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Guidelines for successful manatee watching in Florida

Paddlers at Three Sisters Springs

Personal space; it’s a comfortable space that everyone enjoys. Wild animals also have a comfort level of personal space that we should respect, too. If you use a kayak, canoe, paddle board or raft or swim near beaches or other waterways, you are responsible for looking out for Florida’s wildlife.

If a manatee responds to your presence, you are too close. Move away to a distance that does not change the animal’s natural behavior.


When you paddle in an area where manatees are known to travel, eat, mate, or rest, please follow these guidelines:

  • Enjoy watching manatees but remember to keep your distance and limit your viewing time so that the manatees do not notice you or your vessel.
  • Use caution when paddling near seagrass beds, sanctuaries or refuge area boundaries as manatees will be entering or exiting these areas. Give manatees the space they need to move freely in their habitat.
  • Avoid approaching or surrounding any manatees that you or others in your group come upon. Back away until you can observe the animals from a distance. Manatees that frequently encounter paddlers can lose their natural caution around all vessels, which may increase their risk of injury when they approach motorized vessels.
  • Manatees should not come in contact with your vessel. While manatees may initiate the contact, paddlers should be aware that manatees are capable of flipping a vessel. Its tail is powerful and could easily upend you if the animal makes a sudden, forceful movement to get out of harm’s way. Back away from the animal until it loses interest in your vessel and resumes its normal behavior.
  • If you lead a paddle-sport group or tour, model and promote ethical behavior to your clients. Consider providing optics for client use or encourage them to zoom in closer with a camera or other device.
  • Wear polarized sunglasses so that you can see where manatees are located underwater.
  • Speak quietly and avoid making loud noises when you are near wildlife areas. Your goal is to view manatees without disturbing them.
  • Offering food or water to manatees is prohibited because it alters their foraging behavior and is considered a form of harassment. Give manatees space to search for food and water on their own.
  • Paddle your vessel to avoid traveling over resting manatees. Manatees must surface to breathe and will startle awake if you are in the way. Give them space to surface and breathe.
  • Calves (very young manatees) and juvenile manatees are cute and curious but they are not pets. Avoid the temptation to rub, scratch or otherwise touch any manatees that surface near your vessel. Remember to “look, but don’t touch” manatees. Be careful not to separate a calf from its mother.
  • Research equipment attached to a manatee helps researchers locate and monitor the manatee for further study or for health reasons. This equipment does not hurt the manatee and should not be touched or removed.
  • Manatee mating herds are interesting to watch as several bulls (males) pursue a cow (female) until she is ready to mate. For your safety, watch these mating herds from a distance as the animals are focused on mating and do not heed intruders in their midst.
  • Lower your anchor slowly when you want to secure your vessel as there may be resting manatees below your vessel that you may not see.
  • It is okay to take pictures of manatees—please do not lift, touch, hold on to or pose manatees for your pictures.
  • Be a good role model for others so that they learn how to watch and enjoy wildlife without disturbing animals.


What to look for:

Manatee Viewing Guidelines


Manatee Laws and Paddle-sports:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (federal), the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (state) and local law enforcement officers can all cite you for breaking state or federal manatee protection laws. When you follow the above guidelines, you and the animals are protected. Manatees are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. It is illegal to feed, harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, annoy or molest manatees. Anyone who participates with paddle-sports must abide by the laws that protect manatees.

To report an injured, dead, harassed, or orphaned manatee

Call the Wildlife Alert Hotline 888-404-FWCC(3922). Cell phone users may call *FWC or #FWC.

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