Manatee Park, Fort Myers FL
Manatee Park, Fort Myers Official Website
45 minutes, to the minute, from my door is a really cool little place to take the family for cheap during the winter months. Fort Myers' Manatee park is situated about 3 seconds from FPL's (Florida Power & Light) power plant just outside of town. This might sound funny to folks, but this power plant is actually a "help" to the local manatee population during the winter months, and is one of the best places locally to see our favorite Floridian floaty-potatoes from late November to late February. The optimum gulf water temperature to look for is around 68 degrees (check the water temp here).
You might be thinking, why on Earth would manatees want to hang out around a FPL plant? Well the answer is simpler than you might think. Manatees are actually very sensitive to water temperature, and seek out warmer water when the winter months start to drive gulf temps down. They may look like they have a layer of blubber like some of their sea dwelling mammal cousins, but in reality they have surprisingly little body fat which makes them sensitive and are easily killed by surprisingly mild water temp fluctuations. They can't tolerate water temperatures below/at 68 degrees for very long. Which is where the FPL plant in Fort Myers comes in.
The FPL plant pumps out warm water as part of the power making process. These "warm water effluents" naturally lead out to the gulf. The water doesn't dip much below 72 degrees, which makes it considerably warmer than the gulf during winter months which makes it perfect for manatees to seek refuge and hang out while waiting for spring. Fort Myers' FPL plant isn't the only place this happens, and some experts actually believe this may contribute to not only extending the range of manatees during colder months, but assist in the conservation of these adorable sea-cows.
The park itself is pretty awesome as well. Founded in 1997 and built via the cooperation of both FPL & The Lee County Visitor & Conservation Bureau, local volunteers trained by Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission mostly run it day to day. Other than the requisite pit stop at the gift shop, it's 17 full acres of preserved natural Florida landscape and water ways, along with some gardens planted and maintained by Coccoloba Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society You can see everything from fish, the occasional gator, paddle boarders, to a small dolphin playing in the warm water effluents along side the manatees! Spend all day for only a $5 donation for parking or $2 per hour if that's the cheaper route for you.
I will say don't be discourage if you don't see a giant colony of manatees readily hanging out by the surface when you first get there. When I took the family last November we had to wait about 20-30 minutes before we started seeing the tell-tale bubbles and then finally the breaching nostrils of the first manatee. Patience is required but I believe in season is generally rewarded. Also keep in mind I was there in the extreme early part of the season. If you do see the flash of a gray fin don't be surprised or doubt your vision, there really might be a dolphin in the effluent as well. I thought I was nuts when I saw it out of the corner of my eye until 45 minutes later my youngest said "OMG IT'S A DOLPHIN" and the rest of the family saw it as well.
The trails are easy and a great way to spend a couple hours seeing Florida's natural beauty as well. It's not often you have "easy access" to that kind of landscape and the wildlife that lives in it, so take advantage while you're there. You never know what kind of awesomeness you'll run in to! And please make sure you visit the gift shop, remember these kinds of parks get only so much money every year and every dime you spend goes towards the preservation of this special place. If you do go, or have been, please let me know how it went!
If you love manatees as much as I do and would like to learn more about them and their conservation, please visit https://www.savethemanatee.org/