While it is possible to see manatees in the Florida Keys year-round, the best time to see these amazing, slow-moving large mammals is when the water temperatures drop in the northern parts of Florida. Like most visitors to the Florida Keys in winter, the manatees prefer warm water.
The species you’ll find is a subspecies of the West Indian Manatees called the Florida Manatee. Unfortunately, this is an endangered species due to climate change and rapidly depleted habitat. They are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Seeing manatees in the wild is a magical experience, but keep your distance and never touch or feed them. Touching or feeding them can upset the delicate balance of their natural ecosystem.
As with all wildlife, where to see manatees in the Keys depends on their timing. There is no guarantee that you will see them but for your best chance at a sighting, here are seven suggestions.
1) John Pennekamp State Park
The John Pennekamp State Park is a one-stop shop for marine life in the Florida Keys. Visitors can snorkel under the water with the tropical fish and living coral in this undersea playground. Kayaking above the water is another excellent way to see the rich sea life of the Florida Keys.
There are miles of paddling trails that take visitors through the mangroves and into the shallow waters of Largo Sound. Stop by the concessionaire stand for a trail map. To spot manatees in John Pennekamp State Park, turn your kayak towards the mangrove channels and the seagrass beds, where the manatees spend most of their time.
Manatees are slow-moving grazers and like to hang out in the mangroves and sea grass, searching for food and resting. The mangroves provide a quiet, sheltered place for the manatees to raise their young calves.
Kayaks, canoes and stand up paddle boards (SUP) are available for rent in the park.
2) Indian Key Historic State Park
A great place to search for manatees is in the sheltered spots around the tiny island of Indian Key. The manatees like to hang out close to the island to seek respite from boats.
Indian Key is an uninhabited island of only 11 acres. Visitors can paddle out to the island and disembark to explore the ruins of a ghost town from the 1800s. This once-thriving town was the first county seat for Miami Dade County.
Searching for manatees, sunbathing, hiking, and snorkeling are popular activities here.
3) Cow Key Marina
If you are staying in Key West, head to Cow Key Marina for a chance to spot the resident manatees. The marina is located on Stock Island, about five miles north of the Southernmost Point.
Locals and visitors report almost daily sightings of the gentle giants who call this area home. Most of these manatees are easily recognized as long-time residents with unique personalities.
The marina offers boat rentals, fishing supplies, kayak rentals, and restrooms.
4) Dry Tortugas National Park
One of the least visited national parks in America is the Dry Tortugas National Park. Getting there is only possible by boat or seaplane, which tends to deter some people.
The Dry Tortugas are a series of seven islands that include Garden Key, Loggerhead Key, Bush Key, Long Key, Hospital Key, Middle Key, and East Key. Most visitors will focus on the attractions on Garden Key, which includes historic Fort Jefferson.
Take a kayak or stand-up paddleboard into the water to spot the diverse marine life. While not as common as in some areas in the Florida Keys, manatees are often spotted in the Dry Tortugas National Park. Kayak and SUP rentals are available. To launch a watercraft here, you will need to get a free boating permit, available on Garden Key.
5) Key West Bight Marina
The Key West Bight Marina is located in the heart of the Key West Historic Seaport, a short walk from Duval Street.
Manatees are occasionally spotted at the marina. However, for your best chance at a manatee sighting, you should get out on the water. Take a kayak, SUP, or even a jet ski and escape to a quiet spot to find manatees in the Florida Keys.
Manatees love to hang out in warmer waters and like to spend their winter months in Key West. Look for manatees, lemon sharks, and mudskippers in the protected mangrove tunnels.
6) Garrison Bight Marina
The Garrison Bight Marina is centrally located in Key West, on the island’s northern side. This bustling area is surrounded by hotels, restaurants, and shops.
If you prefer to stay on land and search for manatees, it is possible to see them in the Garrison Bight area. There have been sightings from land. However, your best chance at a sighting is by heading out on the water. Rent a kayak or join a kayak tour and get out into the mangrove tunnels where the manatees love to hide.
The manatees also search for freshwater sources. Boaters who use a freshwater hose to clean their boat sometimes attract manatees. Look in the area around the boats and see if they have attracted a visitor.
7) See The Manatees With A Local
The best way to see Florida manatees is by getting out on the water with a local friend in the Florida Keys. Taking a kayak tour with a Key West guide gives you that local friend experience.
The beautiful mangrove tunnels of the Florida Keys provide the ideal habitat for this endangered species. See these beautiful creatures with someone who knows the best places to go, including the hidden spots you might not find on your own.
The experienced crew with Night Kayak Key West leads Key West Sandbar Trips and a unique experience with a Night Kayak Tour. The kayaks on the night tour have a glass bottom and are illuminated with lights, so you can see the action under the water. The mangroves and sea grass at night are a special place to explore, with different fish and sea creatures that aren’t out during the daylight.
If you want to see the manatees and other amazing creatures in the Florida Keys, then call us today!