During South Florida’s mild winter months a grayish brown lump with thick wrinkled algae-stained skin gets a ton of attention. The Florida manatees return from their summer homes along the rivers of the Carolinas, Louisiana, and sometimes even from as far north as Massachusetts. Some with calf in tow, others on their own, gather in shallow warm waters to graze on seagrass.
It’s estimated that about 6,000 manatees live in the shallow rivers, bays, estuaries and coastal waters in the U.S.—and they all come to Florida for the winter. They are gentle beasts, slow-moving, and often playful. When stressed or excited, they squeak at one another. But usually, they simply eat and rest.
Places to see manatees in and around Martin County include the Manatee Lagoon. Owned by Florida Power & Light, the wild manatees gather, sometimes by the hundreds, near the warm-water outflows of FPL’s Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center.
Manatees can be spotted along the Treasure Coast in most of Martin County’s inland waterways, near docs, waterside restaurants, bridges, and rivers during the winter. A short drive to north to Ft. Pierce is a great way to learn about these fascinating winter visitors. The Manatee Observation and Education Center in Fort Pierce is a waterfront environmental education and wildlife viewing center. Closer to Floridays, the Hobe Sound Nature Center leads walks along the intracoastal waterway to look for manatees gathering between the Center and Jupiter Island, and Jonathan Dickinson State Park (JDSP) [https://www.floridastateparks.org/park/Jonathan-Dickinson ] offers canoes, kayaks, and guided tours in comfortable, dry pontoon boats—all great ways to spot manatees in their natural environment.manatee
Beyond the Treasure Coast, in central Florida, the manatees gather in shallow clear waters in Crystal River. Thousands visit Crystal River in January to celebrate the manatees’s return. By now, the crowds have thinned and vendors shuttered and gone…the perfect time to rent a kayak or go on a snorkel tour at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Whether you do it up fancy at the Plantation at Crystal River, or go local at JDSP, the manatees are waiting.