Where to See Manatees in Tampa? (Try These 8 Spots)

A sea lion in murky waters staring right at the camera

Tampa Bay is a sanctuary for Florida’s endearing manatee population. Covering more than 400 square miles, it’s a thriving estuary that provides ample food, fresh water, and safe spaces for manatees to reproduce and nurse. 

The bay offers warmth during winter, drawing in over 500 manatees during the chillier months. With such a burgeoning population, Tampa Bay is an incredible spot to experience these gentle marine creatures up close.

Best locations to see manatees in Tampa

Now that you’re familiar with the significant role Tampa Bay plays in manatee conservation, we’d like to guide you on an exploration of this majestic creature’s favorite haunts. Our curated list of locations around Tampa Bay gives you the best chance to spot these gentle giants in their natural habitat or observe their care and conservation in dedicated facilities.

1. Citrus County Manatee Tours at Crystal River

Location: Throughout Crystal River and Homosassa

Cost: Varies

It’s a bit of a drive to Crystal River, but it’s the best place to spot manatees by far. A range of tour companies in Citrus County offer experiences to kayak or snorkel with manatees throughout the year. A fantastic opportunity for a close encounter with these gentle giants.

2. Manatee Viewing Center

Location: 6990 Dickman Rd, Apollo Beach

Cost: Free

Open from November through April, this spot across from the TECO power plant is a prime manatee viewing area, complete with a nature trail, wildlife observation tower, and even a stingray touch tank.

3. Three Sisters Springs

Location: 123 NW Hwy 19, Crystal River

Cost: Winter: $20 for adults, $7.50 for children ages 6-15; Summer: $12.50 for adults, $7.50 for children ages 6-15

The springs at this refuge are another favorite haunt of manatees, especially in winter. You can observe them from the boardwalk viewing platforms and nature trails.

4. Bishop Museum of Science and Nature

Location: 201 10th St W, Bradenton

Cost: $23.95 for adults,$14.95 to $17.95 for children

Besides hosting a variety of exhibits, the Bishop Museum also serves as a second-stage rehabilitation facility for manatees. Visiting the museum supports manatee conservation efforts.

5. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

Location: 6131 Commercial Way, Spring Hill

Cost: $32 for a paddleboard, $32 for a single kayak, $48 for a tandem kayak

Besides its famous mermaid shows, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is a fantastic location to kayak and spot manatees navigating the clear spring waters.

6. ZooTampa

Location: 1101 W Sligh Ave, Tampa

Cost: $44.95 for adults, $34.95 for children

ZooTampa is not just a zoo; it also operates a critical care center for manatees. Here, you are guaranteed to see these gentle, albeit captive creatures and learn about their conservation.

7. Coffee Pot Bayou

Location: Coffee Pot Blvd NE, St. Petersburg

Cost: Free

This St. Petersburg spot is perfect for manatee sightings during winter. The location is also rich in a variety of fish species and shorebirds.

8. Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park

Location: 4150 S Suncoast Blvd, Homosassa

Cost: $13 for adults, $5 for children ages 6-12

This park not only allows you to observe manatees but also gives you a glimpse into other Floridian wildlife. Their underwater observatory is a must-visit for an up-close view of manatees.

What is the best time to see manatees in Florida?

They can be seen year-round in the state, but ideally, you want to look for them between November and March.

 Manatees are large, slow-moving, but migratory marine mammals. They are cold-sensitive and prefer waters that are about 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit. When the sea temperature drops in the Gulf of Mexico drops below this range, typically in the winter months, they migrate to warmer waters. As Florida has an extensive network of springs that stay around 72 degrees all year round, this makes the state a popular wintering spot for manatees.

The best time of day to spot them

The best time of day to see manatees is usually early in the morning, right after sunrise. This is the time when they are typically most active. During these hours, manatees are often grazing on seagrass beds, which makes them easier to spot.

Midday can also be a good time for viewing, particularly during the winter months, as manatees will often surface to warm themselves in the sun. However, the specific timing can vary based on the weather, the tide, and the location.

Mating season can be spectacular.

Manatee mating season typically runs from April through October, although it can sometimes extend outside these months. During this time, it is rare to see Manatees in Florida, but if you do spot them, it will likely be an entire “mating herd”.

A mating herd is a group of manatees consisting of a single female, or cow, and multiple males, or bulls, that follow her around trying to mate. Mating herds can have a dozen or more males vying for the attention of one female, and the group can sometimes become quite animated and splash around, making for a spectacular sight.

Tips for swimming with manatees

Many of the places where you can see manatees also allow you to swim with them. However, with great joy comes great responsibility. Here are some tips to make the most out of this unique experience:

  1. Book a Guided Tour: Consider attending a guided tour from a reputable operator who is familiar with the regulations and best practices for swimming with manatees. 
  2. Keep Your Distance: Always remember to keep a respectful distance from the manatees. Try not to approach them, but rather let them approach you if they are curious. Maintain at least six feet of distance to give them enough space to move freely.
  3. No Touching or Feeding: The Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978 makes it illegal to disturb manatees in any way. Also don’t touch or feed them. If a manatee approaches you, resist the urge to reach out and touch it. Always keep your hands to yourself.
  4. Observe Silently: Manatees are peaceful and slow-moving creatures. Sudden movements and loud noises can stress them. Therefore, move slowly and calmly in the water and avoid splashing.
  5. Use Snorkeling Gear: Using snorkeling gear allows you to observe the manatees in their full glory. While under the water, they often strike fierce, charismatic poses that will make your day! While snorkeling, avoid diving or swimming under the manatees.
  6. Don’t go near resting manatees: Manatees sometimes float motionless near the surface or on the bottom when they are resting. If you see a manatee in this state, do not disturb it.
  7. Call 800-DIAL-FMP, if you see a dead, injured or harassed manatee. 

Other places in Florida to see manatees

Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission made this detailed map that outlines the best places to see manatees in the wild or in captivity.

The mecca for manatee spotting is undoubtedly Crystal River, due to its vicinity to the Gulf of Mexico, spring-fed waters and ecotourism initiatives. 

We also have guides on where to see manatees in the following locations:

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