Where manatees go when winter chills our waters
Originally posted on December 26, 2007

If you don’t think winter comes to Southwest Florida, just ask a manatee. When water temperatures drop below 66 degrees, these Florida natives can freeze to death.

If that’s bad for manatees, it’s good for people who like to watch the lovable lummoxes. Manatees congregate each winter in well known warm-water refuges that offer chances to observe, if not interact with, the endangered species.

Feeding or even giving fresh water from a hose to a manatee is a federal crime. But there’s not much an observer can do if a manatee chooses to be your kindred spirit.

“Believe it or not, they have a lot of personality, and they really like kayakers,” said Connie Langmann, who guides ’yakkers on manatee tours every Sunday.

“They interact with us on their own. They come up and look at us and stroke the boat, and will nibble on the handle that hangs in the water.

“They get curious if you’re quiet and sitting still, as long as the water is clear. If the water is murky they act befuddled and have nothing to do with us. But if they can see us, they often come up to us,” said the master naturalist and owner of GAEA Guide Service.

Langmann’s tours are on the Orange River, the site of Lee County’s Manatee Park and the odds-on place to find manatees in winter. As at all power plants in Florida, manatees flock to the warm-water discharge of the FP&L plant that warms the waters of the Orange River and the Caloosahatchee from the Interstate 75 Bridge downstream to the railroad trestle and beyond.

When it’s really cold, manatees invariably congregate in the discharge canal that forms the western border of Manatee Park. There’s an observation platform that overlooks a small lagoon off the discharge canal.

Do-it-yourselfers also can rent kayaks at Manatee Park and find manatees on their own, upriver or down.

“That’s the best way to view them, actually,” said park program specialist Nancy Kilmartin.

For those less motivated or athletic, Manatee World offers 49-passenger rides on a tour boat especially designed for manatee viewing. The 40-foot vessel has no sharp edges on its bottom, and its outboard motors have prop guards that keep manatees safely away from spinning blades that have otherwise scarred and even killed hundreds of manatees.

Boaters who encounter manatees outside of the slow-speed zones designated for their protection should idle until clear of the area. Manatees can scoot out of the way of slow boats, but they often are unable to avoid faster craft.

Two other places in Lee County offer a good chance for watching manatees from shore. One is a manatee overlook, replete with benches, just off the entrance road to Lovers Key State Park, before the ranger (toll) booth.

Another is Cape Coral’s western boat lift at the end of Ceitus Parkway, near the subdivision of Matlacha Isles.

“They congregate right around the boat lift,” said Mel “The Guide” Newell, who leads kayakers on daily morning manatee tours from Gulf Coast Kayak in Matlacha.

“There’s also a boat ramp for kayakers there now. Anywhere along the sea wall, from there all the way out to the Matlacha Pass Bridge, you can see them. On any given day they could be anywhere in those Matlacha Isles canals,” said The Guide.

Less easily accessed is the flooded rock mine off Ten Mile Canal, south of Island Park subdivision. Manatees there frolic in the small and large interconnected pits that provide fresh water, and better access to seagrass forage in nearby Estero Bay than the warmer, but more isolated waters up the Caloosahatchee.

However, boaters in Ten Mile Canal must be careful to avoid dangerous rock outcroppings, as well as shoals in Mullock Creek, the access waterway to the canal.

Manatees also are frequently sighted during winter in three other areas along the Fort Myers side of the Caloosahatchee. Whiskey Creek, Deep Lagoon and Shell Point all harbor manatees from time to time, and all are slow-speed zones.