Sunday, July 21, 2024

Manatees in the Florida Keys

The Florida Keys are known for many things like beautiful beaches, amazing diving and snorkeling, vibrant night life, eclectic cuisine and photographic sunsets. Yet, there is a giant lovable creature that hangs around the coast lines that many people never associate with the Keys.

That gentle giant is the Florida manatee. Among the many unusual wildlife species you find in the Keys, the manatees in the Florida Keys get overlooked.

Facts About Manatees

Manatees are fascinating marine mammals, and here are some interesting facts about them:


  • Manatees are often referred to as “gentle giants” due to their peaceful and slow-moving nature. They are known for their calm and non-aggressive behavior.


  • Manatees are herbivores, primarily feeding on aquatic plants such as seagrasses and algae. They can consume up to 10-15% of their body weight in vegetation daily.


  • There are three species of manatees: the West Indian manatee, the West African manatee, and the Amazonian manatee. The West Indian manatee is the most well-known and widely distributed.


  • Manatees are typically found in shallow, slow-moving rivers, estuaries, and coastal areas, particularly in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, the Caribbean, and parts of West Africa and the Amazon River Basin.


  • Adult manatees can reach lengths of up to 13 feet (4 meters) and weigh between 800 to 1,200 kilograms (1,800 to 2,600 pounds).


  • Manatees are not fast swimmers, with an average speed of about 5 miles per hour (8 kilometers per hour). However, they are excellent divers and can stay submerged for several minutes.


  • Manatees are considered vulnerable to extinction. They face numerous threats, including boat collisions, habitat loss, and cold stress. Conservation efforts are in place to protect and preserve these unique creatures.


  • Manatees have flippers that are more similar to a human hand than a fish’s fin. They use these flippers for tasks such as grasping food, grooming, and social interactions.


  • Manatees are mammals, so they need to breathe air. They surface for air every few minutes, but they can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes when resting.


  • Manatees communicate with each other through a variety of vocalizations, including squeaks, chirps, and whistles. These sounds are important for social interaction and mating.


  • Manatees can live for 60 years or more in the wild. Their lifespan can vary depending on the species and environmental conditions.


  • Manatees are closely related to dugongs, which are similar marine mammals found in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans. Both belong to the order Sirenia.


  • In some cultures, manatees have been the source of myths and legends, often mistaken for mermaids due to their somewhat human-like appearance when seen from a distance.


Manatees are intriguing creatures with a vital role in maintaining the health of aquatic ecosystems, and efforts to protect and conserve them are crucial for their survival.


Why Would Manatees Be in the Florida Keys

Manatees can be found in the Florida Keys for several reasons:


  1. **Warm Water:** The Florida Keys have a subtropical climate, and the waters around the Keys remain relatively warm throughout the year. Manatees are sensitive to cold temperatures and seek out warm waters, especially during the winter months. The consistent warmth of the Florida Keys’ waters provides a suitable habitat for manatees to thrive.


  1. **Abundant Seagrass Beds:** Manatees are herbivores and primarily feed on seagrasses and aquatic vegetation. The Florida Keys have extensive seagrass beds, making them an attractive foraging area for manatees. These seagrass beds provide a reliable food source, which is essential for their survival.


  1. **Migration:** Manatees are known to migrate in search of food, warmer waters, and breeding opportunities. The Florida Keys can serve as a migratory corridor or destination for manatees moving between different parts of Florida, including the mainland and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the Caribbean.


  1. **Habitat Diversity:** The Florida Keys offer a variety of habitats, including estuaries, canals, and sheltered bays, which can serve as important areas for manatees to rest, socialize, and seek refuge from inclement weather.


Overall, the warm and seagrass-rich waters, along with conservation initiatives and a suitable habitat, make the Florida Keys an attractive location for manatees, especially during the winter months when they seek warmer waters to survive.


How Many Manatees Are There in Florida

The number of manatees in Florida can vary from year to year due to factors such as changes in population, weather conditions, and the accuracy of survey methods.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) conducts regular manatee surveys and releases annual reports on the estimated population of manatees in Florida.

According to the latest data, the estimated number of manatees in Florida was around 8,810 individuals. It’s important to note that this number is subject to change, and the most up-to-date information on manatee populations can be obtained from the FWC’s manatee research and conservation efforts.

The agency conducts aerial surveys, photo-identification studies, and other research methods to monitor and assess the manatee population in Florida.

It should be noted that counting the number of manatees is inherently difficult. Their habitat is diverse and can change as they migrate. Westher can impact their locations at any given time.

Where You Can See Manatees in The Florida Keys

Seeing manatees in the Florida Keys is a unique and exciting experience. Here are some places in the Florida Keys where you can often spot manatees:


Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

This sanctuary encompasses a large portion of the Florida Keys and includes various habitats where manatees can be found. Popular areas within the sanctuary to spot manatees include the waters around Key Largo, Marathon, and Big Pine Key.



The waters around Marathon in the Middle Keys are known for having manatee populations. Manatees are often spotted in the canals and marinas in this area. You can also check out the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon, where they occasionally have resident manatees.


Key West

While not as common as in other areas of the Florida Keys, manatees can occasionally be seen in the waters around Key West, especially in canals and quiet backwater areas.


Key Largo

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, noted below, located in Key Largo is not only known for its coral reefs but also for the potential to see manatees in the nearby waters. You can take boat tours or rent kayaks to explore the area. Shallow warm waters are the place to look.


Big Pine Key

The Big Pine Key area and nearby No Name Key have seagrass beds and quiet canals that are frequented by manatees. The National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key is also a good place to inquire about manatee sightings and learn about local conservation efforts.



Many eco-tour operators in the Florida Keys offer manatee-watching tours. These guided tours are led by knowledgeable naturalists who can take you to areas where manatees are commonly seen and provide valuable information about manatee behavior and conservation.


Remember that manatees are protected by laws and regulations, and it’s important to observe them responsibly. Do not disturb or approach manatees closely, and follow guidelines provided by tour operators and wildlife agencies to ensure the well-being of these gentle creatures.


Where to See Manatees in Key Largo

Key Largo, located in the Upper Florida Keys, is a great place to spot manatees. Here are some specific locations and tips for seeing manatees in Key Largo:


  1. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park – This is one of the most popular places to see manatees in Key Largo. The park offers guided eco-tours that often include opportunities to observe manatees in their natural habitat. The park’s waters are home to a variety of marine life, including manatees.


  1. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary – Key Largo is within the boundaries of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which encompasses a vast area of ocean around the Florida Keys. While snorkeling or diving in the sanctuary’s protected areas, you may encounter manatees, especially in the quieter, shallow waters.


  1. Canals and Marinas – Manatees are known to frequent the canals and marinas around Key Largo. They seek shelter and often come to these areas to rest or feed on seagrasses. Keep an eye out for manatee sightings in and around the marinas.


  1. Boat Tours – Many tour operators in Key Largo offer boat tours and excursions specifically designed for manatee watching. These tours typically have knowledgeable guides who know where manatees are commonly seen and can provide information about their behavior and conservation.


  1. Self-Guided Kayak or Paddleboard Tours – You can rent kayaks or paddleboards and explore the calm waters around Key Largo on your own. Manatees are often spotted in the canals and shallow bays. Remember to maintain a safe distance and observe them without causing disturbance.

Where to See Manatees in Islamorada

Islamorada, located in the Florida Keys, is another great place to see manatees. While manatees can be spotted in various locations around Islamorada, here are some specific spots and tips for manatee watching:

  1. Robbie’s Marina – Robbie’s Marina is a popular destination in Islamorada, and it’s known for its resident tarpon. While visiting Robbie’s, you may also encounter manatees in the marina’s waters. Manatees are often drawn to the area, especially near the docks and fish cleaning stations, due to the availability of food scraps.


  1. Indian Key Fill Bridge – The Indian Key Fill Bridge is a good spot to keep an eye out for manatees. This area often has calm, shallow waters, making it attractive to these gentle creatures. You can sometimes spot manatees swimming along the bridge or feeding on seagrasses.


  1. Canals and Backwaters – Manatees are known to frequent the canals, backwaters, and quiet bays in Islamorada. These areas provide them with a safe and tranquil environment. Renting a kayak or paddleboard to explore these areas can increase your chances of seeing manatees.


  1. Eco-Tours – Many eco-tour operators in Islamorada offer manatee-watching tours. These tours are led by experienced naturalists who know where manatees are often found and can provide valuable insights into their behavior and conservation.

Where to Find Manatees Near Big Pine Key

Big Pine Key and the surrounding areas in the Florida Keys offer opportunities to spot manatees. Here are some specific places and tips for finding manatees near Big Pine Key:


  1. National Key Deer RefugeThe National Key Deer Refuge, located on Big Pine Key, is a protected area that includes a variety of habitats, including freshwater and brackish ponds, canals, and seagrass beds. These areas are attractive to manatees, and they can often be found in the canals and shallower waters. The refuge’s visitor center can provide information about manatee sightings and conservation efforts.


  1. Key Deer Boulevard: – Key Deer Boulevard is a road on Big Pine Key known for its frequent manatee sightings. It runs along several canals where manatees often congregate. Drive or walk along the road while keeping an eye out for these gentle giants.


  1. No Name Key – No Name Key, located near Big Pine Key, is another area where manatees are commonly seen. The quiet, sheltered waters of No Name Key’s canals and bays are attractive to manatees, especially during the winter months.


  1. Guided Tours – Consider taking a guided tour from a local eco-tour operator. These tours often explore the waters around Big Pine Key and the surrounding area, increasing your chances of spotting manatees. Knowledgeable guides can also provide insights into manatee behavior and conservation.


Where to See Manatees in Key West


Key West, the southernmost city in the United States, is not as commonly known for manatee sightings as some other areas in the Florida Keys. However, manatees can occasionally be seen in and around Key West. Here are some tips on where to look for manatees in Key West:


  1. Marinas and Harbors – Manatees may occasionally venture into marinas and harbors around Key West. Be sure to visit the docks and quiet areas where manatees might seek refuge or find easy access to freshwater sources.
  2. Hurricane Hole Restaurant in Stock Island – Behind this restaurant is a slough that always seems to have manatees in it. We have seen them on many occasions.
  3. Backwaters and Canals – Some residential canals and backwaters in Key West may provide sheltered areas for manatees. Keep an eye out while exploring these areas by boat, kayak, or paddleboard.
  4. Eco-Tours – Some eco-tour operators in Key West offer manatee-watching tours. While manatees are not as frequently spotted in this area, knowledgeable guides can take you to locations where they have been seen in the past.
  5. Key West Aquarium – The Key West Aquarium is a popular attraction that may have manatees in captivity. While it’s not the same as seeing wild manatees, it provides an opportunity to learn about these gentle creatures and their conservation.


Florida Regulations About Observing Manatees

Florida has strict regulations in place to protect manatees, as they are considered a threatened species and are vulnerable to various threats, including boat strikes and habitat loss.

Observing manatees in Florida is subject to these regulations to ensure the safety and well-being of these gentle creatures.


Here are some key regulations and guidelines for observing manatees in Florida:


  1. **Boat Speed Zones:** Manatee protection areas are designated in many parts of Florida, especially in areas where manatees are commonly found. Boaters are required to obey posted speed limits and slow down in these areas. Speed restrictions help reduce the risk of boat collisions with manatees.


  1. **Manatee Sanctuaries:** Some areas are designated as manatee sanctuaries, where entry by watercraft is strictly prohibited. These areas serve as safe havens for manatees, especially during the colder months when they seek warm water refuges.


  1. **Avoid Disturbance:** It is illegal to harass, chase, pursue, or intentionally disturb manatees in any way. This includes touching, feeding, or attempting to ride manatees. Maintain a safe and respectful distance when observing manatees.


  1. **No Wake Zones:** In many areas, including some marinas and canals, boaters are required to operate at slow speeds in designated no-wake zones. This reduces the risk of boat wakes harming manatees or their habitat.


  1. **Mating and Calving Season:** During the manatee mating and calving season (from November 15 to March 31), extra precautions may be in place to protect manatees. Boaters are often required to exercise additional care and caution.


  1. **Education and Awareness:** Boaters and wildlife watchers are encouraged to learn about manatee behavior, their habitats, and the regulations in place to protect them. Education and awareness are critical for responsible manatee observation.


  1. **Report Injured or Stranded Manatees:** If you encounter an injured, distressed, or stranded manatee, contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) or local authorities immediately. Do not attempt to rescue or handle the manatee on your own.


  1. **Respect Wildlife Viewing Guidelines:** Follow guidelines for responsible wildlife viewing, which often include maintaining a minimum distance, avoiding sudden movements or loud noises, and minimizing your impact on the animals.



It’s essential for residents and visitors in Florida to be aware of and follow these regulations when observing manatees. Responsible observation practices play a significant role in the conservation of these gentle giants and their fragile habitats.


Final Thoughts on Manatees in the Florida Keys

These gentle giants have captured the hearts of many people. In fact, tourists and residents alike spend a good amount of time locating manatees near them.

Manatees are all over Florida and many countries around the world. Sadly, their populations are on the decline as man builds into and onto their habitats worldwide.

The Florida Keys have hundreds of things to do and see. The 47 connected islands plus another 750 islands in the Keys are places of refuge for manatees in the Florida Keys. Respect their habitat and learn more about this magnificent creature.

Originally published at

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