If you've ever wanted to see these fascinating shy creatures (also called "sea cows", and actually related to the elephant) the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge could be your best bet, from November to March each year. You can even get in the water and swim with the manatees.
Manatees are air-breathing water-dwelling mammals that can grow up to 12 feet long, and weigh up to 3500 pounds. Manatees were once common throughout Florida, but their numbers plummeted in the 1960's as construction boomed in the Sunshine State. Manatees need undisturbed habitat and are extremely vulnerable to injuries from motorboats.
Manatees also need warm water, and can't survive if temperatures fall below 68 degrees. The best time to see wild manatees at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is from December to March when the weather is coolest and the manatees seek the warm water springs in Kings Bay.
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
This small Wildlife Refuge — 46 acres — is located near the town of Crystal River, Florida, 75 miles north of St. Petersburg. (St. Pete is on the west coast, about 2 hours from Orlando.) The refuge can only be reached by boat.
The Refuge — which has twenty islands — is in the Kings Bay area and provides critically important habitat for some 25 percent of the endangered manatee population in Florida.
How to See the Manatees
You can book a guided manatee snorkel tour through many commercial dive shops in the town of Crystal River. The website of the Friends of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge lists tour operators who'll take you see manatees, snorkel with manatees, etc. Also listed are boat rentals, diving instruction, and other activities. You can even take a virtual swim with the manatees!
If you rent a boat on your own, be very careful not to disturb the manatees.
Captive manatees, meanwhile, can be seen year round at the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, 7 miles south of Crystal River on Highway 19.
Lee County Manatee Park
Another place to see manatees in a natural habitat is the Lee County Manatee Park, near Fort Myers in Southwest Florida. The Park rents kayaks, has a Visitor Center, and a Volunteer Interpretive Naturalist on site daily during "Manatee season" from October through March.