The manatee, or sea cow, was chosen as the state marine mammal of Florida by the 1975 legislature. Although the Flamingo, and its tacky plastic impersonators may be more commonly associated with the state, it is the large, slow, gentle manatee that steals most hearts and fascinates both residents and tourists alike.
Now is the time of year to see these amazing creatures up close as they enjoy warmer head springs or waters warmed by power stations. There are quite a few good places to view Florida manatees, and even some where you can swim nearby. Most people will probably like to view them from the sunshine and warmth on land, but if you are keen on getting in the water then there are some well published etiquette rules to take on board:
- Never pursue or chase a manatee. They are curious by nature and often initiate interaction.
- Please give manatees space to move. Don’t isolate or single out an individual manatee from its group, and never separate a cow and her calf.
- Avoid excessive noise and splashing when swimming with the manatees.
- 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 and avoid dangling feet and stirring up the bottom.
- Never interrupt a sleeping or feeding manatee.
The unstated rule is that you don’t climb on their back and ride them around the bay as a Florida resident found out to her cost and huge embarrassment last summer!
Manatees have had a difficult winter with deaths at their highest recorded rate. Manatee deaths can be caused by cold water temperatures, but the high mortality rate this year is thought to be down to toxic algae blooms of ‘red tide’ on the gulf coast which can cause paralysis and breathing problems. Another type of Algae bloom in the Indian River on the Atlantic coast is also feared to be responsible for around 55 manatee deaths since last July with very similar symptoms.
Viewing Florida Manatees
Fortunately, there are several places inland where you can view the manatees as they escape the colder waters of the gulf and the Atlantic Ocean. The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is a nature reserve established in 1983 specifically for the protection of the manatee. The reserve covers 46 acres of Kings Bay, where the warm head springs of the Crystal River rise, and includes 20 separate islands. The manatees that head here each winter make up about a quarter of the Florida population of manatees. In Crystal River town there are several different companies arranging tours to either swim/snorkel or just view the manatees, usually these take place early in the morning as this is the best time to catch the creatures. Tours from Crystal River run year around, but the very best time to see manatees is between November and the end of March when sea waters are too cold for them. You can find a list of tour operators on the manatee webcam page: http://www.manateecam.org/. The town of Crystal River and Kings Bay can be reached from US 19, about 75 miles north of St Petersburg. A bit lower down the Crystal River Preserve is Homasassa Springs, another park with easy access for viewing the manatees.
Further south, Manatee Park, Fort Myers is another good place to view manatees, particularly when the gulf waters are cold. The park’s website address is: http://www.leeparks.org/facility-info/facility-details.cfm?Project_Num=0088 and they update the page to show the number of manatees plus a prediction of action over the coming days – in relation to the weather.
The Tampa Electric Co may provide a closer viewing platform at Apollo Beach, off junction 93A of I 75. Since the power station began pumping water from the gulf and returning it, cleaned and warmed, manatees have made the discharge canal their winter home. It is now a state and federally designated manatee sanctuary. Along with easy viewing, you can enjoy an educational centre and award-winning butterfly gardens.
Across the state on the East coast you can observe manatees swimming in Blue Springs State Park, 2100 W. French Avenue, Orange City. This natural spring environment provides a lovely day out on its own account (as we discovered when we took a picnic last Easter), but swimming is not permitted whilst the manatees are in regular residence between November and March.
If you are boating on the Atlantic coast then there are lots of opportunities to see the manatees around the power stations at Port St John, or at the Riveria Beach plant in Palm Beach County.