Living Sanibel: Manatee County Park
Originally opened in 1996, this 17-acre regional park is the place to go in Lee County for manatee viewing, especially from November through March when hundreds of these widely adored marine mammals congregate here. In a curious symbiotic relationship, the manatees have learned to migrate up the Orange River during the coldest months of the year, seeking the warm-water outflow from the adjacent Florida Power and Light power plant. Unlike seals, whales, and many other marine mammals, West Indian manatees do not have thick insulating layers of blubber to protect them from cold water and hypothermia. As a subtropical species, they would normally seek out warm freshwater springs when the water temperature dips below 70 degrees, but coastal development has dried up many of these natural springs, making it difficult for these animals to survive the winter.
Soon after the power plant was constructed in 1957, a handful of manatees appeared at the junction of the discharge canal and the Orange River. Over time, the number of manatees migrating to the outflow increased to the large numbers seen today. How this power-plant memo about survival behavior made it around the manatee world remains a fascinating mystery.
However the information was relayed, the regional manatee populations of both Lee and Charlotte counties now make Manatee Park their winter home. In 2010, when Southwest Florida experienced one of the coldest winters in the past 100 years, as many as 300 manatees were counted in and around the park. A kayak or canoe trip down the Orange River between the outflow of the power plant and the nearby Caloosahatchee River is sure to result in many manatee sightings, but paddlers should be well advised that having a 14-foot-long manatee suddenly surface beside your boat can be quite unnerving. Harassing these animals in any way is strictly forbidden. They are experiencing cold stress and are essentially in a state of quasi-hibernation. Manatees cannot digest the sea grasses they feed on once the water temperature dips below 68 degrees. Dogs are not allowed in the park since their presence can frighten the manatees.
Manatee County Park has a small fishing pier, picnic tables, an ethno-botany trail, butterfly garden, authentic Seminole chickee hut, gift shop, and canoe/kayak rentals. For a nominal fee, visitors can launch their own canoes or kayaks. Photographing the manatees is a favorite pastime, but because the water is stained dark brown by the tannic acid coming off the nearby mangroves, a polarized filter is advised. Sadly, you will notice that many of the larger animals have boat propeller scars across their backs and large dorsal fins. Programs about the manatees are presented daily at the Live Oak Amphitheater during the winter months at 2 p.m. (check the website as program schedules are subject to change). Park rangers lead guided tours on weekends, taking visitors through the numerous walking trails and explaining how the park evolved. Manatee Park is unusual in that the land it rests on is owned by Florida Power and Light, though the park is staffed and operated by Lee County Parks Department.
Although the manatees are far more abundant from mid-October through mid-April, they are sometimes seen in the park during the other months of the year as well, though not in any great numbers.
Manatee County Park is small, but it presents a big opportunity to view these endangered mammals. Because of this, attendance at the park has been steadily increasing. It is well worth the stop.