The endangered Florida manatee is a harmless, gentle giant weighing up to 1,300 pounds. Found year-round in shallow and slow-moving Florida waters, manatees are most easily spotted in winter, when large numbers congregate near warm-water sources. To help protect these defenseless animals and their ecosystem, practice passive observation: View manatees from a distance and only from land or from the surface of the water.
Three Sisters Springs, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Crystal River
Everything you'd ever need to know about where, how, and when to safely and respectfully observe manatees in the wild is available at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge headquarters (8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday, May to October; 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Sunday, November to April). Crystal River, the only refuge created specifically to protect the endangered Florida manatee, manages 177 acres, including 40 aces of winter manatee sanctuaries within Kings Bay. On extremely cold winter days, more than 550 manatees can gather in the refuge. And while the designated sanctuaries are closed to visitors during the winter, the Three Sisters Springs in Kings Bay allows manatee viewing from the water and, new for winter 2014-15, from an elevated, 1,300-foot boardwalk surrounding the springs. The boardwalk perspective offers the best views, since you're watching the manatees from a much higher vantage point than is possible when paddling, snorkeling, or swimming. Space is limited on the daily Three Sisters Boardwalk Exploration tours (offered November 15-March 31), which include a shuttle ride to the springs. Book tickets online at River Ventures.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Homosassa
For most of the year, the manatees you can see at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park are not wild. The park is a rehabilitation center for injured and orphaned manatees and is the permanent home of four non-releasable manatees. Wild or not, the fact that you're guaranteed to see an endangered Florida manatee any day of the year makes Homosassa Springs a must-visit destination. "Standing inside our floating Fish Bowl underwater observatory, you can see endangered manatees and thousands of fish up close," says Susan Strawbridge, a Homosassa Springs park services specialist. "Like the manatees, most of the birds and animals living at Homosassa Springs cannot survive in the wild. Here, they're protected and live in a habitat that is as natural as possible." If you do want to see wild manatees, plan to visit November 15 through March 1, when the gates of the spring are opened to allow wild manatees into the warmer waters.
Manatee Springs State Park, Chiefland
Located off the historic Suwannee River in northern Florida, Manatee Springs State Park is named for its most popular winter residents. As early as 1774, botanist and artist William Bartram documented seeing manatees while visiting the springs. The gentle giants still congregate here each winter. "During the colder months, the manatees use the spring and spring run to stay warm, since the year-round water temperature here typically stays at 72 degrees Fahrenheit," says Larry Steed, Manatee Springs park manager. "You can see manatees from the dock and swimming areas, and we've even had young manatees birthed here."
When to Go: From mid-November through March, large numbers of manatees can often be spotted at warm-water sources such as natural springs and power plant discharge basins and canals.
Practical Tip: Florida manatees are protected by state and federal laws. Harassing, feeding, touching, or initiating contact with a manatee can result in federal fines of up to $50,000 and/or one year in jail.
What to Watch Before You Go: The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge's series of "Manatee Manners" educational videos includes important observation and safety rules for swimmers, boaters, paddlers, photographers, and videographers who want to see manatees anywhere in Florida.