My red kayak lazily floated down the Orange River in Manatee Park, in Fort Myers, Fla., and the only sound I noticed reminded me of snorkelers and SCUBA divers exhaling air. You know what I mean, that “pfffft” sound. One after another, about a dozen manatees took turns surfacing near my kayak, exhaling, inhaling then slipping back into the river.
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. Sometimes, the back of the manatee would roll to the surface as well as the fan-like tail. Occasionally, a mother and calf surfaced in unison. I suppose she was training her protege.
My kayak drifted over some of these sea cows and looking down on them made me sad. Many had scars etched into their backs, most likely caused by boats. A handful of manatees had what seemed to be chunks missing from the edge of their tails and others seemed to have barnacles growing on them.
My head was on a constant swivel trying to predict where the next manatee would pop up but I was too late most of the time to see something other water ripples. The distinct “pfffft” sound surrounded me. For some reason, I thought this was funny and started laughing! Yes, there I was, the sole kayaker in the middle of the Orange River soaking up the sun and laughing my head off because these gentle giants were putting on a show just me.
Yes, it was funny but it was also a magical experience. See, being outdoors recharges my soul and not one for crowds (word is out, it’s manatee season!), 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.
With the exception of one kayaker, all the others stayed near the entrance of Manatee Park. It was as if I owned the river for that brief moment and that is a beautiful thing. All I could do was smile and giggle with how fun and special my private manatee performance was. The visit also reminded me of the children’s book Mary Margaret Manatee.
Things to do in Manatee Park
Calusa Blueway Outfitters offers canoe and kayak rentals departing from Manatee Park. I rented a kayak for an hour and it was plenty of time to get in and view these gentle giants. I was lucky. I didn’t have reservations and was able to hop in a yak when I walked up to the counter. I also arrived shortly after they opened. If you’re planning to get on the water at Manatee Park, call the kayak outfitter at 239-481-4600.
Not everyone wants to or has the time to hop in a boat to see the manatees. Managed by Lee County Parks & Recreation, twice-daily, free manatee educational programs are offered to visitors. I strongly recommend you make time for one of these programs. Free guided walks are also offered at Manatee Park during season.
If you don’t have time for kayaking, a lecture or guided walk, be sure to walk the sidewalk to view manatees doing their thing in the canal.
Why the Concentration of Manatees in Manatee Park?
Considering the cold weather we’ve had in Southwest Florida this past week (it froze one morning!), being out in the sunshine, on the water, and surrounded by wildlife was pure bliss. Just like Floridians, whether born in the Sunshine State or a transplant, the Florida manatee seeks warmth but rather than from the sun, they tend to seek heat from power plants! In Apollo Beach, the TECO power plant feeds the cool river water with warm water discharged from the facility.
A similar thing happens in Fort Myers with the Florida Power & Light plant’s discharged water. Cool Caloosahatchee River water is warmed as it passes the Florida Power & Light plant creating a haven for manatees when water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding rivers are cooler than 68 degrees F. Hence, Manatee Park.
This is a natural habitat and nature does what nature wants. Typically, the best time of year to visit and view manatees is November to March. However, other factors play into their appearances such as red tide and air temperature. A few years back I took my parents to Manatee Park in March and we didn’t see a single manatee. It was also a mild winter in Florida that year.
5761 Palm Beach Blvd.
Fort Myers, Fla.
Minimal fee to park.
Tip: If you plan on kayaking, the vendor will let you know this tip but don’t feed food, give water, or pet the manatees. This will result in a $5,000 fine.
Below is a video of a manatee surfacing for air. Listen. It’s kinda cool. If the video doesn’t play below view it here on YouTube.