Slowly drifting in a kayak over the Orange River, I was enjoying the beautiful scenery when a “pffft” sound broke the silence. Quickly, I turned my head to see what was making this sound, which is similar to that of a snorkeler exhaling through his snorkel. I saw a gray, round nose with a sprinkling of whiskers around its mouth, poking out of the tannin-stained water. It was a manatee and I was paddling in Manatee Park in Fort Myers.
Cooler temperatures mean it is manatee viewing season in Florida. I always enjoy seeing adorable sea cows and when water temperatures dip below 68° F, they seek warmer waters. The state has several seasonal warm-water manatee gathering areas and one of my favorite spots is Lee County’s Manatee Park in Fort Myers. This park is a non-captive refuge for West Indian manatees.
Cooler Temps Mean Manatee Viewing Season in Florida
Earlier this year, I made my annual trek to Manatee Park and rented a kayak from Calusa Blueway Outfitters. I paddled the Orange River to watch and listen to manatees. When I visit, I typically walk the ADA accessible pathway and observe manatees from the different viewing areas along the F.P.L. Canal. This is the perfect way to view the sea cows for those who do not want to paddle a canoe or kayak. There is also a butterfly garden, nature trail and ethnobotany trail. Free manatee educational programs are offered at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily through March 27, 2019, by Lee County Parks & Recreation and I recommend planning your visit to attend one.
Upstream from the canal is a Florida Power & Light plant. Cool water is warmed as it passes through and discharged into the canal which flows into the Orange River. During cold snaps, like the one we have recently experienced in Southwest Florida, manatees will seek warmer water areas like Manatee Park.
In a Sea of People, Find Your Own Serenity
Paddlers and boaters are prohibited from entering the canal and a fence serves as a barrier. It is a great place to observe manatees and paddlers tend to gather here. I am not one for crowds, so I paddled downstream a bit where I found my own serenity alongside the mangroves and away from earshot of others.
My kayak drifted over some sea cows and polarized sunglasses helped me spot them through the tannin water. Ones with pinkish-white scars on their backs, most likely from boat propellers, were the easiest to spot. Gray, round heads popped out of the water and I spied bulbous manatee cheeks peppered with prickly-looking whiskers. Dark eyes grabbed a peek at me, and nostrils flared when exhaling and inhaling. Occasionally, the noses of mother and calf surfaced in unison. I suppose she was training her protege.
My head was on a constant swivel predicting where the next manatee would pop up so I could snap a photo, but I was too late most of the time. The longer I stayed in the same spot, I heard more “pfffft” sounds around me. The gentle giants seemed curious about me as much as I was about them and I couldn’t help but smile.
Floating alongside the manatees was a magical experience. Being outdoors recharges my soul. On this day I implemented a tactic I learned during my national park days, make the extra effort to hike beyond the others to find solitude. Or, in this case, paddle down the river a little and you’ll be alone but not lonely.
After an hour on the water, I returned to the launch where a gentleman from Calusa Blueway Outfitters helped me bring the kayak in.
“How was it?” He asked.
“Great! I saw lots of manatees including mammas and their babies!” I excitedly said.
“I’m surprised she didn’t tip you over, they usually do because they’re protective,” he replied.
“Huh,” I said, while thinking, this information would have been useful before the trip. But things you don’t know, won’t hurt you. Or can it?
Nuts & Bolts About Visiting Manatee Park
5761 Palm Beach Blvd.
Fort Myers, Fla. 33905
Tel: (239) 533-7275
Open: Daily from 8 a.m. – Dusk
Parking is $2 an hour per vehicle or $5 for the entire day.
Kayak and Canoe Rentals at Manatee Park
Calusa Blueway Outfitters
10901 Palm Beach Blvd.
Fort Myers, Fla. 33905
Tel: (239) 481-4600
Open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily during season. Visit the website for current hours of operation.
Reservations are not accepted, rentals are on a first come, first serve basis.
The last boat goes out at 3:30 p.m.
Single kayaks are $20 per hour and tandem kayaks are $35 per hour.
Two-person canoes are $20 per hour and three-person kayaks are $30 per hour.
Paddleboards are $25 per hour.
Tips for Paddling Around Manatees
If you will be boating/paddling near manatees, respect their space, do not feed them, do not touch them, avoid approaching or surrounding manatees, and back away and observe from a distance. Weighing in between 900 – 1,200 pounds, manatees are powerful and can potentially flip a kayak or canoe. FWC offers additional information about manatee viewing guidelines at https://myfwc.com/education/wildlife/manatee/viewing-guidelines.
Where to Eat Near Manatee Park
13302 Palm Beach Blvd
Fort Myers, Fla. 33905
Tel: (239) 208-4401
Open Monday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Sunday 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Midwest-style pizza, wings, sandwiches, and salads.
Tip: Place an order about 15 minutes before departing the park and it will be ready when you arrive at the restaurant.