Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

See Manatees in Crystal River at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

By Sally White Posted on January 13, 2022

See Manatees in Crystal River at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

Once the Gulf of Mexico water temperatures drop to a chilly 68°F, Florida manatees flock to Crystal River on Florida’s Nature Coast. This iconic species gathers in the 72-degree warmth of the Idiot’s Delight Springs, located at the mouth of the Three Sisters Spring Run in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, a federally protected area.

On the colder days between November and March, an average of 60-70 manatees can be found in this springs area. During one cold snap in 2014, over 300 manatees arrived to check in to the warm waters of these idyllic natural freshwater springs.

A majority of these visiting manatees prefer the open, but secluded lagoon at the mouth of the Three Sister’s Run. Many slide their grey, torpedo-shaped bodies past the metal pilings at the mouth of the run. Their powerful back flippers move up and down to propel their hefty bodies through the narrow canal into the turquoise waters of the Three Sisters Springs complex.

A safety line keeps people and vessels out of the Idiots Delight spring, but the pilings were built in 1982 to keep all motorized vessels from accessing the three spring-fed lagoons within.

see manatees in crystal river
Manatees choose Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River to rest and warm up on cold winter days. Image by Sally White.

It’s no wonder the manatees choose this area to ride out the cold winter days. The clear, yet shallow waters hold the heat from the natural springs and the nearby seagrasses and other aquatic vegetation provide much-needed substance for their survival.

Florida manatees, a subspecies of the West Indian Manatee, range in size from a 60 lb. newborn to adults weighing in at over a ton! Also known as “sea cows,” they often spend up to 8 hours a day grazing, like cows in a pasture.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
Visitors hope to catch a glimpse of a Florida manatee when visiting Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and they are often rewarded. Photo by Sally White.

At the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, the manatee is king. Visitors arrive from around the world to see manatees in Crystal River, walking the boardwalk around the Three Sister’s Springs hoping for a glimpse of a manatee in the crystal-clear waters or to “swim with manatees” with a local dive tour company.

But this was not always the case in the Three Sister’s Springs complex.

Manatee at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
The manatee is king at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Image by Sally White.

The Three Sisters Springs Restoration

Through the efforts of the Friends of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, the Three Sister’s Springs and 57 surrounding acres were rescued from threatened development.

In 2010, the land was purchased in a joint effort by the City of Crystal River, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Florida Community Trust, Southwest Florida Water Management District, several local groups, and philanthropists. With the land saved, there was much work to do.

When swimming with manatees in Crystal River, visitors must respect the Safety Zones and practice passive observation. Manatees are legally protected within their safety zones from human contact. Image by Sally White.

The banks around the springs were severely eroded. The water appeared dark and muddy, a result of stormwater runoff and debris from past storms. Trees had fallen over into the water, hindering manatee access to the springs.

Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) set a restoration plan into effect. They cleared the water and stabilized the banks with limestone boulders and soil bags, seeded with native wetland flora. Invasive plants were removed, and native trees and plants reintroduced.

Three Sister's Springs at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
Three Sister’s Springs at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was transformed through ecological management. Image by Sally White.

Through much effort and time, the springs area was transformed into a beautiful paradise, abundant with native plants to draw in local and visiting wildlife.

Manatees frolic in the clear turquoise spring waters of their clean sanctuary and these slow-moving gentle giants return year after year to winter in the refuge.

stormwater reentering crystal river
The cleaned stormwater reenters Crystal River after being filtered through wetlands. Image by Sally White.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Wetlands Treatment Project

With the Springs restoration complete, SWFWMD tackled the issue of stormwater runoff into Crystal River. Like Gainesville’s Sweetwater Wetland’s Park and Ocala’s Recharge Park, they created a natural filtration system to filter the stormwater.

wetlands at crystal river
The wetlands act as a natural filter for stormwater at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Sally White

A one-acre lake was filled to make a hydric hammock, lush with giant bullrush, sawgrass, red maples, and bald cypress. The wetland area acts like a human kidney, naturally filtering the stormwater as it runs through the hammock before entering Crystal River.

The Wetlands Trail at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
The Wetlands Trail at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Sally White

Visitors may stroll the Wetlands Trail to view this natural filtration system. The wetlands provide a refuge to Florida’s wildlife. Over 100 species of birds have been spotted in the Crystal River NWR and it is not uncommon to see great blue herons wading in the water looking for fish.

entrance sign to crystal river national wildife refuge
A true partnership of organizations, governments, foundations, and citizens banded together to purchase Three Sister’s Springs and protect it from development in 2010. Image by Sally White.

Things to Know Before You Go:

  • The entry fee for the refuge during winter months is $20 adults; $7.50 children aged 6-15; Children 5 years and under free. Are you a Citrus County resident? Your entry fee is $12.50 with proof of residency photo ID (Driver’s License).
  • The best times to see manatees in Crystal River at the Crystal River NWR are November 15 to March 31. When the temperature is colder, there will be more manatees.
manatee sanctuary in crystal river
Crystal River is known for its manatee tours. Citrus County is the only place you can get in the water with a manatee legally. Three Sisters Springs is surrounded by a boardwalk area where visitors can passively observe these magnificent creatures.

How to Get to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR)

There are several ways to arrive at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

  • You can take a trolley from the Three Sisters Springs Center, located at 123 NW HWY 19, in Crystal River, FL 34428 (Behind City Hall). Call 352.586.1170. The Trolleys run every 30 minutes and face masks are highly recommended during the trolley ride. Purchase your ticket at the Three Springs Center prior to boarding the trolley. Hours: 8:30 AM to 4 PM (last tickets sold at 3:30 PM).
  • You can walk or bike in at the front gate of the Three Sisters Spring. There is no parking on-site, excepted for handicapped vehicles. You must park at one of the local public parking areas and walk/cycle to the entrance at 601 Three Sisters Springs Trail, Crystal River, FL. Only credit/debit cards are accepted at the front gate.
  • You can arrive by water. If you choose to arrive by water, there is no land access. Paddle crafts are permitted into the Three Sisters Springs waterway from April 1 to November 14, or you can swim in with a local manatee tour, however in-water access to Three Sisters Springs can be closed by US Fish & Wildlife Services at any time it is deemed unsafe to the manatees. 
  • If you do arrive by water, please note it is unlawful to cross the ropes placed around the spring’s areas or have physical contact with the manatees.  Manatees have no natural predators and are protected by law. The Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978 states: “It is unlawful for any person, at any time, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass, or disturb any manatee.”  These rules are strictly enforced in the refuge and throughout the state of Florida. 
Manatees entering the Run at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Sally White
Manatees entering the Run at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Sally White.

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Beth says

Too much tourism….hated the “noodle tours”. I was their on my paddle board with 2 others and was treated rudely by tour “boats”….they act like they own the springs.

Sherrie Sandy says

I’m from Indiana and I visit my Florida family who lived at Crystal River and now live in Homosassa. I fell in love with the clear springs and the manatees.

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