Florida’s Winter Tourists: Manatees

Photos by Kelsey Walters 

When the beginning of the year rolls around, you probably aren’t thinking about a trip to one of Florida’s many natural springs, of which there are over 700. The chilly water is a great way to cool off in the sweltering summer, but not exactly a winter warm up. There is, however, one group spending their winter vacation in the cool waters of the springs and they’re probably the only ones who aren’t worried about their bikini bodies this time of year. 

Manatees at Three Sisters Springs

Each year, as the air and water get chilly, hundreds of West Indian manatees migrate to the guaranteed warmth of the springs. The naturally fed spring run stays a constant 72 degrees year-round, allowing for a safe and warm manatee family reunion. Despite the manatees’ pudgy, rotund bodies, (which make them just about the cutest things you’ll ever see) the animals have very little body fat and cannot tolerate the cool temperatures. As water temperatures fall below 68 degrees, the sea cows instinctively travel to warmer waters. 

Next to Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River is one the busiest manatee hot spots in the state. So much so, that the city’s crest features one of the cuddly cuties as their mascot and boasts “Home of the Manatee.” Manatees can be spotted year-round in and around the spring, but the peak season is from mid-November until late March. As long as the water temperatures are cool, you’re sure to spot a hoard of the floating sea potatoes as they take to the warmth of the spring. Scott, Avery and I visited on a day when 200 were crammed into the spring, and sometimes there are even more than the park can keep a headcount of. 

Currently, vehicular access to the park is closed to keep crowds at a minimum, but don’t let that deter you! Free parking is available at the nearby Three Sisters Springs Center with a shuttle ride to and from the park every 20 to 30 minutes included in admission. You can also walk or bike in, and pay admission at the front gate of the park. The bike path will bring you along Lake Crystal for a relaxing ride with beautiful views before you arrive at the springs’ boardwalk. 

Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, FL

Three Sisters is comprised of its own little family of springs, aptly named Big Sister, Little Sister and the most popular (of course it is) Pretty Sister. There was a time when Three Sisters was almost in the hands of developers, slated for high-rise condos and commercial water bottling. Luckily, the manatees’ home away from home was saved by a combined effort of community members, non-profits, the Florida Community Trust, the city itself, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) in 2010. Today the 57-acre park is owned by the city of Crystal River and SWFWMD to keep it securely in the hands…or flippers of the resident manatees. 

Much of the acreage is accessible by an assortment of trails, and a quick chat with one of the park’s many and wonderfully helpful volunteer guides on-site will help point you in the right direction of an abundance of manatees. Depending on the weather, tide and other factors, they may be found huddled in the springs or closer to the river. When we visited, the tide was low and most of them had headed out to the ironically named “Idiot’s Delight” area by the river. 

As we approached, the shallow water appeared to be littered with hundreds of gray boulders. Upon closer inspection, the lumps were slowly floating along, some raising their fuzzy snouts to sniff the air or nibble on foliage in lazy fashion. Avery has seen manatees before, but she was very small and stared at them in bewilderment. Now that she’s almost 3 years old, she was able to spot them in the water and squealed with delight, “That’s so cool! They’re as big as a house!” She was even more thrilled when we spotted the adorable baby manatees, which the mothers often leave in the confined safety of the spring, a little manatee daycare, while they forage for food in the open river. 

While the areas within Three Sisters are a wildlife refuge and water access is prohibited, Crystal River itself is open for swimming and snorkeling, accessible by boat or private tours available all over the city. Some manatees will venture out of the roped off confines of the spring access and as long as you do not touch or inhibit their movement in any way, swimmers are in for the experience of a lifetime as they glide by. 

We chose to stay out of the chilly waters and used the park’s trails to traverse some of the river instead, spotting quite a few manatees and other creatures at every bend. The trails are also equipped with bluebird nesting boxes and bat houses for plenty of wildlife spotting. 

Avery made me an especially proud mama when she asked to use my camera to take several of her own photos of the springs, manatees and even me and Scott! Just like I did at 2 years old, she’s starting her love of photography young, and I’m sure we’ll be back to Three Sisters Springs for plenty more photography adventures and manatee spotting! 

Three Sisters Springs 

123 NW US Highway 19, Crystal River, FL 34428 (visitors center) 

601 Three Sisters Springs Trail, Crystal River (gate access) 

ThreeSistersSpringsVisitor.org 

FB: ThreeSistersSprings // Insta: @ThreeSistersSprings

(352) 586-1170 

Hours and Admission:

Open daily from 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.; (last admission at 3:30 p.m.) 

Seasonal pricing through March 31: 

$20/adult; $17.50/senior 55+; $15/military; $7.50/child (6-15); Children under 6 free 

Kelsey Walters is the publisher and one of the co-owners of East Coast Current, a professional photojournalist with a BS in Photography from the University of Central Florida. Her work focuses on travel and documentary photography. Scott Walters is Kelsey’s husband of three years and Avery’s proud father. He is originally from Connecticut and has lived in Florida since he was 11 years old. Avery Walters is Kelsey and Scott’s 2-year-old daughter. She loves to tag along on their monthly adventures throughout the state and play with her dog, Kodi.

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