Good places to see manatees in the wild when it’s cold in Florida

From observation decks to snorkeling trips, here is where you can spot the wintering marine mammals as temperatures start to drop.

Kings Bay is a reliable place to find manatees searching for warmer water in the winter months. [Ron Thompson | Florida Beach Insider photo]
Kings Bay is a reliable place to find manatees searching for warmer water in the winter months. [Ron Thompson | Florida Beach Insider photo]

Beachgoers aren't the only ones along the Florida shoreline that suffer when the weather turns cold.

As we coast into December and cold fronts blow across the landscape, this is the time of year manatees flock together to deal with dropping temps, amassing in springs and water discharge basins to take advantage of the (relatively) warmer waters.

Usually manatees swim alone or in pairs, or in groups of about a half a dozen (known as an "aggregation"). But in the winter, hundreds can huddle flipper-to-flipper to stave off the cold. Too much time in water colder than 68 degrees can cause cold stress syndrome, stunning or even killing them.

If it's too cold for you to enjoy the surf and sand, try heading somewhere near a local beach to see the manatees in (in)action. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) offers a list of places to see manatees in the wild all year, but the best winter viewing is mid-November into March. Just be sure to observe the law and not harass the manatees, which are classified as a threatened species.

Here's a rundown of the natural waterways the FWC lists:

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

Kings Bay is the main hangout for as many as 500 or more West Indian manatees on cold days, but they can be found all over the springs there year-'round. (Watch video taken from a drone over Three Sisters Springs here.) Some boat or dive companies will take groups out to snorkel with the sea cows here for a fee, but again, don't hurt or harass the animals. If you take your own boat out here, access will be restricted in places. There's no entry fee, but you'll need a way to get to the springs.

Blue Spring State Park

Hundreds of manatees flock to the 73-degree spring near Orange City to stay warm. The park service offers programs in the winter and there's a webcam to check in on the action. The entrance fee doesn't include camping costs. Swimming is not allowed during manatee season.

Ball Wakulla Springs State Park

This park has a diving platform to check out the animals, and also offers boat tours. The tours are a separate fee in addition to the price of park entry. The Wakulla Springs Lodge also offers rooms to stay overnight.

Fanning Springs State Park

The FWC says that manatees sometimes congregate in the spring on the Suwanee River. There's an entry fee, camping and cabins. Swimming is allowed, but the park service asks you give the manatees a wide berth if they are present. , only 14 miles away, also attracts the creatures.

Manatee Springs State Park

Only 14 miles from Fanning Springs, this park also attracts the creatures. Entry fee, with camping available.

Spring Bayou

Manatees converge on this corner of Tarpon Springs in the winter, near Craig Park and Coburn Park nearby. You'll be able to see them from shore fairly easily if there's a big enough group. This is a neighborhood park, so keep that in mind when looking for a place to stop.

The Tampa Electric Company power plant in Apollo Beach features hundreds of manatees huddling in the warm water discharge from the facility when temperatures drop. There’s a boardwalk, tower and picnic tables. [Peter Masa | Florida Beach Insider photo]

Power plants can offer especially good viewing, since the water discharged from the plants can be several degrees warmer than regular water. Three power plants worth visiting:

Tampa Electric Company Manatee Viewing Center

The TECO power plant in Apollo Beach discharges warm water into the canal here, attracting scads of manatees in cold weather. It's become a real tourist attraction, with a boardwalk, observation tower and visitor center. Admission is free.

Lee County Manatee Park

The Orange River in Fort Myers hosts manatees in the winter months, but generally not during the summer. Warm water discharged from the nearby Florida Power and Light power plant attracts them when the Gulf of Mexico gets too cold. There's a parking fee, and kayak rentals and boat tours are available.

Manatee Lagoon

Another power plant-based observation spot, Florida Power & Light bills this Palm Beach County facility an "eco-discovery center" at the Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center at Lake Worth Lagoon. Like the TECO facility, admission is free, but unlike Tampa there is a cafe with food and restrooms.

And finally, don't fret if it warms up, because there are always these options for spying manatees:

Wakulla and St. Marks rivers

If you are here during the summer months, these waterways in the panhandle are reliable places to catch a glimpse of manatees. FWC suggests renting a canoe between Newport and Crawfordville and in St. Marks. When it gets colder, the manatees usually depart.

Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge

This may be a good bet if you're looking for sea cows when it isn't necessarily chilly out. Manatees populate the refuge all year, but mostly in the spring and fall. An observation deck at Haulover Canal, which connects Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon, offers views. There is an entrance fee for the refuge.

Manatee Observation and Education Center

This Fort Pierce attraction is another place that features manatees all year, but not necessarily a concentration of them in the winter. There once was a power plant that discharged warm water into Moore's Creek that drew the animals in cold weather, but the plant is now gone. The manatees, however, stayed much of the time. The center has lots of programs, featuring more than just manatees.

This article was written by one or more Florida Beach Insider staff members.