It’s a crisp cool early morning along Florida’s Gulf Coast. I’ve stopped at the Crystal River Kayak Company in Citrus County. As I wait outside the building a young man unlocks an aluminum sliding door and pulls it open revealing a rainbow display of colored kayaks. This is where I will begin my adventure, a journey to Three Sisters Springs, one of the most popular locations to view Florida manatees. During the winter, manatees gather here seeking temperate water near Florida’s fresh water springs. As we walk a short distance to the adjacent canal, the young man turns with a smile, and says “you’re in for a real treat.”
He wasn’t kidding.
Three Sisters Springs, Citrus County
North of Tampa and west of Orlando, Citrus County is known for its waterways, especially the abundance of freshwater springs. Three Sisters is part of the Crystal River system that originates in Kings Bay, a first magnitude spring flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. The area is the world’s largest natural winter refuge for West Indian manatees. This is also one of the few locations in Florida where swimming with manatees is allowed.
Manatees migrate to the springs to stay warm [photo courtesy Discover Crystal River]
Florida’s gentle giant, also known as the “sea cow,” can be spotted in large groups during winter and early spring. When water temperatures dip below 68 degrees manatees gravitate towards warmer waters. They congregate around bubbly springs where 72-degree fresh water provides an ideal respite for the warm-blooded mammals. The added benefit is that people can easily observe them in crystal clear water.
Visitors can swim with manatees in Citrus County [photo courtesy Discover Crystal River]
Grayish brown in color, up to 10 feet in length, and weighing an average of 1,000 pounds, the manatee is related to the elephant, as evidenced by their thick, leathery wrinkled skin. Propelled by huge powerful tails they lumber along through Florida’s waterways, grazing on aquatic vegetation. Each day manatees consume 10-15% of their body weight.
Three Sisters Springs
Crystal River’s Three Sisters Springs [photo Discover Crystal River]
As the name implies, Crystal River’s Three Sisters Springs is a collection of three spring vents feeding into Kings Bay. Many consider this to be one of Florida’s most visually-stunning springs with its translucent blue hues casting an almost surreal magic upon those who behold it. It may feel other-worldly, but the area is actually more like a secluded swimming hole, and not far from a neighborhood of residential waterfront homes. It is the only spring of the Crystal River system that is accessible by land. A boardwalk with viewing platforms gives visitors an opportunity to see the beautiful creatures without going by boat.
Swim into the springs, bring a boat, or use the boardwalk [photo Discover Crystal River]
If you want to get closer, or view underwater, local outfitters will transport visitors by boat to just outside the enclosed spring area where you can swim, snorkel (or kayak) to the roped-off area or into the tree lined setting for a closer view.
Water entrance allows swimmers and boaters to swim or paddle into the Springs
Back at Crystal River Kayak Company I prepare to launch my kayak. The young man instructs, “Three Sisters Spring is not far away – just a short ten-minute paddle.” At the dock, he hands me a paddle and safety vest, and a map with easy directions. Once I am settled in my kayak, he gives me a gentle shove-off into the canal. I follow the directions, (three right turns and under a bridge). At first I can still hear the low rumbling thunder of cars on Hwy. 19, but as I paddle, it gets quieter. I pass homes, most with kayaks in backyards, as this is truly a “water lover’s paradise” with 70 springs and a 600-acre bay.
Manatees are Florida’s lovable mammals [photo courtesy, Tracy Colson]
Riding along the shady canal, I slowly dip my paddle into the water and pull nice rhythmic strokes. I notice some water movement that catches my eye. A wide flat swirling motion is circling on the water’s surface. I realize I have just met my first manatee, swimming just below the water, a large shadow of body mass, silently, slowly and deliberately moving along in stealth mode. Unlike dolphins with a recognizable dorsal fin that signals their approach, manatees swim with little detection – until they need a breath of fresh air. Then, a whiskered snout with a pair of nostrils will break the surface, sometimes accompanied by a snort as they come up for air. No doubt, it’s a manatee, our beloved Florida mammal.
Local Crystal River outfitters will transport swimmers to the springs entrance
Off in the distance I spot a roped area marking the entrance to the Three Sisters Springs. Signs remind visitors to be cautious when viewing these lovable slow-moving creatures that are vulnerable to motorized boats and sharp propellers. Near the spring entrance, outside the rope, several pontoon boats are anchored with swimmers clad in wetsuits, facemasks and snorkels bobbing in the water nearby. They are completing their underwater viewing and are climbing onto the boat. People settle into the boat, chatting about the experience, as they remove their gear. With all aboard, the boat quickly exits the area, ready to pick up the next shift.
Florida manatee in Three Sisters Springs, [photo Discover Crystal River]
As I watch them leave I realize I am alone. Where there was once an area filled with boats and people, there isn’t a soul left. For me it is a magic moment.
With this lull in the tour schedule, I am stunned with my rare opportunity to be at a world famous spring alone amongst these beautiful creatures. I float outside the ropes and observe their beauty. They look like they are in suspended animation or even asleep. The movement is minimal and it is obvious that they are enjoying the warmth of the bubbling spring. I also notice that many have old scars from hazardous boat propellers.
Three Sisters Springs
I decide to go into the enclosed spring through the narrow opening inaccessible to larger boats and barely wide enough for a kayak. As I enter, I feel like I am in nature’s cathedral; the sun has risen higher in the sky and shafts of light are streaming through the surrounding foliage radiating and reflecting the white sandy bottom, creating a mosaic of emerald blues, and every shade of green.
And I am completely alone.
Butterflies also love the vegetation around the spring
There is no one in this sacred space that is often filled with people circling around manatees. I am not even sure what to do with myself. I watch a butterfly flit about enjoying the serenity as much as I do, and feel at peace.
In the water I notice a moving shadow in the distance. I paddle closer. It’s a mother and her calf. I am careful to keep my distance. Mother and baby float together aimlessly.
Manatee and her calf, [photo,Tracy Colson]
To enjoy this authentic Florida experience yourself there are several options. One is to contact River Ventures Manatee Tours. Daily tours will take you by bus to the Three Sisters Wildlife Refuge. From there you can walk the boardwalk surrounding the springs. If you prefer to go by boat, River Adventures will reserve a spot on the boat and you can either view from the vessel or get in the water and swim near the manatees. The other option is to bring your own or rent a kayak at Crystal River Kayak Company for the short paddle to the Three Sisters.
This is an unforgettable adventure – one that will stay with you for a long time. And nothing can be more authentic than to spend time in nature, visiting one of Florida’s “crown jewels” while viewing Florida’s most lovable wildlife.
Three Sisters Springs is a sacred experience for those who visit [photo, Tracy Colson]
Also, for a complete story on where to find Florida Manatees, see our story Best Places to See Florida Manatees.
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