Group of Manatee swimming underwater

Waiting for the Manatees in Tarpon Springs, Florida

Group of Manatee swimming underwater

Waiting for the Manatees in Tarpon Springs, Florida

A trip to Tarpon Springs in Florida offers travelers a chance to see gentle Manatees in their natural habitat at a lagoon known mostly to locals.

Our itinerary was somewhat tenuous when we left our hotel in Tarpon Springs, Florida, early in the evening, intending to stop to see manatees at their reputed local gathering place on our way to dinner at an acclaimed Greek restaurant. It was our final night in Florida, and we wanted to make the most of every minute. My partner and I had limited time before the restaurant would close for the evening, and we were hoping the large sea mammals would make an appearance and join us in a quick selfie.

We were curious, eager, and in the mood for something spontaneous, and for once I hadn’t researched an experience to the nth degree before pursuing it. I had vaguely heard about manatees in Florida, and a patron at the hotel suggested we visit the nearby lagoon around dinnertime. We wanted to see the coastal animals swim and frolic, and the anticipated timing suited our schedule. However, we soon realized that nature has its own plan and its own rhythms.

Front view of Manatee swimming underwater
Source: Shutterstock

Tarpon Springs

Tarpon Springs, which is approximately 45 minutes northwest of Tampa, is known as a center for sponge fishing, an industry operated by Greek immigrants in the area for decades. As a testament, natural sponges are for sale in quaint shops near the docks. The city also has an abundance of fine Greek restaurants, a beautiful oceanfront park with a mangrove swamp that is perfect for kayaking, and a quiet reputation as one of Florida’s manatee-spotting locations in winter.

We had checked off many of those boxes already, but we still hoped to incorporate a little ecotourism into our trip with this stop on the way to the restaurant. We relied on spur-of-the-moment, local advice to make it happen.

Natural sea sponges collected in a Fisherman’s net on a docked boat
Source: Shutterstock

Saving the Manatees

I later learned that the lagoon at Tarpon Springs is one of the local places for manatee watching that conservationists like Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist who heads the Save the Manatee Club in Maitland, Florida, don’t publicize very much for several reasons.

First, manatees are much more plentiful in other areas. Rose recommends Crystal River Preserve State Park, about 90 minutes north of Tarpon Springs, or Blue Spring State Park, about 40 minutes north of Orlando, during the winter months. These parks sponsor education and conservation programs, and visitors can observe hundreds of sea cows, bulls, and calves congregating in clear waters.

Trees along waters edge at Blue Spring State Park in Florida
Source: Shutterstock

Second, conservationists work hard to protect the manatees from unwanted interactions with humans. Rose explains that manatees are shy, docile creatures that typically flee from humans, but a few animals in each group seem to invite interaction. Until recently, manatees were classified as endangered, but the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission now estimates there are more than 6,000 of the sea mammals living in Florida waters.

Rose works to protect the plant-eating mammals from tourists who might chase or capture them, even though it’s illegal, and from boat propellers, water pollution, and other hazards. He also helps set safety standards for Florida’s “swim-with-manatees” tour operators, some of whom still aren’t compliant. “There are thousands of reports over the years of humans harassing manatees, but almost none of manatees harassing or harming humans,” he says. “A manatee is probably the most gentle animal there is. They are just not capable of aggression.”

In Sync with Nature

We arrived at Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs lugging cameras, water bottles, and jackets. The bayou is a man-made lagoon filled with dark water in the center of a neighborhood park. We stepped down to the concrete walkway surrounding the water. No one else was around — at least no one human.

For about 15 minutes, we stared at the undisturbed water. Finally, there was a splash. Bubbles appeared on the surface of the water, first nearby, then about 20 feet away a few seconds later. A gray nose peeked out of the water, then disappeared. Our eyes swept over the surface of the murky water with rapt attention, hoping for more. Thirty minutes passed, and then another 30 minutes.

While waiting, I began breathing more deeply and noticing the soothing shade of the trees and the freshness in the air. I was surprised at the feeling of peacefulness that swept through me as I imagined two or three of the large, shy creatures silently gliding through the dark water. Somehow, the experience of waiting for the manatees made me more appreciative of their exotic qualities. Although our spontaneous impulse resulted in an imperfect ecotourism experience (and we never got that camera-ready shot), I felt a sense of accomplishment nonetheless. For a few precious minutes, we felt in sync with the rhythms of another species.

Just before we turned to leave, we glimpsed a large gray tail that thrust through the water and then softly submerged. It was tantalizing to think of waiting longer, to experience that sense of communing with these beautiful, silent beings for a few more minutes — but a freshly made spanakopita spinach pastry and lemon-seasoned potatoes beckoned. We said goodbye to the manatees until the next visit.

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