When I heard the news that authorities closed Three Sisters Springs in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, I thought, here we go again. I have had bad luck trying to see these gentle giants, and I thought once again I would be thwarted from canoeing with manatees.
Past near misses and semi-wild manatees in Guyana
Many years ago, canoeing in the Everglades, one surfaced near my dad’s canoe, but I could not see in the brackish water from over 20 feet away. I had the pleasure of seeing manatees in the sloughs surrounding the Georgetown zoo and botanical gardens in Guyana, but these creatures are semi-wild and do not count as they do not have ocean access.
I have also had some bad luck lately with coming to places on the day they are closed. In Singapore, I suffered a case of the Mondays when I found that the tree top canopy walk in MacRitchie Park was closed on Monday: the day I happened to be there. I am sure many people felt this frustration when the national parks closed during the government shut down.
Three Sisters Springs closed
The reason Three Sister Springs had closed down was due to too many manatees. That would be just my luck to have a record conglomeration of sea cows within two hours of me and then be denied the opportunity to see them.
Three Sisters Springs has a constant temperature of 72 degrees. When a cold snap hits Florida, the manatees come into these springs like shoppers to Walmart on Black Friday. The day I arrived in northern Florida from exploring down south the temps were in the 30s. This is almost unheard of for Florida. The manatees were so packed into the springs that authorities decided to shut them down from kayakers and snorkelers as they feared they were stressed from the cold weather, so they did not want them bothered even more.
Reopened and 89 degrees on the day we paddled
Fortunately, I had a couple of days left of my two week trip in Florida, and the future forecast looked encouraging. We called the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday to hear the good news: they were open.
We drove the two hours down on Friday and the weather cooperated with the most beautiful day of my trip, and we were treated to a near 80 degree day with beautiful sunshine. Beers at the Ale House and a grouper sandwich before cruising up the Crystal River was the best way to celebrate.
Grouper sandwich and IPA at the Ale House
We sat at the back porch of the Ale House attached to the Port hotel. We could see a pontoon boat with divers just off the point where we were eating checking out manatees. I felt great because I knew this would be a sure thing. We launched from the marina attached to the Port Hotel, and we immediately saw manatees off the point across from where we ate lunch. I felt relived to finally have the manatee monkey off my back. I finally had seen a wild one.
Paddling Three Sisters Springs
We then took off for Three Sister Springs. We cruised around the corner to the mouth of the river. It was only about a 45 minute to an hour paddle. An extraordinary thing was happening as we paddled up the river. Thanks to the warm weather, the manatees were leaving the springs in the hundreds and heading out to the ocean.
This was amazing because we kept passing them on the way up to the springs. We would be paddling along the river and all of a sudden a whitish green torpedo would slide right next to our boats. It was the ghostly manatees heading out to sea. There were people lined over the bridge enjoying the spectacle.
Canoeing with manatees
Although they were leaving the springs, it did not mean that the springs were empty. When it is really cold there can be over one to two hundred manatees packed into this little pool not even as big as half a football field. When we arrived in our canoes, there were still about thirty in the springs.
The springs are crystal clear, so it makes viewing a cinch. When I arrived at the springs opening I was greeted by a ranger. I thought I was going to have to pay an entrance fee, but the price is free. I was momentarily distracted from his speech as a manatee cruised out of the spring under my boat.
The manatee rules
The rangers sit there and give you the manatee rules, which include no chasing or harassing the animals. You can touch them if they approach you. It is one of the only places in the U.S. let alone the world where you can interact with an endangered species in such a matter.
You also cannot dock your boat or get out of your boat once you are in the spring. You can swim with the animals, but you have to enter the spring swimming. On this trip I was content to float on top of them and just watch them from above water. I plan on returning eventually to swim.
Sad reminders of meetings between manatee and motorboat was evident as several animals had scars on their back and tail. I had to avoid giving them a canoe or paddle scar a couple of times as I was floating on top of them looking at one and I would drift into another one on the other side. Fortunately, I avoided any contact.
Crystal River thrives on manatee tourism
Crystal River is a town that thrives on manatee tourism. We had our own boats and it cost us $5.00 to launch from the hotel marina, but you can see the manatees in a variety of ways. You can rent canoes, kayaks, snorkel gear, diving gear, pay for a boat cruise, or stand on top of the bridge and see them from there. They do have a parking lot and a platform where people can drive into Three Sister Springs, but they have not opened it yet and it is unknown when this will happen. There are a variety of ways to experience this amazing phenomenon.
Many people come to Florida for the beaches and Disney, but in my opinion, paddling with the manatees is one of the greatest experiences you will ever have. A great adventure to bring the whole family to as well as manatees are harmless vegetarians. Because the manatees are more apt to be in the springs when the ocean is cold, the winter months are the best time to check this out.
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