Have you ever wanted to paddle with manatees — lots of manatees? You can do just that right here in Florida, at Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. After seeing photographs of manatees stacked up by the hundreds on Facebook, I was fascinated with the idea of visiting this location. This is a very popular location for manatees to gather in the winter. Manatee organizations in Citrus County estimate more than 1,100 manatees visited the county’s waterways in January.
I recently took a trip to Crystal River to experience paddling among them for myself. Manatees are drawn to natural springs all year, but they come in huge numbers during winter. Groundwater-fed springs are a consistent temperature year-round. Three Sisters runs at 72 degrees. This is much warmer than the water in the nearby Gulf of Mexico, and manatees need to stay warm. Manatees also must drink fresh water to survive. Therefore, they visit springs to drink throughout the year.
Locating Three Sisters Springs took a little bit of research, as the area can only be reached by boat. Fortunately, Hunter Springs Park in Crystal River offers an ideal area for paddlers to launch nearby. By water, the park is only about a mile away from Three Sisters. Several areas of this coastal waterway are roped off, with no paddling, swimming, boating and fishing permitted. These sections of the spring and river are only for the manatees.
Hunter Springs Park
Address: 104 NE 1st Ave, Crystal River, FL 34429
This location is different than anywhere else that I have paddled. Many homes line the river’s shores. The water closest to the springs is crystal clear, so I quickly understood the name of the town. It didn’t take long after we launched to spot a manatee. A playful individual quickly approached us, rolling over on his back to show us his belly. Not all the manatees were as eager to show us attention or have us nearby.
Paddle Board with Manatees at Three Sister Springs
Paddling on the coldest mornings is the best way to guarantee the maximum number of manatees here. This type of paddling requires a wetsuit, gloves and booties for warmth. We spotted many manatees in the areas leading to the spring. Pods of 50 were common along the way. When we reached the head of the spring, where the water is the warmest, we were surrounded by hundreds of manatees.
Most of these manatees stayed inside the roped-off areas. Tour boats were anchored as close as possible, filled with people ready to swim with the manatees. The manatees in this area that did not have room to be inside the roped area were under a bit of stress.
As I watched, I realized the manatees of Three Sisters are being exploited in a habitat they need for their survival. Being able to view these manatees was an incredible experience. I am always thrilled when I spot a manatee in the water. This is a great location to view the migration of the manatees and witness their need for warm water, but we really need to give them their space. As with all environmental issues, education is key. Manatees must be comfortable in the thermal refuges they need to live through the winter months. I encourage everyone to visit this area, but please watch the manatees from a respectful distance.