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Manatee in the Wild… An Unforgettable Family Experience

manatee experience

One summer evening, my husband and I went for a relaxing stroll with our kids along the fishing pier in Ponce Inlet. Our quiet walk was suddenly interrupted by an excited group of people running toward the pier handrail near us and shouting, “Manatee!”  For more than an hour, my daughters were completely captivated, as they watched a mother manatee and her calf frolic in the waves near the entrance to the inlet.

My children have seen manatees behind glass enclosures many times before, but this was really special to observe these two creatures in their natural habitat.  I have to admit that I was caught up in the excitement as well. In fact, we never knew that manatees actually swam in salt water.  Our lucky sighting led us to conduct additional research on these fascinating animals. We discovered that manatees are found in both fresh and salt water, swimming in the shallows (3-7 ft) of slow-moving rivers, bays, estuaries and coastal water ecosystems.

We also learned what a rare opportunity we were given to see one of these endangered mammals in the wild. Although found in small pockets throughout the world, an estimated 3,000 West Indian manatees are located in the United States, with the largest population found in our very own Sunshine State. For this reason, the manatee was adopted as the State of Florida’s Marine Mammal.

Also known as Sea Cows, manatees can grow up to ten feet in length and weigh as much as 1,200 pounds. One would think that their enormous size would be quite intimidating. On the contrary, manatees are slow-moving, docile by nature, and have been known to interact with humans.  As enticing as these characteristics may seem, however, according to the Save the Manatee Club, it is important to only observe these mellow giants from a distance with no personal contact. Human interaction, including touching, feeding or chasing, can change a manatee’s behavior.  Even worse, it can cause them to leave a warm water area or separate a mother from her calf, both of which can be fatal.

We can’t wait to plan another opportunity for our girls to view such amazing creatures in the wild.  Our best chance will be during the winter season, November through March, when these warm-blooded mammals navigate to the warmer waters of many natural springs and power plant water basins. Despite their massive size, manatees have little body fat and need warm water to survive.

Listed below are places where manatees can be observed in their natural habitat. This is an unforgettable experience that your kids will surely love and maybe even inspire them to explore ways to protect these endangered gentle giants.

East Coast:

Blue Spring State Park
2100 W. French Avenue
Orange City, FL 32763
386-775-3663 ●  www.floridastateparks.org/bluespring/default.cfm
Approximately 45 minutes from downtown Orlando, Blue Spring State Park provides a safe, warm refuge for the West Indian manatee during the winter season. From November 15th through March 1st, both the spring and spring run are closed to all water related activities, including swimming, snorkeling, scuba-diving and boating.  However, visitors can observe the manatees from a boardwalk along the spring run. The park is open from 8 am to sundown. Best viewing times are in the morning and late afternoon.  Admission: $6 per vehicle (limit 2-8 people); $4 single occupant vehicle.

Manatee Observation & Education Center
480 North Indian River Drive
Fort Pierce, FL 34950
(772) 466-1600 ext. 3333 ●  www.manateecenter.com

The Manatee Observation and Education Center is a non-profit, waterfront wildlife observation and nature education center that lies west of the Atlantic Ocean and overlooks the Indian River Lagoon, a saltwater estuary, and Moore’s Creek, a freshwater creek and historical resting spot for manatees. Across the street from the Center is a power plant operated by the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority, which dispenses warm water into Moore’s Creek. As many as 30 manatees congregate around the center during the winter months. The rest of the year, the manatees will travel in and out of Moore’s Creek to drink fresh water. Admission:  $1 per person; Children under 6 are free.  Boat tours:  Adults $19 and Kids (ages 3-12) $12.  Call 772-460-6445 for tickets, times and availability.
Florida Power and Light Company
(Manatee Observation Center)
Riviera Beach, FL
1-800-552-8440

The Lake Worth Lagoon in Riviera Beach is one of the most popular gathering spots for manatees on the East coast.  As many as 500 to 600 manatees seek refuge in the warm waters near the power plant. Unfortunately, due to the nation’s heightened security status, the FPL Riviera Beach Manatee viewing area is closed to the public. You can, however, view the gathered manatees in real time through FPL’s manatee webcam at http://www.fpl.com/environment/plant/riviera_cam.shtml.

West Coast:

Tampa Electric Company
(Manatee Viewing Center)
6990 Dickman Rd
Apollo Beach, FL 33572
813-228-4289 ●   www.tampaelectric.com/manatee

From November 1st through April 15th, visitors can come and experience manatees up close in the wild.  Tampa Electric’s environmental education facility also features new exhibits, games for kids and a hurricane simulator.  From home you can view the manatees through two webcams at www.tampaelectric.com/manatee/funstuff.  Open to the public daily from 10 am to 5 pm (Closed Thanksgiving at 3 pm, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Easter.)  Admission and parking are free.

Lee County Manatee Park
10901 State Road 80 (Palm Beach Blvd.)
Fort Myers, FL  33905
239-690-5030 ●  www.leeparks.org (Go to Facilities, Parks, Parks I – N, and then Manatee Park)

Opened in 1996, Manatee Park is a non-captive refuge for Florida manatees that offers optimum viewing from November through March. Canoe/Kayak rentals and guided tours are available for spectacular viewing. Park hours are from 8 am to sunset daily. Visitor center opens 9 am to 4pm daily.  Parking $1 per hour / $5 per day.

To See Manatees Living In Captivity:
During the warmer months, April through October, manatees tend to disperse throughout Florida’s rivers and coastal waters, and some even migrate north to Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.  If you have missed the opportunity to observe manatees in the wild during the winter months, then you probably will only be able to see them in captive settings.

Central Florida:

SeaWorld Orlando
7007 SeaWorld Drive 
Orlando, FL 32821 
407-351-3600 ●  www.seaworld.com
SeaWorld’s Manatee exhibit was named best new zoological exhibit in the country by The American Zoological Association. All the manatees in the exhibit have been rescued by SeaWorld’s animal rescue team.  Visitors can get up-close views of the manatees from either above or below the water surface. All manatees will be returned to the wild once fully recovered.  Adult $78.95 / Kids (ages 3-9) $ $68.95.

The Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion at Epcot/Walt Disney World
Lake Buena Vista, FL
407-824-4321 ●  http://disneyworld.disney.go.com
The Caribbean Coral Reef is a 5.7 million gallon salt-water tank that is home to some 6,000 inhabitants and includes a special manatee rehabilitation area. Visitors can walk around a circular observation platform in the middle of the aquarium and find themselves almost completely surrounded by water. Adult $79 and Kids (ages 3-9) $68
West Coast:

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
4150 S. Suncoast Blvd.
Homosassa, FL 34446 (75 miles north of Tampa)
352-628-5343 ●  www.HomosassaSprings.org
The Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park serves as a rehabilitation and refuge center for injured West Indian manatees. Many other manatees like to spend their winter months in the warmer temperature springs of the Homosassa River. The park has a floating underwater observatory with year-round view of manatees, as well as thousands of fresh and saltwater fish. Open Daily 9 am – 5:30 pm; Adults $13 and Kids (ages 6-12) $5.
Lowry Park Zoo
1101 West Sligh Avenue
Tampa, FL. 33604-5958
813-935-8552  ●  www.lowryparkzoo.com
Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo operates a non-profit manatee hospital which has cared for more than 200 manatees. Guests can enjoy up-close viewing through two observation pools, as well as monitor staff who are caring for the rescued manatees. Tampa Lowry Park Zoo also features a River Odyssey Eco-Cruise that will take visitors on a boat ride adventure on the Hillsborough River, where they can see wild river turtles, hawks, herons, manatees and many other animals. Open daily from 9:30 am to 5 pm; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.  Zoo Admission: Adults $20.95 and  Kids $15.95.  River Odyssey Eco-Tour: Adults $14 and Kids $10.

Parker Manatee Aquarium
South Florida Museum
201 10th St. W 
Bradenton, FL  34205
941-746-4131 ●  www.southfloridamuseum.org
The Parker Manatee Aquarium offers above and below water viewing of its manatees. The 60,000 gallon pool was designed to house three adult manatees, and offers them both deep and shallow water areas to emulate natural feeding behaviors. The aquarium is also a second stage rehabilitation facility that provides a temporary home for injured or sick manatees that will eventually be released back into the wild. Manatee Care specialists provide presentations to the public about manatee habitat, nutrition and physiology. Open Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm; Sunday, noon to 5 pm.  Adults $15.95 and  Kids (ages 4-12) $11.95.

East Coast:

Miami Seaquarium
4400 Rickenbacker Causeway
Key Biscayne, FL 33149
305-361-5705 ●  http://miamiseaquarium.com
The Manatee Exhibit allows guests to come face-to-face with manatees that are part of the rescue and rehabilitation program through both poolside and underwater viewing areas. An educational presentation educates visitors about the manatee and ways in which to help save them.
Open 7 days a week from 9:30 am – 6 pm.  Adults $37.95 and Kids (ages 3-9) $27.95.