Where to see Manatees and Dugongs

Have you ever wanted to experience a Manatee or a Dugong while diving, snorkeling or on a boat close up in their natural habitat?

We have done the research and show you the best places to meet Dugongs and Manatees or even swim with them. 

Sea-cows are considered vulnerable to extinction. A number of international laws are in place to protect these animals such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Still, they are under severe threat from men-induced dangers like habitat loss due to coastal development, watercraft collisions and poaching.  

Check out our blog about the Best Places to dive and Swim with Dolphins .

You can either read the full article or jump ahead to your favorite part of Where to see Manatees!

Get to know Manatees

Endangerment of Manatees and Dugongs

The Best Places to see and swim with Manatees or Dugongs

Get to know Manatees

Manatees live in the shallow waters of marine coastal areas as well as freshwater habitats. They can be found in the warm water of the tropical regions only. Unlike seals, they do not have suitable limbs for moving around on land, they never leave the water. They spend their days drifting slowly around while grazing or sleeping. Manatees have to surface in intervals for breathing. 

Differences Between a Dugong and a Manatee

For non-experts it’s easy to be confused about the differences between Manatees and Dugongs. You might know the names Dugong or sea-cow or even Sirenia. So let’s start with a little clarification. In the taxonomy of animals we speak about the order of the Sirenias or, using a much more popular expression, sea-cows. The name sea-cow comes from their preferred diet, which is sea-grass.

Their closest relatives in the animal kingdom are the elephants. Under the order of sea-cows we have two families. One comprises three different species of Manatees. The other family consists of only one remaining specy which is called Dugong. Since all these sea-cows are cousins, they look very similar, with the biggest difference being their tails. Manatees have paddle-like tails and dugongs have fluke-like tails. To make things easy, we call them here simply sea-cow or Manatee alike. Learn more Where to see Manatees.

Key Facts of Manatees and Dugongs

Here are some key facts about Dugongs and Manatees. The following table is good to gain an overview about them.

Body length2.5 to 4 m (8 to 13 ft)
HabitatManatee: salt and freshwaterDugong: only salt water
Typical weightup to 1,500 kg (3,300 lb)
Dietmostly seagrass and other water plants,occasionally invertebrates.they eat 10 – 15% of their body weight per day (appr. 50 kg / 110 lb)
Duration of dives5 to 20 minutes
Maximum ageManatee: 40 years; Dugong: 60 years

Where do Manatees and Dugongs live?

The distribution areas of the four families of sea-cows do not overlap and are sometimes very far apart (see map below). The so called West Indian manatee lives in the Gulf of Mexico off the coasts of Florida and the south-eastern USA, the coasts of Central America, the Caribbean Islands, and the northern coasts of South America (green area).

Next to it in the Amazon region in South America lives the Amazonian manatee (red area) and finally on the coasts of West Africa between Senegal and northern Angola and in the river systems there lives the African manatee (orange area). All about Where to see Manatees.

The only living specie of Dugong is found exclusively on the coasts of the Indian Ocean, including the Red Sea, and the south-west Pacific Ocean (blue area).

West Indian in green, Amazonian in red, African in orange, dugong in blue
source:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sirenia_distribution.png#/media/File:Sirenia_distribution.png

Endangerment of Manatees and Dugongs

Both, Manatees and Dugongs are quite vulnerable to environmental changes lead by humans as they are not fast and very peaceful. The occupation by land as well as our fishing habits and boat engines combined pose a massive threat for Manatees and Dugongs.

Most species are now seen as vulnurable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. If you want to contribute ot the rescue of manates and dugongs we recommend visiting the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project or Save the Manatee Club

How endangered are Manatees

All species of manatees were hunted for meat by the inhabitants of the coasts of their distribution areas. This is documented especially for the Indians of the North and Central American coasts. The meat was used as food and the skin and other body parts for other purposes.

William Dampier, who became known as a British buccaneer and traveller, described in his travelogues of 1681 the Caribbean manatee from the Gulf of Mexico as well as from the rivers of Panama. There he also described the hunting of the animals by the Miskito and the subsequent use of the meat as food and the rough skin as oars and horse whips.

However, no excessive hunting is known to have taken place, the hunt was usually for current needs. In contrast, Steller’s manatees were pursued by seal hunters from the time of their discovery and killed in large numbers. The last animals disappeared in 1768, only 27 years after their discovery by Georg Wilhelm Steller. All about Where to see Manatees.

How endangered are Dugongs

Today, all four living species are listed as endangered by the IUCN [2]. The greatest threat today, however, is no longer from hunting, but, especially for the Caribbean manatee, from pleasure craft that can inflict serious injuries on the animals with their propellers when they are run over.

For this reason, protected areas have been created, especially off the US coasts in the Gulf of Mexico, and clearly visible signs have been put up to indicate this; motorboat traffic is not permitted in these areas.

A further threat is the penetration of humans into their habitat; due to their metabolism, manatees need an immense amount of water plants to cover their energy requirements and thus a corresponding water quality, which is decreasing more and more due to the development of their retreat areas.

Especially the rivers in South America and Africa are becoming increasingly cloudy and contaminated with environmental toxins, and retreat areas rich in plants are becoming rare.

Manatees in the Amazon Rainforest

Amazon manatees, like all manatees, spend their entire lives in the water. However, as air-breathers they emerge several times per minute to breathe, but can also stay underwater for up to 15 minutes. They prefer waters with temperatures between 22 and 30 degrees Celsius. Amazon manatees are pure herbivores and feed on water plants.

However, since their herbivorous diet is not very energy-rich, they must consume about 8 to 15 percent of their own body weight daily in order to survive. Manatees can store large amounts of fat as bubbles and can thus bridge long periods of hunger. In dry periods, when no water plants are available, they can survive up to six months without food.

Although the Amazon Manatee is spread over a large area and has hardly any natural enemies, it has become very rare and is considered endangered in its survival. Its peaceableness, slowness, and its coveted fat and meat have made it an easy and popular prey for humans.

Further, serious dangers threaten the Amazon Manatee today due to the rapidly progressing clearing of the Amazon rainforests for timber production, for soya, palm oil and other plantations, or for mining and cattle grazing. That is why the WWF has been working for a long time on various levels to save the Amazon rainforest. The “Amazon Region Protected Areas Programme” (ARPA), whose implementation the WWF is playing a major role in, aims to put 50 million hectares, an area the size of Spain, in the Amazon rainforest under permanent protection within ten years.

The Story of Phu Quoc, Vietnam as an example for the Threat to Manatees

They look like they’ve fallen out of time: Massive, misshapen, gray giants: Carefully, the shy forked-tailed manatees, weighing up to 1,000 kilograms, roam the tropically warm water around the largest Vietnamese island Phu Quoc.

Fork-tailed manatees – also known as dugongs – can grow to over three metres in length. They are vegetarians. They graze calmly for hours in the seagrass fields on the seabed in shallow water near the coast.

They have no natural enemies. Except humans. The gigantic flood of rubbish that millions of tourists have been leaving on the island for several years now is polluting the extremely sensitive, species-rich ecosystem in the South China Sea.

The already endangered manatees are in danger, as are sea turtles, octopuses, seahorses and numerous tropical fish species.

Without manatees, the sensitive ecosystem will be thrown off course

In front of Phu Quoc the plastic garbage is visibly floating on the waves. “Fishermen and tourist boats throw their waste overboard,” says Stefan Ziegler of WWF Germany. Every day, tons of garbage are discharged into the sea via rivers because there is no functioning waste disposal system on the island, which is overrun by tourists.

The protected areas on the coral reefs and seagrass meadows off Phu Quoc are massively threatened by this.

Sea turtles confuse plastic bags floating in the water with jellyfish and die in agony. “Manatees get entangled in ghost nets and drown,” says Stefan Ziegler. And they lose their most important source of food due to increasing marine pollution – the sea grass meadows, which are shrinking worldwide anyway.

Filled with plastic, they are not only lost as grazing ground for manatees and nursery grounds for numerous fish species, but also as an important oxygen supplier in the sea. All about Where to see Manatees.

The Best Places to see and swim with Manatees or Dugongs

We have done a comprehensive research to find for you the best spots to swim, dive or just observe Manatees and Dugongs.

1. Manatees at Citrus County, Florida, US

Citrus County calls itself as the Manatee capital in the world. You find a great number of tour operators which bring you close to the Manatees who enjoy all year round the crystal clear warm spring waters.

As to your liking you can experience these animals by approaching them safely in a tour boat, during an adventurous kayak or canoe tour or by swimming or diving with them. 

  1. Explorida
  2. Manatee Adventures
  3. Family Adventure Charters
  4. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
  5. Manatee paddle
  6. Pontoon Tours – kayaking and diving
  7. Captain Mike’s swimming with the Manatees

Here is also a video on how swimming with Manatees in Florida looks like!

2. Meet Dugongs in Palawan, Philippines

Palawan is the most western island of the Philippines. What makes the island an exotic paradise are its bizarre rock formations like from another world, crystal clear turquoise waters, hidden lagoons and countless fine sandy dream beaches, but also its unique flora and fauna – above and below the water.

Dugongs can be found in the coral sea around the island. You can go on excursions to meet these gentle mammals by spotting them on a boat tour or go for snorkeling or diving trips. 

  1. Dugong Dive Center, Busuanga Island, Palawan
  2. Busuanga Bay Divers, Busuanga Island, Palawan

3. Dugongs, Coral Coast and Ningaloo Reef, Australia

Shark Bay and to a lesser extent Ningaloo marine park are the two places on Australia’s west coast you have the best chances to see Dugongs out in the wild.

Shark Bay is one of the world’s largest population of this endangered mammal species. It is estimated that 10,000 dugongs live in the waters of Shark Bay, representing 10% of the world’s remaining population.

Shark Bay is a World Heritage Site located 800 km (500 mi) north of Perth on the westernmost point of the Australian continent. Shark Bay’s waters have a number of exceptional natural features, including one of the largest and most diverse seagrass beds in the world. No wonder that it hosts such a big number of dugongs.


The Ningaloo Reef is located approximately 400 km (250 mi) north of Shark Bay. It is the world’s largest fringing reef which comes in some places as close as 100 metres (328 ft) to the coast.

Aside from a population of Dugongs, which can be seen during boat cruises the reef is especially known for whale sharks who gather there each year from March until August. All about Where to see Manatees.

More information on diving with Dugongs can be found here.

  1. Shark Bay Dive and Marine Safaris offer marine safaris and snorkeling as well as scuba diving trips.
  2. Exmouth Dive and Whalesharks, Ningaloo Reef

4. Dugongs in Moreton Bay, Australia (east coast)

The Dugong habitat extends from Moreton Bay to north Queensland. It is believed that there are 14,000 Dugongs off the coast of Queensland.

  1. Go Dive Brisbane
  2. Dolphin White Island Cruises, offer day trips to see Dugongs and plenty of other marine life in Moreton Bay.
  3. Tangalooma Island Resort, spot Dugongs during a marine discovery cruise.

5. Dugongs in Abu Dabbab, Red Sea, Egypt

Abu Dabbab is a wonderful bay with white beaches located 30 km (19 mi) north of Marsa Alam at the Egyptian red sea coast. It is home to wide seagrass beds which attracts Dugongs and the giant Green Sea Turtles.

You can encounter these animals and many other marine species during swimming and snorkeling from the beach. Many dive centers of the hotels in the area offer day trip to Abu Dabbab.


A tour operator who organizes snorkeling trips and hotel pick up is Abu Dabbab Dugong Bay Marsa Alam Tours.

Summary about where to see Manatees and Dugongs

Manatees and Dugongs are extremely gentle creatures and old relatives of our beloved elephant.

Of course, a lot of people would like to see them in the wild and we encourage that as long as everyone is giving them the respect they deserve.

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