Everyone knows that Florida has plenty of family fun theme parks and miles and miles of pristine white sandy beaches for visitors to enjoy but there is another wondrous reason to visit Florida and that is to see and if you are lucky, to swim with, one of Florida’s treasures, the manatee.
A manatee is a sea mammal that has grayish brown, thick, wrinkled skin much like an elephant. It has front flippers shaped like paddles that it uses to gather aquatic plants for food at waters bottom and a flat tail that propels them through the water. A manatee is a slow moving creature weighing upwards of 800 or more pounds and they are usually about 9 to 9 1/2 feet long.
These gentle giants, as they are known can be found in the shallow waters up and down the coast of Florida and also in it’s estuaries, saltwater bays, rivers and canals. Warm water is essential for the survival of the manatee but they can flourish in fresh or salt water and are known to be found in abundance in Crystal, Homosasssa and Chassahowitzka rivers as these rivers are fed by natural springs where the water is a constant 72 degrees year around.
Manatees are also known as sea cows as they graze on the sea grasses and can eat over 100 pounds of sea grass each day. They glide through the water moving ever so slowly and spend most of their time just grazing and sleeping much like a cow.
Because they are mammals, manatees must surface to breathe air every few minutes but can stay underwater for up to twenty minutes. They breed every 2 years and gestation last 12 months and it takes about 12 to 18 months to wean the calf. Manatees do have learning skills and have demonstrated to have these skills much like dolphins do.
These docile creatures are very curious and friendly towards humans and actually seem to enjoy human interaction, sometimes even nuzzling swimmers. Because of the shape of their snout they really can’t bite and are not known to have any aggressive tendencies. Matter of fact if a manatee feels threatened it will just swim away.
The manatee can live a long life, up to 60 years, perhaps longer and it has no predators except man’s negligence. Destruction of their natural habitat, fishing line, crab trap lines, litter and boaters not obeying the manatee speed zones are the main reasons for injury and death of these beautiful and gentle creatures.
Best Viewing Spots For Manatees
Kings Bay and Crystal River
As the weather gets cooler the Manatees migrate to the warmer waters of Kings Bay, which is a collection of springs which includes the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and hundreds of manatees at a time might be seen here during the cooler months.
Duke Energy Power Plant at Crystal River
At Duke Energy’s Crystal River Power Plant complex warm water outflows into a canal where manatees have migrated to for 30 years now. This migration has become a tradition passed on from mother to calf as each manatee family usually follow a migration pattern each year. This canal is closed to boaters and offers a safe place for these manatee families to inhabit for the cold winter months. Crystal River is located on the central west coast of Florida about 45 minutes north of Tampa.
Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center
The Big Bend Power Station located about 20 minutes south of Tampa in Apollo Beach is the location of Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center. Open November 1st through April 15th, here you will find a State and Federal designated Manatee sanctuary that provides critically needed warm water for the manatees in winter months. Saltwater taken from Tampa Bay used for cooling is then discharged back into the bay as clean warm water and it is here that numerous manatees seek refuge in winter.
On the grounds of the Manatee Viewing Center is an environmental education building where you can learn about the manatee and its habitat, how the Big Bend Power Station generates electricity and feel the blast of a hurricane in the center’s hurricane simulator. Also on the grounds is an award winning butterfly garden and the 1 mile long habitat loop trail that takes you through the natural landscape of Florida and ends at a 50 foot high wildlife observation tower.
Admission to Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center is free and if you bring your own lunch you can have a picnic at one of the picnic tables provided at the base of the tower. Be prepared to walk though as the trail is about a mile long and also be sure to apply your bug spray.
Manatee Viewing Laws and Guidelines
Thankfully conservation efforts have helped to increase the manatee population and they have been moved off the endangered list but are still categorized as threatened and it is for this reason the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission strictly enforces guidelines for their protection.
When viewing or swimming near manatees the rule is to look but do not touch. Now because manatees do sometimes enjoy human contact they may nudge or nuzzle swimmers, if this happens one is advised to try to avoid the temptation of hugging them back!! Just be still and enjoy. If a manatee gets too accustom to human contact they may lose their natural fear and change their behavior in the wild, which will make them more susceptible to harm. One should always give manatees their space, never pursue or chase a manatee to get a picture. Avoid excess noise or splashing around near a manatee as the manatee may be startled and flee, leaving a safe space and be put in harms way. One should never allow themselves to get between a single manatee and his group and always try to avoid a mother and her calf.
Florida’s natural wonder, the manatee is a sight to behold when seeing just one but when you see a group gathered together it can leave one speechless. And if your not careful these adorable docile creatures may just steal your heart.