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What should you do when you see a manatee?

manatee following a kayaker

Manatees are found in many of Florida’s waterways and can be difficult to see, especially when you travel in a boat on the water. You may see a swirl on the surface caused by the manatee when it dives; see an animal’s back, snout, tail, or flipper break the surface of the water; or you may only hear the manatee when it surfaces to breathe (as shown here). In all of these instances, keeping your distance and passive observation are the best ways to view manatees. (For more boater related information please review “A boater’s guide to living with Florida Manatees.”

Guidelines for Viewing Manatees

manatee snout
manatee tail
a manatee's

The West Indian manatee is an imperiled species and is protected by state and federal law (see below). Please avoid harassing or disturbing manatees whenever you discover that manatees are in the water near you. Harassment is defined as any activity that alters the animal's natural behavior. By altering the manatee's natural behavior, you may create the likelihood of danger that is bad for the animal and against the law.



Sign advising to not touch manatees
  • Look, but don't touch manatees. Also, don't feed manatees or give them water. If manatees become accustomed to being around people, they can alter their behavior in the wild, perhaps causing them to lose their natural fear of boats and humans, which may make them more susceptible to harm.
  • Do not pursue or chase a manatee if you see one while you are swimming, snorkeling, diving, paddling or operating a boat.
  • Never poke, prod or stab a manatee with your hands, feet or any object.
  • If a manatee avoids you, do not chase the animal for a closer view.
  • Give manatees space to move. Avoid isolating or singling out an individual manatee from its group and do not separate a cow and her calf.
  • Keep hands and objects to yourself. Don't attempt to snag, hook, hold, grab, pinch, hit or ride a manatee.
  • Avoid excessive noise and splashing if a manatee appears nearby. The manatee may be resting and may surface without being aware of your presence. Noise and activity may startle the animal awake, which may put it in harm’s way if it is frightened and leaves the area.
  • If the site you visit allows in-water activities near manatees, use snorkel gear and float at the surface of the water to passively observe manatees. The sound of bubbles from SCUBA gear or other devices may cause manatees to leave the area.

I want to swim near manatees. Where should I go?

snorkeler swimming near a manatee

Before you get too excited about swimming near an imperiled species, please realize that you MUST follow the guidelines posted above and at the activity site so that these animals are not harassed. You are responsible for your own behavior near the activity site—your actions not only affect your enjoyment but can affect others in the area and the animals using the habitat.

Do not enter areas designated as "NO ENTRY-MANATEE REFUGE": 
No Entry-Manatee Refuge areas have been identified by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as crucial for manatee survival. Remember - Look but don't touch manatees

The Crystal River and Kings Bay area is the only area in Florida where swimmers are monitored around manatees. Viewing guidelines and sanctuary rules must be followed. Please respect the directions from manatee volunteers and law enforcement officers who are looking out for the best interest of manatees in this area. The manatees that stay in this location need the warm waters of the springs in order to survive the cold winter. Please visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service site for more information about the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River, Florida. 


Protection by Law

The manatee is protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which makes it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal. The manatee is also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which states: "It is unlawful for any person, at any time, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass, or disturb any manatee." 

Anyone convicted of violating this state law faces a possible maximum fine of $500 and/or imprisonment for up to 60 days. Conviction on the federal level is punishable by fine of up to $50,000 and/or one year in prison. The State of Florida can pursue prosecution under federal law in circumstances of extreme harassment, resulting in the death or injury of a manatee. For more information: Guidelines for Protecting Florida Manatees