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Where there might be giants

Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe

Nothing says Florida like manatees, those lumbering sea creatures that manage to be reminiscent of both elephants and puppies. Because these aquatic mammals can’t tolerate water temperatures below 68 degrees, in winter they head for inland springs and discharge canals near power plants to keep warm. Through careful stewardship, the population of these gentle giants, which weigh on average 1,200 pounds, has increased in recent years. Here are five places to see them in the wild (call first to see if manatees are in the area).

1

THREE SISTERS SPRINGS, CRYSTAL RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

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Crystal River is the only refuge created specifically for the protection of the Florida manatee. At Three Sisters Springs, you can view manatees in the stunningly blue water from boats or from a 1,600-foot boardwalk. Vendors offer the opportunity to swim with manatees, though the practice is controversial. The refuge visitors center has informational kiosks, a model of a manatee skeleton, a list of local tour vendors, and helpful volunteers. Crystal River, 352-563-2088, www.fws.gov/refuge/Crystal_River

2

BLUE SPRING STATE PARK

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A designated manatee refuge, Blue Spring State Park covers more than 2,600 acres, including the largest spring on the St. John’s River. In winter, manatees leave the river for the 73-degree crystal-clear water of Blue Spring. A half-mile boardwalk borders the Blue Spring run, the main viewing area; interpretive displays along the boardwalk provide history and education about manatees and other wonders of the region. Orange City, 386-775-3663, www.floridastateparks.org/park/Blue-Spring

3

MANATEE SPRINGS STATE PARK

During the cooler months, manatees travel up the Suwannee River to the first-magnitude spring at this park. An 800-foot boardwalk runs between the spring and the river, and rangers are on hand to answer questions. Campgrounds, a picnic area, and canoe and kayak rentals are available on site. Chiefland, 352-493-6072, www.floridastateparks.org/park/Manatee-Springs

4

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TAMPA ELECTRIC CO. (TECO) MANATEE VIEWING CENTER

At this designated manatee sanctuary, hundreds of manatees return each year to the warm discharge waters of the Big Bend Power Station. We saw more than a hundred at one time here, surfacing, diving, spouting, and flipping their fluted, fan-shaped tails to the delight of crowds on the viewing platform. The facility includes a tidal walkway and an environmental education center. Seeing these prehistoric-looking creatures lolling about in front of a modern power plant is positively surreal. Apollo Beach, 813-228-4289, www.tampaelectric.com/company/mvc

5

LEE COUNTY
MANATEE PARK

Located across from Florida Power and Light and directly on the warm water discharge canal, Manatee Park has several viewing areas, a butterfly garden, playgrounds, and picnic shelters. Visitors can launch kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards or rent them on site, and guided kayak tours are also available. Trained volunteer interpretive naturalists are on site during manatee season. Fort Myers, 239-690-5030, www.leegov.com/parks/facility?fid=0088

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