Most closely related to elephants, Manatees are friendly, playful creatures commonly nicknamed ‘sea cows.’ These gentle giants have a lovely temperament, often barrel rolling for entertainment when they get excited. This makes them fantastic animals to swim alongside, given that a lot of the time, they swim towards humans, desiring interaction for their amusement!
The best place to spot them is always Florida, during the winter months from November to March. Our personal recommendation of getting to spot them would definitely be by paddleboarding. While snorkeling is excellent to see these beautiful creatures up close, you are limited by how far and fast you can realistically swim. However, on a paddleboard, you can bring snorkeling gear with you and jump into the water when you actually spot a manatee. It also means you have space to store a waterproof camera or anything else you need on your trip. So, where in Florida should you head to find these sea cows?
- Blue Springs, located in Orange City, sees hundred of manatees showing up during manatee season. As well as hosting manatees, Blue Springs is also home to countless wading birds, eagles, kingfishers, and ospreys, making it a perfect experience to reconnect with nature. The park has made extensive efforts to protect manatees, with 200 spotted in 2015, which rose to 485 in 2018. There are multiple boardwalks to find the right spot to start paddleboarding along the river, and at a gorgeous 72-degree water temperature, who wouldn’t want to settle down for some manatee spotting?
- Next up on my list is Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Located on the east coast, this was once a NASA location but has since been transformed into a refuge for countless rare species of birds and fish and, during their season, manatees! Boasting a wide variety of coastal dunes, saltwater marshes, and listed trails, this is the perfect habitat for our beloved sea cows to migrate over to. This location is also famous for kayaking, paddleboarding, and canoeing, making it a great way to meet other water sports and manatee enthusiasts! There are plenty of tours available on Trip Advisor, with high reviews about the expert knowledge of the instructors.
- The Weeki Wachee river, located in Hernando County, Florida, can only be named an iconic water attraction, not only due to its unusual name! The aquamarine water is genuinely breathtaking in color, and what is even more spectacular is the mermaids that come with it! These world-famous mermaid shows tell a captivating story while eating and drinking underwater. Funnily enough, people suspect that the origin of mermaids comes from manatees. Supposedly, sailors who were delusional from too much time at sea (and too much rum) would see manatees lying on rocks and hallucinate that they were actually women with tails. While that remains a mystery, Weeki Wachee allows you to experience both mermaids and manatees in one place! After a video of two lucky paddleboarders gliding along the river with at least six manatees swimming alongside them went utterly viral with more than 9 million views, the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park grew in popularity. This was back in 2015, so it has died down a little, and now is the perfect place to go and join the hype and cross this off your bucket list.
- Crystal River. Arguably the best-known destination for spotting manatees on a paddleboard, this is one of Florida’s most famous springs and is well-known to have hundreds of manatees there at the same time! There are multiple tours available, with options like kayaking as well. This is the only place in Florida where you can actually swim with the manatees, so bring your snorkeling gear along for this one. Manatees can be seen here all year round, although there are considerably more from November to April, after which they tend to head to the Gulf of Mexico.
- St Augustine. Rated our number one due to the unique history and abundance of activities in the area, St Augustine is also a great place in Florida to catch sight of some manatees. In particular, Fort Matanzas State Park is very commonplace to find manatees, sea turtles, and dolphins… all from the comfort of your paddleboard. Fort Matanzas boasts some of the most incredible architecture in Florida, all dating back to the Spanish colonial period. The fort itself was built in 1742 by the Spanish and is a must-see for history lovers. When planning a coastal trip, I always find it essential to check out what else the location has to offer and find St Augustine the perfect combination of wildlife, history, food, drink, and most importantly, has plenty of manatees available to see, and paddleboard alongside. There are plenty of tours available, all with incredibly high Trip Advisor ratings, so I recommend getting your trip booked!
When planning your trip, remember that manatees are most playful in the mornings (unlike many humans I know), and the local springs are also less crowded on weekdays. Finding a nice quiet spot to play about with some manatees will be truly special, so definitely factor this in if you can. Also, bear in mind that these precious creatures are sadly endangered. This does mean that they are therefore protected by law, and specific interactions with them are therefore illegal. For example, you are permitted to touch the manatees, only with one hand, as connecting them with two hands is prohibited. When paddleboarding near them, you should minimize any noise, splashing, or movement to avoid distressing them. Since they are such curious and interactive animals, they will likely approach you, making it essential that you understand what you are and aren’t allowed to do when they swim over. There are multiple paddleboarding tours in which the instructors will clearly explain the rules, but make sure that you generally understand to be quiet and pet with one hand only.