The Florida manatees you’ll see here are a subspecies of West Indian manatees, which live in the waters around Florida, the Caribbean, Central America and northern South America. You may even see a female manatee, called a cow, with her baby, or calf. Male manatees are called bulls, but they don’t have any kind of paternal presence after mating.
Since these animals have few natural predators and aren’t territorial, they’re fairly solitary and don’t need to travel in herds. They will, however, come together in informal groups when they need to share food sources or warm water – the latter of which brings them to us.
Although their thick, leathery skin may suggest otherwise, these docile creatures don’t do well when water temperatures dip below 68 ̊F. They’re prone to a cold-related disease called cold stress syndrome, which can be fatal.
When the water starts to cool, hundreds of manatees seek shelter along our shores, but they generally migrate home once the weather heats up.
True to its name, Manatee Park is an excellent place to enjoy the animals in a non-captive environment. This warm-water refuge is right across the street from a power and light company, whose discharge canal provides comfortable temperatures.
There, you can greet an entire group of manatees from atop a boardwalk, or rent a kayak to explore the Orange and Caloosahatchee rivers for yourself.
Another popular spot for sea cow sightings is Lovers Key on Fort Myers Beach. The park’s serene canals create a haven away from chilly Gulf waters, giving you a unique opportunity to encounter the creatures.
And while Central Florida’s Crystal River is the only place in the state where you can legally swim with manatees, Lovers Key offers up close encounters of its own. Simply rent a stand-up paddleboard, canoe or kayak.
A quick tip: Even in the winter, unpredictable temperature changes may make manatee sightings equally unpredictable. Call parks or adventure outfitters ahead of time if you’re hoping to see manatees that day, and most will let you know if any have been spotted.
Florida manatees are enormous mammals and should be treated as such. They’re peaceful creatures, but please keep your distance as you paddle about, and don’t travel over resting manatees because they could resurface at any time.
If you accidentally find yourself too close to a sea cow, just slowly paddle back until you’re a safe distance away. All in all, if you give them space, avoid touching them and speak quietly in wildlife areas, you’re bound to have an incredible manatee-viewing experience. It’s never too early to plan your winter vacation – packed with sea cow sightings and an endless list of year-round adventures. Start mapping out an itinerary with these popular activities!
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