When Christopher Columbus spotted manatees on his voyage of discovery in 1493, he thought these gentle marine giants were mermaids, though he reported they were “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”
Manatees are vegetarians, weigh up to 1,000 pounds and are 10 to 12 feet long. Except for their tails, they look nothing like mermaids. But it’s getting to be the time of year when you can make that judgment yourself.
When the first real cold front sweeps down over Florida, manatees head for warm water. One of their favorite winter hangouts in Florida is at Blue Spring State Park (www.floridastateparks.org/bluespring), north of Orlando, where as many as 300 of the mammals gather in the spring run. You can watch them, as hundreds of visitors do, usually from November to March, from the boardwalk that borders the spring run. The run is closed to people swimming during that time.
Another major winter gathering spot for manatees is at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/crystalriver/), north of Tampa Bay. Humans are banned from the springs within the Manatee Sanctuary from Nov. 15 to March 31, but visitors can still see the manatees from boats outside the sanctuary boundaries. Many tour companies and marinas in the town of Crystal River offer such tours; on some, guests can swim with the manatees.
Power-plant discharge canals, which are warm, attract many manatees in winter. Tampa Electric Co.’s Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach has a Manatee Viewing Center (www.tampaelectric.com/company/mvc/) with viewing platforms, tidal walkways and an education center. Lee County Manatee Park in Fort Myers (www.leeparks.org/pdf/Manatee_park_trifold.pdf), located on the discharge canal of a Florida Power and Light plant, has several viewing areas, a butterfly garden and picnic shelters. And Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/merrittisland/) has a manatee viewing observation area at the Haulover Canal bridge in Titusville.
But you may spot manatees in the wild almost anywhere the water is warm. In the Miami area, I have seen manatees in canals, in Biscayne Bay and in the Intracoastal Waterway.
Manatees in captivity can be viewed year-round at a number of locales in Florida. One of the best viewing spots is the underwater observatory at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park.
Several websites list sites where you can see manatees, among them www.myfwc.com/education/wildlife/manatee/where-to-see and www.savethemanatee.org/places.htm.
JFK & THE BUNKER
With the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy coming up Nov. 22, you might want to visit one of the few visitable Florida sites associated with him — the bomb shelter the Coast Guard built for the president on Peanut Island in Palm Beach. Kennedy visited the bunker only twice, and then only to see how long it would take to reach it from his Palm Beach estate.
In connection with the anniversary, some photos never before seen by the public will be displayed in the bunker starting Nov. 15. The exhibit will run for two months, said Anthony Miller of the Palm Beach Maritime Museum, which runs tours of the shelter.
The bunker is open to the public Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Shuttle boats run continuously between Riviera Beach Marina and the island ($10 round trip), and guided tours of the bunker are $14 adults, $8 youths 17 and under. www.pbmm.org, 561-832-7428.
•Space Center deal:
A money-saving deal for Florida residents is back at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The Four-Pack Special admits a party of four residents for $139, a saving of more than $60. The deal is available only via a coupon available at www.kennedyspacecenter.com. Proof of residency required at the gate.
•New Sebring fete:
Sebring will launch a new four-week festival this year called Heartland Holiday Festival. All events have not yet been determined, but they will include the Carousel of Lights in Circle Park; CookieFest, during which kids decorate their own holiday cookies; Saturdays with Santa, an outdoor movie; evening visits by Santa Claus; and the annual Christmas Parade. The festival will run Nov. 29-Dec. 23. www.HeartlandHolidayFest.com.
•Sculpting in the sand:
A different kind of sculpture will be on view in late November at Fort Myers Beach. It’s the 27th annual American Sand Sculpting Championships and Beach Festival Nov. 22-Dec. 1, during which sand sculptors will shape more than 1,000 tons of sand into artistic creations, some of them amazingly large and detailed. www.fmbsandsculpting.com.