal River and Kings Bay, Florida

In Florida, King’s Bay allows swimming with Manatee. People from all over the world come to Crystal River to experience this wonderful manatee encounter. You can visit the largest manatee sanctuary "King Springs" and swim in Three Sisters Springs where the spring water is always 72 degrees all year. In the peak season, the winter months, Crystal River has upwards of 400 manatees, and the sumer months upwards to 70 Manatees.

It is best to go with an established Eco-friendly tour operator, who knows where the manatees are located, as manatees are migratory animals, and can range widely during the year. Captain Mike offers first-class tours (and donates 2% of the price to manatee conservation groups). Snorkel with Manatees offers eco-friendly tours as well.

Homosassa, Florida

The Homosassa River is very shallow, with depths at the springs of only 6-10 feet. It also has fairly clear water visibility in the springs, with fewer boats and fewer people, making it the premier place to snorkel with manatees.

Manatee are present in the Homosassa Springs only in the winter months, generally November through March. But for best results, the months of December, January and February are guaranteed to give good up-close encounters. During the rest of the year, when the water temperatures are warmer, manatees tend to be scarce in the Homosassa River. But for those few months, there is no place in the world that is a better place to swim with and experience manatees in the wild.

Manatees gather in Homosassa springs in the winter, since the warm springs keeps the water at a constant 72 degrees -- and the manatees need the warmth in the winter months to survive. The number of manatees gathered at the springs will vary due to the weather -- during colder time periods, more will be there. And fewer will gather when the weather is warmers. In late February, when I went, the daytime temperatures tended to be in the low 70s, and there were approximately 40 manatees gathered near the Homosassa Springs. Sometimes, particularly in January, there can be as many as 100 manatee gathered in the relatively small and secluded Homosassa Springs area.

Several Eco-friendly tour operators will provide wetsuits and snorkel gear, and take you out to see the manatees. I spent some time talking to the guide at Snorkel with Manatees, and he was very helpful in guiding guests in an environmentally responsible manner to swim with the manatees. He was also very vocal in policing the Idle-speed restrictions for reckless boaters (two sped by while I was there, and were told loudly to slow down).

Tampa, Florida

Manatees need warm water above 68 degrees to survive. So in the winter, they gather near the outflows from power plants, such as the Tampa Electric power plant. In the winter, as many as 300 manatees can gather here. Tampa Electric has set up a totally free Manatee Viewing Center, where you can observe the manatees. The center is a state and federally designated manatee sanctuary. During the center’s open season, Nov. 1 through April 15, displays, interactive exhibits and more teach visitors of all ages about the life cycle of the manatee and the challenges it faces. Center volunteers and staff, many of them TECO Energy retirees, answer questions and provide additional educational information. See Manatee Viewing Center. You cannot swim with the manatees, but it is a fabulous place to view them in large numbers.

We randomly stopped here on our drive through Florida. IT WAS SO AWESOME! There were about 30 manatees the day we went. I suppose the power plant emits heat or pulses and the congregate there. Go see it even if it is out of your way. ~ Nikki

They set up the manatee viewing really nice. Clear signs directing you to wear to go. Nice bridge to get you to another water area where it is full of fish and other creatures. Pretty naturey trees, a butterfly garden, my photo opportunities, and also manatees. You do not see them close up close up, but you totally see them all there together. They are so cute and will hold their little face up to get air and then go back in the water. I'll be back, and glad I finally found a place that I have not been to yet. Also, the best thing about this place, it is FREEEEEEE Yey!!!!! ~ Rachel

The attraction here is a large wooden pier built out over an inlet. It is right next to a coal-fed Electrical plant, and a lot of warm water is released which attracts Manatees, Rays, and even Sharks. We really hit the jackpot, there must have been at least 100 Manatees, many Tarpon and we did see one Shark. Besides the viewing platform, there is a bird walk and a visitor center, but it's really all about the manatees. This was FREE and definitely worth an hour of my day. ~ Heidi



Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission's Manatee Page with the best up-to-date statistics, facts and figures.