It’s a crisp cool early morning along Florida’s Gulf Coast. I’ve stopped at the Crystal River Kayak Company in Citrus County. As I wait outside the building, a young man unlocks an aluminum sliding door and pulls it open revealing a rainbow display of colored kayaks. This is where I will begin my adventure, a journey to Three Sisters Springs, one of the most popular locations to view Florida manatees.
During the winter, manatees gather here seeking temperate water near Florida’s fresh water springs. As we walk a short distance to the adjacent canal, the young man turns with a smile, and says “you’re in for a real treat.”
He wasn’t kidding.
West of Orlando, Citrus County is known for its waterways, especially the abundance of freshwater springs. Three Sisters is part of the Crystal River system that originates in Kings Bay, a first magnitude spring flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. The area is the world’s largest natural winter refuge for West Indian manatees. This is also one of the few locations in Florida where swimming with manatees is allowed.
Florida’s gentle giant, also known as the “sea cow,” can be spotted in large groups during winter and early spring. When water temperatures dip below 68 degrees, manatees gravitate toward warmer waters. They congregate around bubbly springs where 72-degree fresh water provides an ideal respite for the warm-blooded mammals. The added benefit is that people can easily observe them in crystal clear water.
Grayish brown in color, up to 10 feet in length, and weighing an average of 1,000 pounds, the manatee is related to the elephant, as evidenced by their thick, leathery wrinkled skin. Propelled by huge powerful tails, they lumber along through Florida’s waterways, grazing on aquatic vegetation. Each day manatees consume 10-15 percent of their body weight.
As the name implies, Crystal River’s Three Sisters Springs is a collection of three spring vents feeding into Kings Bay. Many consider this to be one of Florida’s most visually stunning springs with its translucent blue hues casting an almost surreal magic upon those who behold it. It may feel other-worldly, but the area is actually more like a secluded swimming hole, and not far from a neighborhood of residential waterfront homes. It is the only spring of the Crystal River system that is accessible by land. A boardwalk with viewing platforms gives visitors an opportunity to see the beautiful creatures without going by boat.
If you want to get closer, or view underwater, local outfitters will transport visitors by boat to just outside the enclosed spring area where you can swim, snorkel (or kayak) to the roped-off area or into the tree lined setting for a closer view.
Back at Crystal River Kayak Company I prepare to launch my kayak. The young man instructs, “Three Sisters Spring is not far away — just a short 10-minute paddle.” At the dock, he hands me a paddle and safety vest, and a map with easy directions. Once I am settled in my kayak, he gives me a gentle shove-off into the canal. I follow the directions, (three right turns and under a bridge). At first I can still hear the low rumbling thunder of cars on Hwy. 19, but as I paddle, it gets quieter. I pass homes, most with kayaks in backyards, as this is truly a “water lover’s paradise” with 70 springs and a 600-acre bay.
Off in the distance I spot a roped area marking the entrance to the Three Sisters Springs. Signs remind visitors to be cautious when viewing these lovable, slow-moving creatures that are vulnerable to motorized boats and sharp propellers. Near the spring entrance, outside the rope, several pontoon boats are anchored with swimmers clad in wetsuits, facemasks and snorkels bobbing in the water nearby. They are completing their underwater viewing and are climbing onto the boat. People settle into the boat, chatting about the experience, as they remove their gear. With all aboard, the boat quickly exits the area, ready to pick up the next shift.
As I watch them leave I realize I am alone. Where there was once an area filled with boats and people, there isn’t a soul left. For me it is a magic moment.
Three Sisters Springs is part of the Crystal River system that originates in Kings Bay, a first magnitude spring flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. The area is the world’s largest natural winter refuge for West Indian manatees. This is also one of the few locations in Florida where swimming with manatees is allowed. (Photo: ROBIN DRAPER/FOR FLORIDA TODAY)
With this lull in the tour schedule, I am stunned with my rare opportunity to be at a world famous spring alone amongst these beautiful creatures. I float outside the ropes and observe their beauty. They look like they are in suspended animation or even asleep. The movement is minimal and it is obvious that they are enjoying the warmth of the bubbling spring. I also notice that many have old scars from hazardous boat propellers.
I decide to go into the enclosed spring through the narrow opening inaccessible to larger boats and barely wide enough for a kayak. As I enter, I feel like I am in nature’s cathedral; the sun has risen higher in the sky and shafts of light are streaming through the surrounding foliage radiating and reflecting the white sandy bottom, creating a mosaic of emerald blues, and every shade of green.
And I am completely alone.
There is no one in this sacred space that is often filled with people circling around manatees. I am not even sure what to do with myself. I watch a butterfly flit about enjoying the serenity as much as I do, and feel at peace.
In the water I notice a moving shadow in the distance. I paddle closer. It’s a mother and her calf. I am careful to keep my distance. Mother and baby float together aimlessly.
To enjoy this authentic Florida experience yourself there are several options. One is to contact River Ventures Manatee Tours. Daily tours will take you by bus to the Three Sisters Wildlife Refuge. From there you can walk the boardwalk surrounding the springs. If you prefer to go by boat, River Adventures will reserve a spot on the boat and you can either view from the vessel or get in the water and swim near the manatees. The other option is to bring your own or rent a kayak at Crystal River Kayak Company for the short paddle to the Three Sisters.
This is an unforgettable adventure — one that will stay with you for a long time. And nothing can be more authentic than to spend time in nature, visiting one of Florida’s “crown jewels” while viewing Florida’s most lovable wildlife.
Florida native Robin Draper is a columnist, author and owner of the award-winning website, AuthenticFlorida.com, a travel and lifestyle blog devoted to the simple pleasures of Florida living. She is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and the Florida Outdoor Writers Association.