• Heather

Three Sisters Springs

Updated: Jan 28

Crystal River Sanctuary For Manatees

Like some humans, manatees have an aversion to the cold and they follow the human practice of being ‘snowbirds’. Manatees spend the winter in the springs of Florida and the warm water effluents of power plants. Three Sisters Springs located on the Nature Coast on the Crystal River advertises manatee season to be November 15th to March 31st. However the ‘season’ depends on the water temperature of the Gulf of Mexico. Even though manatees look chubby, they are not fat. The combination of very little body fat and relatively low metabolic rate results in manatees having a low tolerance for cold water. Their cold tolerance threshold is 68°F (20°C). They begin migrating into the spring fed rivers in Florida when the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico falls below 70°F (21°C). Manatees seek refuge in the spring fed rivers because water temperatures are a constant 72°F (22°C).

There are several dozen manatees that live in King’s Bay year round but as the water warms up in the summer, they no longer remain at or close to Three Sisters Springs. However, it is still possible to see manatees in Three Sister Springs in the “off season” but if you want to have a very high chance of seeing them, I recommend visiting Three Sisters Springs in the winter when the Gulf temperatures fall below 70°F (21°C).

"Three Sister Springs is the "Winter Home of the Manatee!"

The Three Sisters Springs Center is part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. The Springs is an important winter habitat for the threatened Florida Manatee. The park received its name because there are THREE main spring areas with about 20 spring vents within the refuge. The three main springs are named Pretty Sister, Big Sister, Little Sister. The multiple vents discharge a total of about 20 million gallons of water per day. In the not so distant past, there were plans to build condominiums around the springs and to commercially bottle water from the springs. However, in 2010, The Florida Community Trust was created and funds were appropriated from community members, non-profit groups, the City of Crystal River, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and Southwest Florida Water Management District to purchase 57 acres surrounding Three Sisters Springs. This action has preserved this critical habitat for the manatees providing a safe and warm winter home for these gentle giant, marine mammals.

VIEWING MANATEES FROM LAND (THE BOARDWALK)

There are nature trails meandering throughout the wildlife refuge and a boardwalk which borders the springs that offers views of the marine mammals and the natural springs. It is a scenic 1 mile walk from the front gate of the park casually strolling along the “Beyond The Boardwalk Trail” (shown in yellow in the photo below which was taken from the park brochure) to the end of the boardwalk (#5, Idiot’s Delight II Spring). I also recorded the walk using the GPS function (Outdoor Walk) on my Apple Watch 4. I included a photo of the recorded walk. The green dot indicates the Start at the front gate, #1 denotes 1 mile, and #2 indicates the second mile.

The nature trail, “Beyond The Boardwalk Trail” (yellow path on the map), starting at the main gate at the refuge entrance is packed gravel. I saw an elderly woman using a walker with wheels and she was able to slowly maneuver the dirt path. The trail is partially shaded and there are bird houses and several benches along the path. At the beginning of the springs (#4, Idiots Delight I Spring), the packed dirt trail meets the raised wooden boardwalk which is easily accessible to wheeled walkers, wheelchairs, and baby strollers.

There is NO public parking at Three Sisters Springs; however, there are a few handicapped parking spaces near the boardwalk for vehicles with a valid handicap parking permit. See the section below labeled PARKING for more details. The Trolley shuttle drops visitors off at the Boardwalk, spot labeled #1 called Pretty Sister Spring, so you do not have to ‘hike in’.

The Boardwalk, shown in raspberry pink (pinkish red) on the map, encompasses the entire Springs area. Where the “Beyond The Boardwalk” trail connects to the Boardwalk, you will get your first glimpse of the magnificent aquamarine, clear as glass spring water. AND you will have your first sighting of manatees. Yay! On the map, this spot is labeled #4, Idiots Delight I Spring, which is at the mouth of the Three Sister Springs. This viewing platform is not close to the water. You may wish to bring binoculars with you to more closely view the manatees. But don’t worry, the other viewing platforms are much closer to the water and afford better views of the manatees. However, binoculars would still be useful. The day that my husband and I visited Three Sister Springs, it was very windy, which caused the smooth as glass water to have tiny ripples. It was a pretty sight to behold BUT it made it difficult to see the manatees clearly.

I liked the viewing platform at #2, Big Sister, because the boardwalk was very close to the water, the water seemed shallower, and this cove seemed more protected from the wind so I was able to see the manatees more clearly. Luckily, there was a small aggregation (group of manatees) close to the end of the cove where the boardwalk is located. There were several babies and they were so precious. Manatees are not exciting like a dolphin jumping out of the water. They mostly sleep and eat. And this group of manatees were asleep. It was interesting to watch them slowly rise up periodically to take a breath. Manatees take a breath every few minutes but they can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes. In addition to the amazing manatees, I thought the view of the Springs was jaw droppingly spectacular with the azure colored, pure, crystal clear water. Even on a gray day, it was stunningly beautiful.

The channel connecting Crystal River and the Springs is narrow and shallow so the manatees travel in and out of the spring with the tide. Since the Springs has very little food, the manatees must travel into Crystal River and King’s Bay for their favorite meal of eel grass. The manatees return to the Springs at high tide. Consequently, you will increase your likelihood of seeing manatees in the Springs when the tide is high. You can easily check the tide charts here. Scroll down until you see the chart that looks like a crown. The data is also shown in table format for easier evaluation. Below the chart, you will find a daily table with the high and low tides for the next few days. Just because it’s low tide doesn’t mean you won’t see manatees but there will be fewer manatees. At the end of the Boardwalk (#5/Idiots Delight II), we met a volunteer guide, who was very amiable and highly knowledgeable. She shared with us that when it’s particularly cold, the manatees will not leave the Springs no matter the tide. They rest, conserve their energy, and snuggle together.

I Love a Parade especially a Manatee Parade!

When we visited Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge, it was in the mid-afternoon on a cold, blustery day in December (12/17/20). We walked 1 mile walk from the Front Gate to the last outlook on the Boardwalk which is labeled #5 (Idiots Delight II Spring) on the map. This spot overlooks the narrow channel connecting the Springs with King’s Bay. We had the amazing fortune to see a Manatee Parade. It was high tide and the manatees were languidly swimming through the scanty waterway to reach the Springs. I was astonished and immensely delighted. There were so many manatees swimming by. And there were a lot of babies too. So cute! Yup, I was tickled pink! I feel very grateful that the stars aligned allowing me to see and experience this manatee behavior. The boardwalk was constructed along the channel and the boardwalk is very close to the water at this spot. The water clarity was crystal clear and a lovely shade of turquoise blue. The transparency of the spring water also enhanced the viewing of the manatees by land (as well as in the water). In comparison, the water of the waterway leading to the Springs was a brownish green color, dark, and murky.

The volunteer guide also told us that the manatees prefer the Springs because the water temperature of the Springs is 72°F-74°F while Crystal River and King’s Bay runs about 70°F-72°F. The water temperature at Shell Island (in Homosassa Bay) was 67°F and there were snorkelers in the Springs.


In an effort to prevent erosion, visitors cannot access the water from the park. However you are allowed to swim and snorkel in the Springs. Please see the section below regarding snorkeling in Three Sisters Springs for more information. I also wrote a blog post entitled “Snorkeling With Manatees in Crystal River”. Click here to read the post.

VIEWING MANATEES FROM THE WATER (SNORKELING IN THREE SISTERS SPRINGS)

The shoreline around the Springs was severely eroded which caused trees along the shore to collapse and sediment to enter the spring vents. This situation resulted in a loss of habitat…the manatees were losing their highly desirable real estate. Subsequently, in 2016, a $500,000 project to stabilize the bank was completed to slow down the erosion. In addition, there is NO water access to Three Sisters Springs from the refuge and no land access from the water to help prevent further erosion.


So how do you get to swim and snorkel with the manatees in Three Sisters Springs? (Below is a rare sighting of a baby manatee nursing. It was so surreal floating in the water and watching this...definitely one of those once in a lifetime kind of experiences. It was awesome! For a video of this snorkeling experience, click here.)

Well, you have to arrive at the mouth of Three Sisters Springs by watercraft and swim in to the springs. Humans enter and exit Three Sisters Springs the same way as manatees do.

“In-water recreation at Three Sisters Springs is accessible by launching a vessel from any of the public boat ramps or kayak launches on Kings Bay and navigating to the spring-run for Three Sisters. Public kayak launches can be found at:”

  • Hunter Springs Park, 18 NE 2nd St, Crystal River

  • King's Bay Park, 268 NW 3rd St, Crystal River

Visitors must arrive by paddle-powered or motorized watercraft to get to Three Sisters Springs; however, motorized vessels are not permitted inside the Springs. Non-motorized vessels like kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards are permitted into the Springs when it is NOT manatee season (April 1 to November 14). My husband and I haven’t paddled to the Springs from either of the two public launch sites yet but we plan to. So I was curious about how long it will take to paddle to Three Sisters. According to Hunter Springs Kayaks, the kayak rental company located at Hunter Springs Park, “Three Sisters Springs is roughly a 30-minute paddle” from the launch at Hunter Springs Park. I read several reviews on TripAdvisor confirming that it takes about 30 minutes to reach Three Sisters by paddling. For information on taking a boat tour, see my blog post about taking a Manatee Tour with Plantation Adventure Center by clicking here.

My husband and I have been to Crystal River twice to take a manatee boat tour and only 1 time we were able to enter Three Sisters Springs. The other time the water was too cold and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service closed the Springs to snorkelers. Three Sisters Springs is closed to snorkelers when the water temperature at Shell Island in Homosassa Bay falls below 63°F. The access is reinstituted after the water temperature at Shell Island is 64°F for a period of 24 hours. To determine if Three Sisters Springs will be open to snorkelers, you can check the water temperature at Shell Island here.

The one time we snorkeled in Three Sisters Springs was beyond amazing!!! The water was completely transparent…absolutely crystal clear so it allowed us, the snorkelers, to clearly view the manatees. It seemed like we were observing them face to face with nothing but air between us. We snorkeled at the mouth of the Springs on two different occasions and I can say unequivocally that the water clarity in Three Sisters is bar none. It is worth the cost and the very cold water temperature to see manatees up close and observe their behavior. Their like huge puppy dogs. If you remain still and quiet, you may be fortunate to have a manatees initiate contact. How exciting! I saw a huge manatee hug a woman’s leg. It was so endearing. Even though they are incredibly cute and you’ll want to hug them and pet them, let me remind you that it is illegal to touch them. Our boat captain said that U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service sometimes have people in the water checking on the snorkelers.

HIGHEST LIKELIHOOD OF VIEWING MANATEES

  • Gulf of Mexico water temperature is below 70°F (21°C).

  • High Tide

  • If you want to snorkel inside Three Sisters Springs, the water temperature of Shell Island in Homosassa Bay must be equal to or greater than 64°F (17.8°C).

VIDEO

For a 5 minute video highlighting Three Sister Springs from land and then underwater footage from snorkeling with the manatees, click here.


PARKING

There is no public parking at Three Sisters Springs; however, there are a few handicapped parking spaces near the boardwalk for vehicles with a valid handicap parking permit. Visitor parking can be found at the Three Sisters Springs Center located behind City Hall at 123 NW US Hwy 19, Crystal River, FL. The parking at the center is free and you can purchase park tickets and annual passes here as well as take the shuttle service to the park. The Trolley departs every 30 minutes to take visitors to the Boardwalk at Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Park. There are other convenient, free parking lots for those wishing to walk to the park and tickets are available for purchase at the front gate of the park. The front gate will only accept credit or debit cards (no cash). My husband and I parked at the strip mall at the corner of Kings Bay Drive and Three Sisters Springs Trail where there is a Little Ceasars, Seafood Seller, and Save A Lot grocer. We didn’t see any signs prohibiting non-shopping parking here.


CITY PUBLIC PARKING LOTS:

These distances and walking times were provided by the Three sisters Springs website.

45 NE 3rd St, Crystal River - 0.6 mile (~13-minute walk to Front Gate)

SE Corner of NE 5th St & NE 1st Ave, Crystal River - 0.7 mile (~13-minute walk to Front Gate)

559 N Citrus Ave., Crystal River - 0.8 mile (~16-minute walk to Front Gate)

109 NE Crystal St, Crystal River - 1 mile (~20-minute walk to Front Gate)


PHONE: (352) 586-1170


HOURS: 8:30 am - 4:30 pm EST

Ticket sales end at 3:30 pm EST (no new visitors admitted after 3:30 pm)

Land Access closed on Christmas Day

PRICES:

General Admission includes one-day land access to Three Sisters Springs

Summer (April 1st - November 14th) Admission:

Adult: $12.50

Senior (55+): $12.50

Military: $11.50

Children (6-15): $7.50

Children (under 6): Free


Winter (November 15th - March 31st) Admission:

Adult: $20.00

Senior (55+): $17.50

Military: $15.00

Children (6-15): $7.50

Children (under 6): Free

RESTROOMS:

In November 2020, new restrooms opened. They are located near the handicap parking and the boardwalk.


THREE SISTERS SPRINGS LOCATIONS: Business Center:

Three Sisters Springs Center 123 NW HWY 19, Crystal River, FL 34428


The Front Gate of the Park:

Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Park

601 Three Sisters Springs Trail, Crystal River, FL 34429


Three Sisters Springs is the “Winter Home of the Manatees” where you have the unique opportunity to view manatees from land and from water. Snorkeling with these wild but gentle creatures is a very special experience allowing you to get up close and personal with these marine mammals in this lovely natural habitat.