Home Trips Destinations 5 Best Places To Kayak With Manatees

5 Best Places To Kayak With Manatees

You’ll never forget an encounter with one of these gentle giants

Feature photo: Maurice Rivenbark/Visit Florida

Imagine this: You’re paddling a clear and calm river, when suddenly, you see a large, gray shape ahead of you. As you get closer, you realize it’s a manatee. It comes up for air, dives down and continues under your kayak. You lean over to get a good look at it passing several feet below.

5 best places to kayak with manatees

Drifting in search of manatees on the Weeki Wachee River. | Photo: Sarah Phinney

Seeing a manatee from a kayak, or atop a paddleboard, can be a humbling experience. Manatees can be, on average, 10 feet long and weigh up to 1,200 pounds. While their size is intimidating at first, they are beloved for their gentle demeanor, playfulness and curiosity.

Globally, manatees can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, Amazon basin, and West Africa. No matter where you are in the world, it’s important to keep a few safety tips in mind:

1. Space is key

If a manatee starts to change its behavior because of your presence, you’re too close. Surfacing manatees are capable of flipping kayaks and paddleboards.

2. No sharing

Do not give manatees food or water. It may encourage them to swim closer to people or boats and it can change the way they forage.

3. Research local rules

Manatees are protected to some extent in every country they inhabit. Familiarize yourself with local laws. Violations in some places are punishable by jail time.

Florida has some of the most extensive protections for manatees, and for good reason.

Manatees inhabit the state’s coastal waters, rivers and springs. In the winter, manatees flock to warm-water sites, including springs and even power plant discharge canals.

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While federal and state agencies continue to investigate a high level of manatee mortalities on the Atlantic coast, the most recent population estimates in the state range from 8,000 to just shy of 12,000. Because of that, you have a high chance of seeing manatees in the wild, especially if you visit the following places. These destinations are also highly accessible to paddlers, with outfitters providing rentals and guided tours and designated launches.

A manatee just hanging at Three Sisters Springs. | Feature photo: Maurice Rivenbark/Visit Florida

1 Crystal River, Florida

Citrus County, Florida, known as the Manatee Capital of the World, has some of the best opportunities globally to kayak with manatees. In fact, it’s one of the only places in Florida where you can respectfully swim with them too.

The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1983, protects Three Sisters Springs where hundreds of manatees congregate in the winter to stay warm in the spring water that remains 72 degrees year-round.

Kayak tours are available in the area, but the Three Sisters Springs can be closed off to swimmers and kayakers during the winter for the safety of the manatees gathering there. However, you’ll still see plenty coming and going from the springs in nearby canals.

Visitors who have their own kayaks can launch from nearby Hunter Springs Park. There is a small fee to park. Arriving early is best because the number of spots is limited. Plus, manatees are known to be more active and playful in the morning.

Exploring Silver Springs. | Photo: Sarah Phinney

2 Silver Springs State Park in Ocala, Florida

Silver Springs State Park in Ocala is a top spot for seeing manatees no matter the season because some are year-round residents.

If you visit, you’ll quickly understand why humans have been drawn to the Silver River for at least 10,000 years. The stunning scenery and crystal clear water are mesmerizing. In fact, more than 30 springs have been documented in the upper part of the Silver River.

Kayaking tours are available through multiple vendors, including clear kayaking tours, that help paddlers see the depths of the springs where manatees, fish, turtles and alligators may be swimming below.

Those who have their own kayaks can launch inside the state park for a small fee and arrange for transportation back upriver after a five-mile run. Whether you’re on a tour or paddling independently, be sure to keep your distance from the Glass Bottom Boat Tours that run daily inside the state park.

The manatees are an added bonus to an already incredible paddle on the Weeki Wachee River. | Photo: The Rodriguez Group/Visit Florida

3 Weeki Wachee River in Weeki Wachee, Florida

The Weeki Wachee River is known for mermaids, manatees and magnificent surroundings. The head spring of the river is inside Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, where you can also catch a world-famous mermaid show.

Paddlers who want to begin their journey near the head spring can rent from inside the state park or reserve a spot to launch privately. Only a certain number of rentals and private launches are allowed per hour so it’s very important to reserve in advance, especially on weekends.

Manatees can sometimes be spotted swimming upriver during cooler months. There’s also a good chance of seeing them at a spot called Hospital Hole, just before Rogers Park. However, those who rent through the state park will not pass Hospital Hole because the exit for renters is just shy of three miles downriver, whereas Rogers Park is about 5.5 to six miles downstream.

4 Manatee Springs in Chiefland, Florida

Manatee Springs State Park, along the Suwannee River in north Florida, is home to one of Florida’s largest freshwater springs. A staggering 35 to 150 million gallons of crystal clear water flows from the first magnitude spring every day.

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The area serves as an important refuge for the marine mammal, especially from November to April when many are regular visitors to the spring. Tours that center around manatee education are offered at the park. A launch is available for public use for those who want to explore this wondrous waterway on their own.

5 Indian River Lagoon in Titusville, Florida

Manatees can be spotted all throughout the year at the Indian River Lagoon. While it stretches 156 miles long, one of the best places to look for manatees is by visiting the Haulover Canal Kayak Launch at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

There are a number of tour operators in the area and you can also launch your own kayak. It can be quite popular, especially between July and September, when many are out on the water into the evening hours to experience the bioluminescence.

The phenomenon occurs when dinoflagellates illuminate a green-blue color when the water is disturbed by kayaks, paddles, boats, manatees, and more. It’s one of the coolest ways to see these gentle giants.

If you’re causing a manatee to change its behavior, you’re too close. | Photo: Sarah Phinney

Where else to see manatees

While the Sunshine State is considered to be the top spot to kayak with manatees, the marine mammals can also be spotted as far west as Texas and even as far north as Massachusetts during the warmer months of the year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. However, sightings here are less predictable than in Florida.

Globally, manatees can be seen in the San San River in Panama, Tortuguero National Park and the Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica, and Belize.

Travel Belize suggests visiting Swallow Caye, an island a few miles off the coast of Belize City where manatees are sometimes spotted on the seagrass beds inside the wildlife sanctuary. While Belize is said to have the largest population density of manatees in Central America, the population estimates are still a fraction of the numbers found in Florida.

Feature photo: Maurice Rivenbark/Visit Florida




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