Seeing Manatees on the Space Coast
Few experiences are more thrilling or memorable than seeing marine mammals in the wild. Visitors to the Space Coast have just that opportunity. This area is a home base for the beloved West Indian manatee, better known as the Florida manatee. These tropical mammals are a popular attraction because of their gentle dispositions. Once endangered, great progress has been made in their recovery through the combined efforts of concerned individuals, scientists, environmentalists and government programs. Happily, manatees are once again plentiful on the Space Coast. But they are still considered a threatened species, so visitors should take the opportunity to see these lovely creatures out in the wild during their visit.
An authentic Space Coast attraction
What can you expect when you see a manatee?
Manatees are big marine animals that spend two-thirds of their lives in shallow water. They move between salt, fresh and brackish waters, so there are plenty of places to find them in their natural habitat. Their size makes them easy to spot as well. Typical adults are 10 feet long and 1300 pounds. But some have topped out at 15 feet and a whopping 3600 pounds. That’s the weight of a small hippo! Manatees, however, have much sweeter temperaments than hippos, which is part of their wide appeal.
They are also fun to watch as they swim, surface, and puff around the water. They have large front flippers that they use for steering and for crawling along the seafloor. They use their flat tails for propelling forward and for moving up and down as they bob to the surface for air. Their physical anatomy allows them to stay horizontal while they move about the water, although they can roll and twirl when they want to. Surprisingly, these brownish gray creatures, with their wrinkled, algae-covered skin and fan-shaped tails were mistaken for beautiful mermaids by ancient mariners, including Christopher Columbus. With their rounded bodies, large snouts and small wide-spaced eyes, they may not have a mermaid’s classic beauty, but somehow, they have a cuteness about them, in spite of their comical look, making them fun to watch.
Manatees are the only marine mammal that’s strictly vegetarian, averaging 6-8 hours a day munching on seagrass and other aquatic vegetation. To stay healthy, they must eat 10% of their body weight daily which is roughly 100-200 pounds of grass a day. No wonder these gentle giants are fondly referred to as “sea cows.” Their massive dietary requirements have led to some interesting adaptations, including the life-long development of new teeth, which continuously grow in to replace molars that wear out from all the chewing.
Are manatees endangered?
Manatees can live upwards of fifty years. One characteristic that’s very unusual in the natural world is that they have no natural enemies. They aren’t sought by sharks or alligators. Nearly all threats to their survival come from human activities. Before it became illegal in 1907, manatees were hunted almost to extinction for their meat and bones. Florida manatees were one of the first animals placed on the endangered species list in 1973. There were only 1200 Florida manatees 20 years ago. Today, estimates range from 6000 to 8800. In 2017, they were downgraded from endangered to threatened, but manatees are still at risk.
Today, watercraft collisions are the single biggest cause of injury and death. Wild manatees are covered with scars from encounters with propeller blades, forming unique patterns on each animal. It's this distinctive scarring that allows individual manatees to be monitored for researching ways to protect them and their ecosystem. Slow boating rules have been established to protect manatees from speed boat collisions. Yet hundreds of manatees are still killed by boats every year.
Another threat to manatees is cold stress. Although they look as blubbery as any other marine mammal, manatees don’t have enough fat to control their body temperature. They need water above 68 degrees to survive. When it’s warm, they can be seen in coastal waters. But as winter approaches, Florida manatees move inland seeking the warmer water of natural springs, canals and inlets. This becomes prime manatee viewing season as these often-solitary animals begin packing into springs and other areas of warm water.
Preserving the manatee’s natural habitat doesn’t just ensure their survival, it’s critical for other species as well. These magnificent creatures are one of Florida’s flagship species. Scientists gauge how well the entire ecosystem is doing by how well wild manatees are doing. These gentle giants, with their voracious appetite for plant life, play a vital role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Almost like individual recycling systems, their consumption of vegetation disperses necessary nutrients back into the ecosystem. By feeding on large amounts of aquatic plants, manatees inadvertently reduce mosquito activity as they keep vegetation from choking waterways. This protects fish and other animal life in the ecosystem.
Why take the time to see manatees?
Watching manatees is a favorite pastime. Whether just swimming along or clowning for the viewers, manatees in the wild are a fun and authentic Florida attraction. And they are just as intelligent as whales and dolphins, although they’ve been considered dimwits because of their slow-moving nature. Seeing these huge animals in person is something you will never forget, and chances are good that you too will fall in love and become a passionate manatee advocate.
Where to see manatees on the Space Coast
Look for the “manatee footprint,” a series of rings on the water’s surface that’s created as a manatee ascends to breathe. Watching the footprint will yield a wonderful reward: glimpses of a cute pair of nostrils surrounded by whiskers. Visitors can enjoy the sight of these beautiful animals from several Space Coast locations. Depending on the time of year, manatees can be spotted from the shore, watched from an observation deck, or observed up close from a rented kayak. Here are some prime spots for seeing them here on the Space Coast:
• Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge | Titusville
Originally established for the protection of migratory birds, manatees visit year-round, so it’s a premiere location for seeing them. One visitor said “One of the manatees came right over to the deck and looked us right in the face. It was wonderful to watch them and hear the noises they make. A must see.” From the observation deck, visitors can watch manatees and more than 300 different species of birds. There are 140,000 acres of beautiful natural habitats to enjoy, along with a variety of outdoor recreational activities. This is a lush, beautiful spot that is full of wildlife to enjoy, so make sure to have a camera ready to capture the breathtaking views.
• De Soto Park | Satellite Beach
When the weather is chilly, hundreds of manatees herd together in the warm water of a small canal adjacent to De Soto Park in Satellite Beach. Bring a chair to sit and enjoy manatees as they swim, clamber over each other, forage, and huddle together in the warm water. Although separated by a fence for the manatees’ safety, the water is just a few yards away, so it is easy, fun and relaxing to watch them from this location. De Soto park offers a playground, sports fields, and several tennis and racquetball courts. This is a great spot for watching manatees up close and for enjoying some family time outside.
• Turkey Creek Sanctuary | Palm Bay
Visitors can see manatees as well as turtles, alligators and otters at Turkey Creek Sanctuary. Rent a paddleboard or kayak from Paddling Paradise to be out on the water’s surface with the animals. Remember to keep your distance. Please don’t bother the manatees, get between them, or hover over them because this causes them stress. Visitors can also enjoy a boardwalk, miles of trails, covered by a lush pine canopy where a variety of bird species accompany you along your walk.
• Thousand Islands Conservation Area | Cocoa Beach
Cocoa Beach is the home to the Thousand Islands Conservation Area, a beautiful 338-acre preserve consisting of natural and modified islands along the Banana River. Gorgeous views abound through a network of mangrove tunnels and saltwater marshes. This area is home to manatees, dolphins, and a variety of aquatic birds. Adventure Kayak offers a dolphin and manatee encounters tour as well as other day and nighttime guided tours. Or, go exploring for manatees on your own by renting a kayak from A1A Beach Rentals.
Important safeguards for viewing manatees
Remember that manatees are a protected species. Please follow these important guidelines from the Fish & Wildlife Service for the protection and safety of manatees and people:
● Do not touch, approach or separate manatees from each other--especially mother and calf
● Do not feed them or give them water
● Do not chase, crowd or restrict a manatee
● Do not splash or make excessive noise, which causes them stress
If you see an injured, orphaned, entangled, distressed or dead manatee, please report it immediately to the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922.
So, whether on a guided tour on the water or out on your own leisurely stroll along the shoreline of the surrounding canals, lagoons, or rivers, you’re bound to see some of these truly unique and magnificent creatures when you are here on the Space Coast.
1. Attraction review. Tripadvisor.com. https://www.tripadvisor.com/attraction_review-g60751-d15081983-Reviews-or25-Manatee_observation_deck-titusville_brevard_county_florida.html#reviews. Accessed October 28, 2020.