Snowbirds aren’t the only ones flocking to Florida in search of warmth. Every winter, creatures large and small come to bask in the glow of the Sunshine State. One such migrating mammal is the manatee: a slow-moving, mostly herbivorous creature often referred to as a sea cow. These gentle giants love warm waters, and as the temperatures dip in the Gulf of Mexico, a recorded 900-plus manatees make their way into the pristine natural springs of Crystal River and Homosassa, two western Florida cities with gorgeous marine preserves and serene wildlife refuges. Here you’ll find approximately 70 freshwater springs—plus rivers, swamps, marshes and white-sand beaches that offer endless outdoor and water recreation, from fishing and scalloping to boating and swimming. This tropical oasis also attracts an abundance of birds (think osprey, bald eagles and great blue heron) and other wildlife, so be sure to bring your binoculars.
Manatee Season—officially November 15 through March 31—is the prime time to see manatees in the wild. For your best chance at spotting them, take your pick from an abundance of knowledgeable tour operators who are familiar with the swimming patterns and preferred hangouts of Florida’s winter manatee population. Guided tours can range from “dry tours” on a boat, where you can spot manatees swimming alongside you, or snorkeling and SCUBA tours, for swimming with the manatees. (Swim, but don’t touch! Watch the Manatee Manners video series for more ideas on how to carefully interact.) Snorkeling in the morning when the water is colder is the best time to see manatees. Tip: many tour companies also offer photo packages, so you can get that perfect picture of you swimming with these adorable sea creatures. But perhaps the best of both worlds is a kayak tour in a 100-percent clear kayak, so you can get up-close and personal with these majestic sea creatures and enjoy a 360-degree view of the natural beauty above and below you—all without having to get wet.
No trip to Crystal River would be complete without exploring the stunning Three Sisters Springs, a 57-acre refuge with nature trails through lush foliage, plus a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk that encircles the spring, offering excellent viewing of manatees lazing in the crystal blue waters. Part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge—created specifically to protect Florida manatees—the world-famous Three Sisters Springs recently reopened to visitors after an extensive habitat restoration project. This refuge does not offer direct water access, but outside of manatee season, snorkelers, kayakers and paddle boarders can enjoy off-site water access into the springs.
TheEllie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park rehabilitates manatees year-round, also offering the opportunity to watch manatees and other wildlife. Stroll (or roll) along the Wildlife Walk’s elevated boardwalks and paved trails. Manatee programs are offered daily at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., and boat tours (weather permitting) offer a peek at native wildlife along Pepper Creek. Manatees also swim by Hunter Springs Park in Crystal River, so keep an eye out on the wheelchair-accessible boardwalk or go for a swim from the beach area.
Visiting in January? Don’t miss theFlorida Manatee Festival January 13–14, 2024 in downtown Crystal River. During this annual celebration, you’ll enjoy live entertainment, children’s activities, hundreds of vendors, plus discounted guided manatee boat tours and kayak tours in Kings Bay.
Whether you decide to spot manatees by boat, boardwalk or even by swimming alongside them, the Crystal River area offers no shortage of ways to experience these majestic mammals. Start your new year with an incredible experience you’ll never forget.
Travel Tips to Know Before You Go:
• Accommodations: Winter is the most popular time to visit Crystal River, so book lodging! Take your pick from hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and vacation rentals throughout Citrus County.
• Welcome Center: Start your trip at the new City of Crystal River Welcome Center, just across the street from Three Sisters Springs, to purchase tickets to the springs and the Crystal River Trolley.
• Getting Around: Crystal River Trolley shuttle service makes transportation easy, with stops at Three Sisters Springs, Hunter Springs Park, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex and Visitor Center, and Town Square and nearby Heritage Village.