During winter and into spring, the warm, Gulf-fed freshwater springs of Florida get some very interesting visitors.
Manatees (sometimes called sea cows) flock to the permanently 72F water at various springs in Florida when the waters are colder elsewhere. The fabulous part of this is that the freshwater springs are crystal clear making it prime viewing spots for these graceful giants.
We based ourselves in Crystal River and visited Three Sisters Springs to see the manatees. We actually opted to not take a snorkelling tour and instead visit the boardwalk area around to figure out how the ‘swimming with manatees’ actually works. I’m glad we did this, as a lot of the tours, we later found, only take you to the river next to the springs which is very murky and you barely get a view of them. The water of the springs, however, is crystal clear, so being able to view them here is a fantastic opportunity.
The view from the boardwalk around the springs was perfect and we saw so many of the majestic animals sleeping, feeding and swimming, albeit at a leisurely pace, through the water. The turquoise hue of the water here is just incredible and the manatees are amazingly beautiful up close. We spent a while here walking around the pool, watching them swim around and go up and down in the water.
In case you are wondering, there are restrictions of speed and on the quantity of how many boats can visit the river area by the springs. Plus, boats are not allowed in the actual crystal clear spring pools, for many reasons, but mainly to protect the springs and the manatees themselves due to the injuries that the manatees could sustain from boats. Out in the open water, however, away from the protection of the springs, it’s up to boat owners to respect the animals.
I love that the Three Sisters Springs park is a kind of nature reserve too, so you can also see birds and other insects and animals if you’re lucky. There are also some spots through the hedges further along the nature trail where you can spot the manatees out in the murky river when they come up to breathe. Obviously, as is with nature, you are not guaranteed to see a manatee at all, in the river or springs, so bear that in mind if you visit.
To get to the reserve you can walk in (it’s only a mile) or take the trolley, which runs from the Crystal River information centre (where you purchase your entry tickets) every 30 minutes, through the little town and out to the Three Sisters Springs. The springs are open 8.30-4.30 daily, but the trolley only runs every day during manatee season (mid Nov – end March).
Seeing these gorgeous creatures out in their environment is fascinating and I would absolutely suggest a visit if you’re visiting Florida. Crystal River is only a few hours outside of Orlando, so you can combine the theme parks with a bit of exploration of the natural world on the same trip!