Manatees in Three Sisters Springs draw visitors to Kings Bay area
There are only 3,402 residents of Crystal River, and driving through town, you might think they all work in a manatee-related business.
Crystal River manatees draw people here from around the world. It is 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 two 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.)
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!
As of November 2023, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge reopened Three Sisters Spring for swimming after completing work to stop shore erosion caused by weather events, manatee congregation in winter months, and human activities such as climbing on the banks.
During manatee season (November-April), you cannot kayak/paddle board through Three Sisters Spring. Swimming in Three Sisters Springs is allowed during manatee season if the water is warm enough. When the water temperature gets cold enough (17 degrees Celsius or lower, which is 62.6 degrees fahrenheit), ALL of the springs in the refuge are roped off so manatees have more room to congregate and rest without disturbance. After manatee season (in April), the public may swim or kayak through the springs no matter the temperature of the water.
If you want to visit Three Sisters Spring, keep in mind there is a boardwalk accessible to land visitors, but you cannot access the water from there. (From the water, you can’t access the boardwalk either.)
But famous Three Sisters Springs group represents just three of the 70 documented springs within the 600-acre bay. An estimated 800 to 1,000 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 Crystal River 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
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.
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 kayakers who want to see Crystal River manatees:
- 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 had 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
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. In winter, tickets are $20 for adults 13 and older; $17.50 for seniors and $7.50 for children 6 to 13. Even if you walk into the refuge, you must still pay this entrance fee. (Summer rates are $12.50 adults and seniors. Federal Recreation Land passes take $5 off admission.)
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 $20 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.)
Trails around restored wetlands and Lake Crystal are also available, as well as guided walks.
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.
- Admission is free during the Crystal River’s popular manatee festival, which is in January every year. Here’s more about the manatee festival.
Swimming with the manatees in Crystal River and Kings Bay
We did not swim with the manatees. (Personally, I’ve never had the desire and have been convinced it’s not really good for manatees.) But we saw dozens of people swimming with manatees (or trying to) on our 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 $75 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 a.m. for a $90 ticket price.)
Tips before you swim with Crystal River manatees:
- There are many rules regarding swimming with manatees in Crystal River, which is the only place in Florida where swimming with these huge slow-moving mammals is allowed. The basic rule is “watch passively while floating on the surface of the water.” No touching, no kicking with your fins, no feeding, no floating over top of the manatees. If you are planning to go swimming with manatees, watch this video first.
- Swim-with-the-manatee tours can go to different locations. We saw them both in Hunter Cove and at Three Sisters Springs. Other boats go to Kings Spring. If it’s important to you 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 if the water temperature is not below 63 degrees/
- 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.
- While the brochures often show people touching manatees, direct contact is 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 Crystal River manatees
A good kayak put-in spot:
Hunter Springs City Park
104 NE 1st Ave, Crystal River, FL 34429
Where you get the trolley to Three Sisters Springs:
Three Sisters Springs Visitor Center
915 N Suncoast Blvd. Crystal River
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center
1502 S.E. Kings Bay Drive
Crystal River, FL 34429
Other things to do in Crystal River
There is more in Crystal River than manatees. Here are a few other ideas:
There’s a tiny historic downtown with a 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.
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.
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. 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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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.