Hang With the Manatees at Three Sisters Springs


From November to March, the Gulf Coast town of Crystal River becomes the epicenter of all things manatee. Experience these charismatic creatures up close with a hike, snorkel, or paddle at Three Sisters Spring.

Words and Photography by Sara Sheehy
Live Wildly Lead Adventurist

Few animals are as iconic to Florida as the Florida manatee. Gentle and bulbous, these sea creatures overwinter in Florida, basking in the consistently warm waters of our springs and coastal rivers. One of the best places to see manatees in the cooler months is at Three Sisters Springs in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, the only wildlife refuge dedicated to the protection of the West Indian manatee.

HIGHLIGHTS Three Sisters Springs Sara Sheehy Camera 6

What you can and can’t do while visiting Three Sisters Springs is different between winter and summer, and we’ll be honest – it can get a little confusing! Read on for a no-fuss guide on how to navigate the rules and regulations and have the experience of a lifetime with the manatees in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

The Lay of the Land

Three Sisters Spring is a petite, 57-acre refuge in the town of Crystal River. It is part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, whose mission is to protect the manatees and other threatened species while providing opportunities for wildlife-related recreation and safeguarding natural resources. This spot is home to a complex of three springs that feed the headwaters of the Crystal River. The main spring, surrounded by a boardwalk, offers beautifully clear water that reflects the sandy spring bottom.

There is a short “run” from the spring out to the Crystal River, which manatees use to move between the spring and the river.

HIGHLIGHTS Three Sisters Springs Sara Sheehy Camera 7

When to Go

Manatee season at Three Sisters Springs runs from mid-November to late March. You are most likely to see large aggregations of manatees when it’s cold because, on warmer weather days, the manatees move out to the Gulf of Mexico to feed. So pull on that extra jacket and brave the chill to have the best manatee viewing at Three Sisters.

HIGHLIGHTS Three Sisters Springs Sara Sheehy Camera 16

Choose Your Adventure: Walking, Snorkeling or Kayaking

There are three main ways to see the manatees at and near Three Sisters – walking, snorkeling, or kayaking.

Walking: Land access to Three Sisters Spring to view the manatees is managed by the Three Sisters Spring Center. You can stroll the boardwalk around the spring, hang out at two viewing platforms along the Crystal River, and check out the “run” to watch manatees move between the two. There is also a little nature trail and volunteers on-site to help you spot the manatees.

Visiting Three Sisters by land requires a ticket. The hours of operation are 8:30 AM—4:30 PM, with the last entry at 3:30 PM. Handicapped and accessible options are available.

HIGHLIGHTS Three Sisters Springs Sara Sheehy Camera 18

Snorkeling: The Crystal River, right outside the Three Sisters Springs run, is one of the only places in the US where you can legally swim with the manatees (the other, Homosassa, is right down the road). To do so, book an excursion with a certified tour company and get ready for the experience of a lifetime! Snorkeling with manatees has specific rules, which your tour company will explain on the short boat ride up the Crystal River from Kings Bay.

HIGHLIGHTS Three Sisters Springs Sara Sheehy Camera 11

Kayaking: While you cannot kayak or swim within Three Sisters Spring during the winter, you can kayak on the Crystal River to the spot where the manatees aggregate outside the spring run. If you have your own kayak or paddleboard, public launching points are available at Hunter Springs Park (104 NE 1st Ave, Crystal River) and King’s Bay Park (268 NW 3rd St, Crystal River).

Kayak and paddleboard rentals and guided tours are widely available in Crystal River.

The important thing to remember when choosing how to experience this area is that there is no land access from the water and no water access from land. Once you’re on the water, you cannot get out of your boat and check out the boardwalks at Three Sisters Springs. And once you’re inside the Three Sisters Spring property, you cannot launch a boat or hop in the water.

Our solution? Do both! Spend a morning checking out Three Sisters Spring boardwalk, then hop on a snorkeling tour or in a kayak for the afternoon to experience the manatees from the water.

No matter how you choose to get up close and personal (but not too close!) to the manatees at Crystal River, you’re sure to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience in wild Florida that you won’t soon forget.