Heather really wanted to see some manatees and I wanted to do some outdoor activity so we decided to head to Crystal River, FL for a road trip. Three Sisters Springs is located on the Crystal River on a natural inlet near King’s Bay. The manatees come to Three Sisters Springs to stay warm, so the colder it is the more manatees there will be. Manatee season is Nov – March, though it could change a little based on the weather. The best time to see them is whenever there is a cold front. You are not able to actually go into Three Sisters Springs during manatee season; the area is roped off but you can sit outside it and see the manatees. Sometimes they are outside the roped off area.
After some research, we decided to try Crystal River Kayaking Company. They are only a 10-minute paddle away from Three Sisters Springs, which was wonderful. It was a little difficult to find but we called and got directions because the GPS didn’t take us to the correct place. Ask for directions when you make your reservation. I really wanted to go kayaking since I have yet to try it. Unfortunately, they were out of kayaks for the day. (This was a Saturday during the manatee festival so that may have something to do with it.) I suggest making a reservation ahead of time just in case. We got lucky though; they had two paddleboards or a tandem canoe left. We opted for the paddleboards. It was $25 for a 2 hour rental.
You need to watch a video before you head out about how to act around the manatees. You can watch it ahead of time or watch it at the site. They also give you a laminated map and directions of the area. I made Heather take the map because I am horrible with directions.
Paddling was a little tight in the beginning but you learn how to maneuver quickly before you are around other people which is good. The area gets very crowded around the springs. I did notice that kneeling on the board helped to easier maneuver the crowd at the springs.
When we got to Three Sisters Springs, some manatees were outside the roped area swimming around. A baby came up to Heather and stuck its nose out to breathe. It was swimming back and forth on each side of her board. This made her day!
Keep paddling past the springs and there are manatees everywhere. Lots of moms and babies. It was amazing! They kept popping up around our boards to breathe and swimming under. I was scared they were gonna knock me off but they just swam on by. Don’t worry; I didn’t see anyone get knocked over or even fall off. Though we did see one dog jump off the boat; I guess he wanted to swim with the manatees too.
We paddled through the bridge before the bay and then turned around. It was very windy and it looked a lot rougher out there so we decided against going into King’s Bay. If you want to go into King’s Bay, I would suggest picking the four hour time price. We had two hours and we were good and tired by that time anyway. Bring a waterproof watch if you have one so you can keep track of the time.
Around 11 when we got back to the springs, they weren’t any manatees hanging outside of the roped off area. They told us that the manatee leave the spring to eat in King’s Bay as the temperature rises. You should probably try to start early before the weather warms up. We arrived there a little before 9:30AM, so I think anytime before that should be good.
You can also visit Three Sisters Springs by land. It happened to be an open house weekend when we were there so entrance was free and you could walk in from nearby. When it is not an open house weekend, which there are only 5 days all year, you cannot walk into Three Sisters Springs or park there. November -March the city runs a trolley tour from The Welcome Center on US 19. The information on tickets can be found at www.threesistersvisitor.org . The boardwalk goes around the springs and has a couple spots where the trees are clear so you can see the manatees and take pictures. The water is crystal clear here and it is so beautiful. We even saw two manatees kissing! There is a trail you can walk on also, so bring appropriate shoes.
If you are planning to take the trip here are some things you may need.
- Clothes and shoes that dry quickly (and a change of clothes in the car)
- Waterproof camera
- Waterproof watch to make sure you return on time
- Sunscreen and a hat
- Water and snacks in the car for after
- Dry box if you need to keep anything dry. Crystal River Kayak will hold your keys for you if you don’t have a box. They also have some dry packs available for sale.
- UPDATE: Bryan let me know in the comments that we need to add Polarized Sunglasses to the list. They mentioned this in the video we watched and I forgot. They reduce surface glare so you can spot the manatees easier.
If you are planning to go more than two hours you may also want these items.
- Water, in a non-disposable container with a carabiner (You aren’t allowed disposables on Crystal River)
- Kayak gloves so you don’t get calluses
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