A close encounter with a manatee is a thrilling experience that leaves a lasting impact. The best and least invasive way to get close to manatees in their natural habitat is by paddleboard.
We’ve spent the past three winters traveling to Florida in search of the best places to paddleboard with manatees. Through some trial and error, we discovered some great and not so great places to paddle with these intriguing underwater creatures. If you’re considering your own paddle adventure in the Sunshine State, read on to discover our 5 favorite Florida springs to paddle in and see manatees.
Best Time of Year to Spot Manatees
Manatees are sensitive to cold temperatures so they migrate in the winter to the warmer waters and natural springs of Florida. The best time of year to find manatees in the springs is November through March. The colder the day, the better chances you have of seeing manatees. Chilly days also mean fewer people and a more intimate experience with wildlife. The warm spring water mixing with the cold air often creates a layer of mist that’s pretty magical to paddle through.
Conservation and Education
Considered one of the gentlest and most defenseless animals in the world, manatees are dying off at alarming rates due to human disturbance and habitat loss. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people visit Florida Springs hoping to see manatees in person. By recommending where to go paddle with them, we also want to do our part to help protect them by offering information on how to respectfully view them from a distance and how to avoid disrupting them in their natural habitats.
Locally, we’ve partnered with Nova Conservation to help educate and bring awareness to conservation efforts. During our annual trip to Florida to paddleboard with manatees, we’re teaming up with the Florida Springs Institute to learn more about the springs manatees call home and what we can do to help protect these sweet creatures. Conservationists recommend staying 50 feet away from manatees in all water crafts.
1. Silver Springs State Park – Ocala
Silver Springs State Park is our top pick and favorite spring to paddleboard with manatees. We had the most intimate encounter with a couple of manatees on our last paddle trip there. The water is so clear and the paddle trails are well marked. Silver Springs was Florida’s first tourist attraction, long before Disney World and Epcot came to be. It’s also where the glass bottom boat was invented. Several movies were filmed here and while paddling the trail you’ll see remnants of some of the old movie sets. As with most state parks in Florida, there is an entrance fee and an outfitter where you can rent glass bottom or sit on top kayaks. You can do a loop paddle around the park or head 7 miles downstream on the Silver Springs River and pay for a shuttle ride back. Check out our highlight video below.
2. Ichetucknee Springs – Fort White
Paddle boarding the pristine waters at Ichetucknee Springs State Park will always be one of our most memorable paddling experiences. The park is well-known for its warm weather tubing but we think the Ichetucknee is best enjoyed by paddling the 6-mile downstream section during the cooler winter months. The park’s eight major crystal-clear springs join to create the Ichetucknee River which offers manatees a safe haven in the winter. The upper portion of Ichetucknee River, located within the state park is a National Natural Landmark and perhaps the most pristine spring run in the state. You won’t find an abundance of manatees here like in other springs on our list, but we promise you won’t be disappointed by the scenery even if you don’t encounter a manatee. The park offers a shuttle service and kayak rentals.
3. Three Sisters Springs – Crystal River
Three Sisters Springs is the largest winter refuge for manatees on the Gulf Coast. It’s also the most famous spring in Florida to view and interact with the gentle giants. Manatees can be found year round in Kings Bay, with an average of 30 in the summer months and hundreds in the winter months. From November to March there are designated sanctuaries restricting paddlers and motorized boats from entering certain areas to allow the manatees space to feed and care for their young. Even though there are strict rules on how to interact with manatees here, it is one of the few places that allows visitors to swim and snorkel in the springs to view these curious creatures underwater. We recommend putting in at Kings Bay, paddling around Pete’s Pier, going under the bridge and up to Three Sisters Springs. There are a lot of motorized boats and commercial outfitters offering guided tours so expect it to be crowded.
4. Manatee Springs State Park – Chiefland
Manatee Springs State Park, located an hour drive from Gainesville in Chiefland, is a warm water refuge for manatees in the winter. During these cooler months, manatees travel up the Suwannee River to feed in the springs. No paddleboard, no problem! The state park offers a boardwalk that leads to an observation platform allowing visitors an opportunity to peacefully watch the manatees. Manatee Spring is a first-magnitude spring that produces 100 million gallons of clear water daily. The park is also a popular area for snorkeling, scuba diving, paddling and camping throughout the year.
5. Lovers Key State Park – Fort Myers
A 1,600-acre slice of natural paradise, nestled near Sanibel Island and Fort Myers, Lovers Key State Park is made up of four barrier islands and is well-known for its white beach and fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities. During our ‘Tour de Florida’ trip in 2020, we enjoyed paddling here even though we didn’t see a manatee. We paddled through mangroves spotting spoonbill and bottlenose dolphins. It was the perfect place for a quick sunset paddle as we drove through the area. The picturesque 2.5-mile beach offers plenty of places to sit and relax while the park’s mangrove-lined waterways are where to go to catch a glimpse of one of Florida’s famous manatees.
Don’t have your own equipment or feel confident to go it alone? Join our upcoming Paddle with Manatees Adventure February 4-6, 2022. As with all of our tours, we provide all the equipment and guided tour.