Humans aren’t the only mammals attracted to the warm weather in Florida during the winter. Manatees, our flippered fellow mammals, gravitate to the warm water in Kings Bay in Crystal River every winter, beginning in November. There, the water temperature remains a constant 72 degrees F (22 degrees C), thanks to underwater, freshwater springs that are constantly pumping warm water into Three Sisters Springs, where the manatees spend their winters when the ocean temperatures get too cold for them. So stop and see the beautiful cows of the sea. The Manatees have arrived in Crystal River!
Drawn to the Springs
From mid-November through April, Three Sisters Springs is home to the largest “aggregation”—that’s what a group of manatees is called—of manatees in the natural world, with sometimes as many as 800 manatees gathering there. Despite their large size, manatees don’t have blubber to keep them warm and can get frostbite and die in water temperatures below 68 degrees (20C). These docile creatures the size of a small vehicle spend their winter days munching on seagrass, floating along lazily in the warm water, or resting on the bottom, conserving energy and soaking in the warmth.
Meet a Manatee
A federally protected species, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have created manatee protection zones, with reduced speed limits for boats, of which Kings Bay is one. Watercraft collisions are the single biggest threat to these slow-moving creatures.
Three Sisters Springs remains the only place in the U.S. where humans can legally interact with an endangered species. Visitors can get up close and personal with a manatee in a number of different ways. Ride the trolley from the Three Sisters Springs Center to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, and walk along the scenic boardwalk to view the manatees in the water. With its crystal clear water, you will easily be able to see manatees doing what manatees do best—swimming, floating, eating and resting! Connect with a local tour operator to take you out to swim with the manatees—an other-worldly experience. You can rent a kayak or other paddle craft and go out into Three Sisters Springs, but only between April and mid-November, when you might still see manatees, just not the hundreds that congregate there in the winter.
Mind Your Manatee Manners
Whether swimming, boating or paddling near manatees, be sure to mind your “manatee manners.” Never touch, disturb, chase, harass, hover over, or injure a manatee in any way. As an endangered species, there are laws in place to protect them. If you practice “passive observation” you will be sure to keep the manatees and yourself safe. When swimming, give manatees the right of way. If you float along quietly, one or more of these curious creatures may approach you. Avoid splashing around, as you may scare them away. When viewing them from land, do so quietly so as not to scare them off. These loveable mugs of the sea will have you smiling back at them no matter how and where you see them.
Preserving their Future
While boats are the biggest threat to the manatee, loss of habitat is the second. The Crystal Springs National Wildlife Refuge is building a new Visitor Center with interactive exhibits to help educate visitors about the manatees’ life history. The first exhibit is set to open in February 2020 with a virtual underwater snorkeling experience, complete with x-ray vision enabling visitors to see into the limestone aquifer that feeds into Three Sisters Springs! The other exhibits will follow as funding allows. The goal of the displays is to help educate visitors that what we do as humans affects other species, and the steps we take in our own lives can help preserve the future of these wonderful creatures.