For most of the year, the Florida manatee lives widely spread throughout the waterways of Florida and south Georgia.
But because manatees are sensitive to cold temperatures, their patterns change in the winter, when they migrate in search of warmer waters. The moment the water temperature dips below 68 degrees Fahrenheit, large numbers of them begin to make their way to one of Florida's many natural springs, which boast stable temperatures in the 70s any time of year. These annual gatherings are, without a doubt, one of the coolest things you can witness in person.
However, that annual migration is full of danger. As they travel many miles to these warm havens, they must contend with perilous challenges ranging from fatal collisions with watercraft to outright harassment from humans.
As a result, many of the waterways they frequent have gained strict state and federal protections over the years, and several of the areas famous for their large number of wintering manatees have been established as state or national parks. To ensure the safety of the gathering manatees, many of these destinations are closed to swimming and other aquatic recreation in winter and early spring. However, you can still observe sizable clusters of these gentle giants cuddling up in the warm spring waters from designated viewing areas.
If you're interested in observing manatees first-hand, here's a few places in Florida that are certifiable sea cow hot spots.
1. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1983 with the highly specific mission of protecting the endangered Florida manatees that live within its waters.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the refuge "preserves the last unspoiled and undeveloped spring habitat in Kings Bay, which forms the headwaters of the Crystal River. The refuge preserves the most important aquifer-fed spring havens in Kings Bay, which provide critical habitat for the manatee populations that migrate here each winter."
One of the most important and well-known winter manatee havens is the Three Sisters Spring, which receives extra protections as a designated manatee sanctuary between November and March. During this time, water access is strictly limited and sometimes prohibited, depending on the number of manatees in the water.
2. Blue Spring State Park
Situated on the St. Johns River near Orange City, Florida, Blue Spring State Park was established in 1972 by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and represents one of the state's first efforts to protect these vulnerable giants.
The spring's enchanting, crystal-clear water make it a popular destination for humans looking to swim, snorkel, dive and kayak in the summer, and in the winter, human access to the spring is prohibited as the constant flow of 72-degree water attracts a growing population of heat-seeking manatees.
As with Crystal River, humans are not permitted in the water during manatee season, but there are areas where you can observe them at a safe, respectable distance.
3. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
Located on the eastern coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge comprises 140,000 acres of undisturbed wildlife habitat that is home to more than 1,500 plant and animal species — 21 of which are listed on endangered species lists. This includes the Florida manatee, which can often be spotted on the northern end of the refuge in Mosquito Lagoon and Haulover Canal.
Built to connect the lagoon with the nearby Indian River, Haulover Canal's name is a reference to its pre-canal state. As explained on the historical marker planted near the site, "Native Americans, explorers and settlers hauled or carried canoes and small boats over this narrow strip of land between Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River. Eventually it became known as the 'haulover.' Connecting both bodies of water had long challenged early settlers of this area."
The canal between the river and lagoon was eventually dug in the 19th century, giving humans (and manatees!) easier access between the two bodies of water.
4. Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park
Situated underneath a canopy of scenic bald cypress and hardwood hammock, Wakulla Springs State Park is perhaps best known for the manatees that visit during the winter. But that's not the only reason you should visit.
In addition to excellent aquatic recreational options, the park boasts one of the world's deepest and largest freshwater springs, and it's also a site of rich archaeological significance. There is evidence that Paleo-Indian humans intermittently occupied this land for around 15,000 years.
5. Manatee and Fanning Springs state parks
These two Florida state parks are located within 14 miles of each other on the Suwannee River, which begins around southern Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp and runs through northern Florida before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.
On the tail end of the river's journey through hardwood wetlands, it passes through Fanning Springs, a popular swimming spot that has been semi-developed over the years, and then Manatee Springs, which is aptly named for its fair share of sea cow sightings.