By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
If this month’s “Window on Nature” column sparked your interest in seeing manatees firsthand, here are some of the most highly recommended locations. Even though manatees are endangered, they’re not difficult to find. With a current population of 2,000 to 3,000 animals, it’s a matter of knowing where to look. For all but the hot summer months, Florida is the place to be.
1. Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Homosassa Springs, Florida
This park offers a great way to view manatees in a near-natural setting. An underwater observatory is anchored right over the main spring, and resident manatees approach the glass to greet visitors. The park serves as a halfway house for sick and injured manatees, many of which will be released back into the wild. The spring’s constant temperature also attracts free-swimming manatees during their Florida season, but the two groups are kept separate. Park operators prepare “salads” for the resident animals, cleaning and chopping lettuce and other greens and tossing them to the waiting manatees. Free manatees must find their own food. The park entrance and visitors center are located at 4150 S. Suncoast Boulevard, 3/4-mile west of U.S. 19.
2. Crystal River, Crystal River, Florida
Approximately 10 percent of the total Florida manatee population winters in Crystal River. From September to March they thrive in the warm springs of King’s Bay, located in the west central part of the state. If you’d like to get up close and personal, take a boat or snorkeling tour that, after a training session, allows people to swim with the manatees. With the arrival of warmer weather, the manatees leave. To get a free look at the manatees at King’s Bay, stop at the Spring Run Bridge. From U.S. 19 going south, turn west on King’s Bay Drive and follow it to the bridge.
3. Manatee Springs State Park, Chiefland, Florida
Manatee Springs is the first feeding area for manatees moving up the Suwannee River from the Gulf of Mexico. Around 200 manatee sightings are typical for a year, most of them during winter and spring. Once a manatee arrives, no one is allowed to swim in the spring run. Thus, manatees that aren’t accustomed to people will stop in. Manatee Springs State Park is located just north of Chiefland on U.S. 19. The campground has 92 sites, and ranger-led programs are provided.
4. Blue Spring State Park, Orange City, Florida
This 30-year-old park was established to protect the St. Johns River manatees. Back then, only six or eight manatees came to the spring. Now around 75 manatees visit during winter. Blue Spring is one of Florida’s “first-magnitude springs,” producing millions of gallons of water daily. Raised boardwalks parallel the spring run and provide a nice view of the animals swimming in the crystal-clear water. Powerboats and canoes are banned during manatee season, as is swimming with the animals. From Ocala, take State Route 40 east to Barberville, then head south on U.S. 17 to Orange City.
5. SeaWorld, Orlando, Florida
A few years ago, SeaWorld Florida opened a 3-1/2-acre manatee habitat. The facility’s educational program offers views of manatees both above and below the water. These creatures are being rehabilitated, and the number varies. A behind-the-scenes “Saving A Species” tour takes visitors through SeaWorld’s rescue center and includes a look at rehabilitating birds, dolphins, and sea turtles. SeaWorld is located near the junction of Interstate 4 and the Bee Line Expressway (State Route 528).
6. Tampa Electric Company’s Big Bend Manatee Walk, Apollo Beach, Florida
This is a free boardwalk viewing area open to the public during the winter. Manatees congregate near the warm-water discharge channel of the electric company’s generating plant. Back in 1986 Tampa Electric Company opened the walk to the public, and it was later designated as a state manatee sanctuary. In 1993 Tampa Electric Company’s Environmental Education Building opened to the public. The facility is located south of Tampa off of Interstate 75 and U.S. 41 near Apollo Beach.
7. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Established in 1945, this wildlife refuge protects 6,400 acres of land and water in Lee County. This refuge contains a variety of habitats, and nearly 3,000 acres of the refuge have been designated as wilderness area. In addition to manatees, it provides habitats for alligators, crocodiles, wood storks, and loggerhead turtles. The refuge includes a visitors center, a 5-mile auto tour, hiking trails, tram service, interpretive programs, and a wildlife observation tower. The refuge is located approximately 15 miles southwest of Fort Myers.
8. Florida Power & Light Company’s Fort Myers electrical plant, Fort Myers, Florida
Florida Power and Light earned considerable attention back in 2001 when it donated an entire island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Manatee Island is tiny, but manatees are reliable winter visitors, seeking the warm waters near the Fort Myers plant. The 18-acre sanctuary is the first addition to the Caloosahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1920 by President Woodrow Wilson.
9. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, Florida
The recent launch of the space shuttle reminded us of this terrific refuge. Because it’s located next to where the space shuttle takes off, the refuge closes before and after the launch. After all, NASA owns the property. Thanks to its coastal location and its seven distinct habitat types, it harbors more than 500 species of wildlife including as many as 400 manatees that come by in the spring. The refuge features a visitors information center, four hiking trails, a manatee observation deck, an auto tour route, and an observation tower. The visitors information center is located 4 miles east of Titusville off State Route 402.
10. National Parks, Florida
Manatees also are found in two national parks and a national seashore in this state — places you probably would want to visit anyway: Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, and Canaveral National Seashore.
11. Where else can you see manatees?
Florida has a number of other places that host manatees in the winter, but we have to stop somewhere. So, here’s a list of suggestions from the Save the Manatee Club Web site, (www.savethemanatee.org), which includes locations as well as info about these animals and how they are doing in the wild. Manatees are attracted to the warm water found downstream of these power plants: Indian River Power Plant and Canaveral Power Plant (Brevard County); Port Everglades Power Plant and Fort Lauderdale Power Plant (Broward County); Kennedy Generating Station and Southside Generating Station (Duval County); Vero Beach Power Plant (Indian River County); Riviera Beach Power Plant (Palm Beach County); Henry D. King Electric Station (St. Lucie County); Port Sutton Power Plant (Hillsborough County); and Bartow Power Plant (Pinellas County).
12. Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Columbus, Ohio, and Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Cincinnati, Ohio
The federal government restricts captive breeding programs, but it does license a few facilities outside of Florida to provide homes and rehab sites for injured and orphaned manatees. Florida facilities can’t help all the needy ones. These Ohio locations provide both the necessary surroundings and skilled rehabilitators. Since some captive manatees can’t be returned to the wild, it’s more humane to keep them in a zoo than to allow them to be neglected or die.
13. SeaWorld, San Diego, California
SeaWorld’s Manatee Rescue exhibit is the third and final location outside Florida that is licensed to care for and display manatees. It may lack some of the joys of life in open water, but life in the park’s specially designed 215,000-gallon freshwater river can’t be all bad. It provides a natural environment for manatees and a dramatic underwater viewing gallery for guests. Those on the West Coast who want to see a manatee firsthand don’t have to travel clear across the continent to do so.