Kayak & Canoe / Northwest Florida / Snorkeling

Crystal River manatees: How to see, kayak or swim with manatees

Manatees in Three Sisters Springs draw visitors to Kings Bay area

A manatee outside the entrance of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River.

A manatee outside the entrance of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

There are only 3,055 residents of Crystal River, and driving through town, you might think they all work in a manatee-related business.

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Crystal River, FL
Crystal River is famous for its manatees. Years ago, it was the only place in Florida to develop programs where you can swim with the manatees. In Crystal River, you see signs for “swim with the manatees” on nearly every hotel and business. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists three dozen companies that offer tours or boat rentals for seeing manatees.)

Each year, more and more people flock to Crystal River to see manatees and interact with them, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has tightened the regulations each year in an attempt to protect the endangered species from its hordes of fans. (More new regulations are under consideration.)

The manatees are within the roped-off sanctuary called Idiot's Delight Spring, just outside Three Sisters Spring.

These manatees are within the roped-off sanctuary called Idiot’s Delight Spring, just outside Three Sisters Spring. The view is from the boardwalk at the spring. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

While these regulations have changed how and where people can interact with manatees, there are still plenty of opportunities to see manatees and even swim with manatees in the Crystal River/Kings Bay area.

Here’s a practical guide to visiting Crystal River to see manatees.

The Kings Bay, Crystal River and Three Sisters Springs region

Three Sisters Springs gets all the media attention, and for good reason. It’s gorgeous: A rare freshwater spring that has never been developed as a swimming hole or park, still featuring natural lush vegetation around its vivid and clear turquoise waters. And it’s popular with manatees as well as people!

Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River

Seeing Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River from the boardwalk. A beautiful view, but no manatees to see here on this day. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

But the Three Sisters Springs group represents just three of the 70 springs within the 600-acre bay. An estimated 600 manatees arrive in the area in the winter to take advantage of the comparatively warm 72-degree water pumped from the various springs, so there are manatees in plenty of other locations.

The Fish and Wildlife Service have maps that show areas that are off-limits to boats because manatees congregate there, and those maps indicate a half dozen other manatee refuge zones in addition to Three Sisters.

Two other areas are popular with swim-with-manatee outfitters and kayakers exploring on their own:

  • Adjacent to a mangrove-filled Banana Island in Kings Bay is Kings Spring, the largest and original spring that prompted the creation of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in 1983. In the winter, manatees congregate here and boats — but not swimmers — are barred from Kings Spring.
  • Not far north of Three Sisters Spring, Hunter Spring City Park is the most popular place to put in kayaks and is close to Jurassic, House and Hunter springs, all of which attract manatees as well as people who want to swim with manatees.

Seeing Crystal River manatees from your own kayak or canoe

Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River

Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Early in the manatee season, before any significant chill hit the area, we put in our canoe at Hunter Spring City Park on Thanksgiving Day in the hope of seeing manatees.

We paddled inland into Hunter Cove and saw manatees within five minutes. We went on toward Three Sisters Springs, but before we got there,  a manatee swam under our canoe in Kings Bay. In the canal that leads to Three Sisters Spring, we saw more.

Manatee at Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River

A manatee outside the entrance of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

From Nov. 15 to March 31, you can’t kayak into Three Sisters Springs, but outside the spring entrance is another roped off sanctuary called Idiot’s Delight Spring. There, on our side of the ropes, three manatees floated undisturbed under our canoe and around the area, giving us a lengthy and excellent viewing opportunity.

Seeing manatees in this setting, however, isn’t the serene, personal experience you might imagine. At every point, we were ringed by swim-with-the-manatee boats, snorkelers and other kayaks circling around.

We were thrilled to see manatees, of course, but if you choose to come here, expect to be around lots of people too.

A few tips for Crystal River-area kayakers:

  • Hunter Spring City Park has parking, rest rooms and picnic tables, as well as a small swimming beach and a good put-in spot for kayaks. You can rent kayaks there too. Stop at the wildlife-refuge visitor center for a map or print one out here before you head out.
  • Hunter Cove is not a particularly natural setting (it’s ringed with houses and seawalls) but the water clarity is good and the springs attract manatees consistently.
  • You can’t kayak into Three Sisters Springs in winter, but the area around it is good for manatee viewing. The downside: Lots of boats and snorkelers. Outside the winter season, Three Sisters Springs would make an awe-inspiring place to paddle, particularly if you got it to yourself.
  • If you arrive in your own kayak or canoe, there is a location outside Three Sisters Springs where you can tie up and swim into the springs. Read more about conditions there under the swim-with-the-manatee section below.

Seeing manatees from the Three Sisters Spring boardwalk

Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River

At Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, the boardwalk gives you good views into the canal leading to the spring, where manatees are often seen. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge has a lovely boardwalk rimming Three Sisters Springs that gives you good views of the springs and manatees, if any are present.

There’s a complication, though: There is no parking at the refuge. You must take a trolley to visit and the ticket is a little pricey — $15 for adults 13 and older; $12.50 for seniors and $5 for children 6 to 13. Even if you walk into the refuge, you must still pay this entrance fee.

The trolley leaves from the Visitor Center, 915 N Suncoast Blvd., Crystal River, every 30 minutes. The driver may make informal comments, but doesn’t give a tour.

When we visited, there were no manatees in the Three Sisters Springs. (There are three springs, each forming a lobe of what might look like a clover from above.) But the natural beauty of the clear turquoise water is stunning, and while we had already paddled to the mouth of the spring on the previous day, we could not see the springs from our canoe.

The boardwalk includes an elevated viewing area of the mouth of the spring, where you have an excellent vantage point of Idiot’s Delight Spring. Here, we could observe five manatees clearly, including a baby estimated to be a 4 to 6 weeks old.

Is the boardwalk worth a $15 ticket? It depends how manatee-crazy you are. The people we chatted with were delighted because they came to see manatees and they succeeded. Certainly, the trolley was plenty busy on our visit. If the spring was full of dozens or even hundreds of manatees, as is the case during cold weather, the sight might be memorable enough to warrant the ticket. (And I suspect there would be crowds.)

Last year, new trails around restored wetlands and Lake Crystal opened and guided walks are being offered daily.

Trolley and boardwalk information:  915 N. Suncoast Blvd, Crystal River, 352-586-1170.

Special events during manatee season at Three Sisters

  • There are three free “open house” days at Three Sisters Spring during the winter. The best way to learn about them is via the Friends of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge website or their Facebook page.
  • The first free open house will be Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. Visitors should park at the Kings Bay Plaza, US 19 and Kings Bay Drive, where there will be free bus transportation to and from Three Sisters Springs. The boardwalk will be open, as well as the walking trails around the wetlands. There will be several informational booths and boardwalk interpreters.
  • The second open house is during Crystal River’s popular manatee festival Jan. 13- 14, 2018. Here’s more about the manatee festival.

Swimming with the manatees in Crystal River and Kings Bay

Snorkelers swim against a swift current to enter Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River.

Snorkelers swim against a swift current to enter Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. (Photo: David Blasco)

We did not swim with the manatees. (Personally, I’ve never had the desire.) But we saw dozens of people swimming with manatees (or trying to) on our Thanksgiving Day kayak tour of the Kings Bay.

I can’t recommend a particular outfitter, but the wildlife refuge offers a list of licensed companies. Prices average about $55 per person, including wetsuits and snorkeling gear. (Some outfitters try to provide a less-crowded experience by offering small-group early-morning tours at 6:15 p.m. for a $90 ticket price.)

Here’s a 360-degree view of snorkeling in Three Sisters Springs.

Tips before you swim with manatees:

  • Swim-with-the-manatee tours can go to different locations. We saw them both in Hunter Cove and at Three Sisters Springs. Other boats that go to Kings Spring. If it’s important to go to Three Sisters, ask if your outfitter goes there.
  • The snorkeling tours we observed were supervised and well run, but the number of people and nature of the activity makes this a bit of a chaotic scene. Set your expectations appropriately.
  • Participants should be good swimmers (and not all the people we saw were.)
  • Swimming into Three Sisters Springs is a challenge, even for good swimmers. The springs empty into a beautiful narrow spring run, so swimmers are trying to move upstream against a strong current. There are wire ropes on each side of the run to help, but people were really working hard – and that was at low tide, when they could touch the bottom. At high tide, that’s not an option.
  • Swimming in 72 degree water is chilly and most snorkelers wear wetsuits.
  • Kayakers can tie up their boats outside Three Sisters and swim in.
  • Three Sisters, in particular, is well-staffed with volunteers and officials who enforce the rules, even on a holiday.
  • When Three Sisters Springs is packed with manatees during the cold weather, the springs will be closed to swimmers, according to new regulations by the National Wildlife Refuge. Here’s where you can learn if the springs are open. Also, regulations under consideration might limit the number of swimmers entering at one time. These new rules may be enacted in 2016.
  • While the brochures often show people touching manatees, direct contact is actually illegal.
  • Swimming with manatees is controversial. Some argue that it is better for the animals to remain wild and without close contact with people. The folks at floridakayakcompany.com stopped their swim-with-manatee tours because: “What people fail to hear or acknowledge is that the manatees are not here for our amusement, rather they are here for their survival.”
  • Here’s another blogger’s post about swimming with manatees.

Links and addresses for seeing manatees in Crystal River

A good kayak put-in spot:

Hunter Springs City Park
104 NE 1st Ave, Crystal River, FL 34429
352-795-4216

Where you get the trolley to Three Sisters Springs:

Three Sisters Springs Visitor Center
915 N Suncoast Blvd. Crystal River
352-586-1170

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center
1502 S.E. Kings Bay Drive
Crystal River, FL 34429
352-563-2088

More places to see manatees in Florida

Other things to do in Crystal River

Heritage Village in downtown Crystal River.

Heritage Village in downtown Crystal River. (Photo: David Blasco)

There is more to do than see manatees in Crystal River. Here are a few other ideas:

There’s a tiny historic downtown with a few cute shops, a historic train station/museum and a beautiful street lined with live oaks planted by the women’s club 100 years ago. The area is called Heritage Village.

The temple mound at the Crystal River Archaeological State Park in Crystal River.

The temple mound at the Crystal River Archaeological State Park in Crystal River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Crystal River Archaeological State Park preserves an ancient Native American ceremonial site located in a beautiful setting overlooking the wide Crystal River. The mounds here are surprisingly impressive, but little is really known about the people who built them starting 2,500 years ago. A small museum has interesting artifacts and the picnic tables along the water are a great place to relax. 3400 N Museum Point, Crystal River, FL 34428. 352-795-3817.

Crystal River Preserve State Park is adjacent to the archaeological park. It has several trails with forest, marsh and water views. 3266 N. Sailboat Ave., Crystal River, FL 34428. 352-563-0450.

The historic Riverside Inn in Yankeetown

The historic Riverside Inn in Yankeetown. (Photo: David Blasco)

Yankeetown is not much of a town, but the fascination here is with the location – at the end of a road that dead-ends into the Gulf of Mexico north of Crystal River. There’s a pretty view from there and a small park with a few picnic tables and a 10-foot-wide stretch of sandy beach. The historic Riverside Inn in Yankeetown wasn’t open when we visited on Thanksgiving Day, but looks like an atmospheric spot for dinner or a drink. Call ahead. Yankeetown still remembers the day Elvis came to town – he filmed “Follow That Dream” here in summer 1961. Here’s more about Elvis in Yankeetown.

The Ozello Trail is another rural road that dead-ends into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s south of Crystal River. A popular route with motorcyclists who appreciate the twists and scenery, it ends at a popular seafood restaurant, Peck’s Old Port Cove, 139 N Ozello Trail, Crystal River, 352-795-2806. Here’s a post about it from my husband’s motorcycle blog.

At Homosassa State Park, 15 minutes south of Crystal River, you can see manatees every day via the park’s underwater observatory of its resident manatee population. Visitors start a visit on a  pontoon boat ride down Pepper Creek to the wildlife park, where you also see Florida panthers, bears, bobcats, deer, alligators and a wide variety of birds. In winter, the gates into the first-magnitude spring are opened and wild manatee flock to the warmer waters. On cold days, you may see dozens of wild manatees. The park has many attractions and charges an adult admission of $13. Kids over 5 are $5.

The Chassahowitzka River, better known as the Chaz, is a spectacularly beautiful spot 25 minutes south of Crystal River. It’s a wild river where you can visit several springs and see a variety of wildlife, including manatees in the winter. (We were lucky enough to see a family of otters.) Here’s our report on kayaking the Chaz.

 

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5 Comments

  1. Pingback: Extraordinary Experience Swimming with Manatees in Florida - Dang Travelers

  2. ◾”Kayakers can tie up their boats outside Three Sisters and swim in.”….Are you sure? I think that violates the no landing signs posted every 10 yards or so around the Springs. I anchor.

    • Thanks for checking Dave, because the regulations have changed each year and it is hard to keep up.

      But this IS the latest as of December 2015: There is spot along the banks on the right of the entrance to Three Sisters marked for tying up paddlecraft. Folks at the Crystal River NWR also reviewed my article and endorsed it as accurate. This is from the visitor services guy there: “I just want to express a big thank you from USFWS in Crystal River for putting together such an accurate story on Kings Bay and the manatee encounters. We particularly appreciate how the story showcases other springs in Kings Bay other than Three Sisters Springs for a manatee encounter.”

      • I believe you. Saw your sign photo on the Spring Hunters page. The sign was not there the morning of November 12, 2015. I would have seen it, as I had the Springs to myself. A fine birthday present.

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