Not only is Captiva Island a world-renowned vacation destination, but it is also a fantastic place to view manatees and hundreds of other wildlife species.
You can see manatees on Captiva Island and all along the coast of Florida. Spotting manatees is a thrill for both young and old alike. Searching for manatees can be frustrating, as they can be difficult to spot unless you know when and where to look.
When attempting to see manatees on Captiva Island or throughout Florida, it is essential to know that they are federally protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Your understanding and cooperation are the keys to a safe, rewarding, and memorable experience.
Not only is Captiva Island a world-renowned vacation destination, but it is also a fantastic place to view manatees and hundreds of other wildlife species. Manatees spend the warm summer months in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Once waters begin to cool, manatees make their way toward warmer inland waters. Because Captiva is a barrier island off the coast of Southwest Florida, it is a happy medium between the Gulf and inland waters and, therefore, the perfect place for year-round manatee viewing.
Manatees are frequently seen all around Captiva throughout the year. Some of the best places to see manatees in Captiva Island are:
Knowing where to find manatees starts with a bit of biology. Manatees are highly cold-sensitive, and prolonged exposure to water temperatures below 68 degrees can cause decline and even death. While manatees may look well-insulated, they have very little body fat and are highly dependent on their environment to maintain body heat. They spend Florida’s sizzling summers in their preferred deeper waters. And contrary to popular belief, manatees are relatively solitary animals. That combination can make them tricky to find during the warmer months. With a few exceptions, winter is the best time for seeing manatees. Large numbers of them, sometimes over a hundred, will converge at Florida’s warm springs or even downstream of power plants. So when you’re looking for manatees, follow the warm water.
The typical adult manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs in at 1,000 pounds, though the biggest can weigh more than three times that much! You would think that such an enormous creature would be easy to spot, but manatees can be pretty difficult to find unless you know what you’re looking for. The telltale sign that a manatee is near is an elliptical swirl at the surface of the water, known as a "manatee footprint." This footprint acts as a beacon to observers and a warning to boaters that a manatee is nearby.
Another way to spot a manatee is to listen. Manatees breathe air and typically come to the surface about every five minutes to take a breath. When it surfaces to breathe, you can hear a loud gasp as the manatee inhales. Look for the snout protruding from the water's surface to pinpoint the manatee's location.
Manatees are diurnal and become active around sunrise. They are curious creatures by nature and spend the first few hours of their day exploring and playing. Early morning is the prime time of day to observe these gentle giants, as they spend more time near the surface while at play than when they're feeding. If you're taking a guided tour to view manatees, getting the earliest reservation available is advisable. Not only will you have the best chance of seeing manatees, but sunrise tours are usually less busy.
Manatees spend the morning exploring, after which they begin to feed. They rest and slowly forage on aquatic vegetation throughout the remainder of the day, hence the affectionate nickname, the "Sea Cow." They’re more likely to be found along the seafloor, therefore harder to view, making this a less desirable time to look for them.
Swimming alongside these incredible creatures can be the thrill of a lifetime. But before you start packing your wetsuit and snorkeling gear, be aware that the Crystal River area in Florida is the only place in North America where it is legal to swim with manatees in their natural environment. The peak manatee season in the Crystal River is between mid-November and late March, with the heaviest populations in December and February.
If you are lucky enough to get up close and personal with these amiable creatures, please conduct yourself using passive observation:
In addition to the EPA and MMPA, manatees are also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, stating: "It is unlawful for any person, at any time, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass, or disturb any manatee." By using passive observation, you will keep the manatees safe and yourself out of trouble. If swimming with manatees sounds like your idea of fun, be sure to mind your Manatee Manners — view the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s manatee primer before you take the plunge.
Just to the south of Captiva, Sanibel Island is another excellent location for manatee viewing and just as great of a vacation destination. As with Captiva, Sanibel is a choice location for manatee sightings throughout the year. Here are a few of the best ways to enjoy them on Sanibel:
A popular family beach destination, Lighthouse Beach is on the eastern tip of the island. Manatees can be seen from shore or the pier all year.
Known internationally as a migrating bird destination, the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge is another of Sanibel’s prime manatee viewing areas. It is run by the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) and is the perfect location for ethical wildlife viewing.
If a naturalist-led tour of Ding Darling appeals to you, Tarpon Bay Explorers operates in partnership with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and is Ding Darling's official concessionaire. Manatees can be seen year-round throughout Tarpon Bay.
While the entire coast of Florida is excellent for seeing manatees, there are some can’t-miss spots that are truly remarkable:
Warm water meets the Orange River at Manatee Park, making it a superb winter gathering spot for manatees. You can even rent a kayak and paddle among the sea cows. The drive from Captiva Island takes just over an hour.
TECO’s manatee education center features a 50-foot viewing tower and a 900-foot, ADA-compliant boardwalk that extends into the Tampa Bay Estuary. Parking and admission are free.
During the winter, Kings Bay is undoubtedly the "king" of manatee viewing spots, having the largest concentration of Florida manatees in the world. In addition, the Crystal River area is the only place in North America where you can legally swim with these agile, graceful swimmers in their natural environment.
Located just 14 miles south of Florida's capital, Tallahassee, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park boasts the world's largest and deepest freshwater springs. The consistent 70-degree water makes for excellent manatee viewing during the winter, and it's not uncommon to see them during the summer.
The Florida Power & Light Company's educational center features exhibits and an observation area. Parking and admission are free. You can enjoy their manatee cam anywhere you are.
Having a nearly half-mile boardwalk along Blue Spring Run, Blue Spring State Park is the winter gathering spot of hundreds of manatees.
Directly east of Orlando, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is great for off-season manatee viewing. While they can be present here year-round, spring and fall are the most optimal times. And the new Manatee Observation Deck is wheelchair-accessible.
Captiva is the perfect vacation destination for nature lovers. Not only can you see manatees on Captiva Island, but there’s also wildlife abound. Stay right on the water at one of 14 historic, fully-equipped cottages at Jensen’s Twin Palm Marina and Cottages™ and have the island’s best manatee viewing area directly on-site and just steps from your door. Then take your excursion one step further by getting out on the water by using one (or all) of Jensen’s Marina™ services:
Call us today at (833) 668-7768 and make Jensen’s your one-stop destination for all of your marine and vacation needs.