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Prime Locations for Manatee Encounters in Crystal River, FL

Where to view manatees in Crystal River, FL
Photo by NOAA from Unsplash

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Crystal River, Florida is the manatee capital of the world! Its natural springs keep the water at a constant, warm temperature, making it a favorite hangout for manatees, especially during the winter months when water temperatures drop below 68 degrees. It’s one of the few places in the United States, and the only one in Florida, where you can actually hop in the water and swim with these gentle giants. Not a swimmer? You can also snorkel, paddleboard, or kayak to see them.

When planning your trip to Crystal River, while manatees are ever-present, the best months are November through March, (known as manatee season) with peak populations December through February.  And, the early morning hours right after sunrise, are typically the best times to see them. Not only is the water at its calmest, but it’s also when they are most active and feeding. So, grab your swimsuit, snorkel, paddle board, or kayak and read on to discover the best places to see or swim with manatees in Crystal River, FL.

Three Sisters Springs

Made up of three natural springs that flow into the larger body of water of Kings Bay, Three Sisters Springs is arguably the most popular place to see manatees. Its crystal-clear, shallow water makes it the perfect spot to see them in their natural habitat. During manatee season, kayaking and paddleboarding are prohibited, and swimming is only allowed when the water is warmer than 63 degrees. After manatee season, you can swim, paddleboard, or kayak through the springs regardless of water temperature.

If you’re looking to stay dry on your manatee adventure, the Three Sisters Springs Center manages land access to the Three Sisters Springs, part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. From the Center, you can use their shuttle service, walk-in, or bike-in to the Refuge, a 57-acre wildlife sanctuary surrounding the springs. The Refuge features a boardwalk with elevated viewing platforms so you can stay nice and dry while still getting a chance to watch the manatees.

Traveler Tips: There is no water access to the springs from the Refuge, and no land access to the Refuge from the water. Also the only parking available here is for handicap vehicles only. 

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a great place to see manatees if you’re looking to keep your feet firmly planted on dry ground. Its underwater observatory, called the “Fish Bowl,” lets you “walk underwater” where you can watch the manatees and fish swim about. It’s like being in a giant aquarium, but you’re the one in the bubble. The park is home to a lot of rescued manatees that can’t live in the wild anymore, so it’s a surefire place to see them up close and personal. Plus, it’s open year-round, giving you the chance to see these gentle sea cows no matter when you visit.

Manatee viewing in Crystal River
Photo by DejaVu Designs from Freepik

King Spring

Part of Kings Bay, which is basically “manatee country” during the cooler months, King Spring is the deepest spring at over 65 feet. Popular with divers, swimmers, and snorkelers because of the number of manatees that use this spring as sanctuary, during the winter months you can expect to see hundreds of manatees here. Access to the water is by boat only and is limited during manatee season. You can also paddle from the Crystal River launch sites, but it can be a bit challenging. King Spring is open to the public year round, where you can see the manatees from designated viewing spots, as well as take part in educational programs and guided tours.

Hunter Springs Park

One of the highlights of Crystal River is Hunter Springs Park. This park has the most inviting spring in Kings Bay, ready for swimming all year round. With its recent makeover, the park has a genuine beach vibe, a place to put your kayak in the water, picnic spots with BBQs for cooking up some fun, grassy areas to lay back on, and a playground for the kiddos. Plus, there are bathrooms and changing areas to flip from swim gear to relax mode.

Wander along the boardwalk looking for manatees and other wildlife like the ibis, Florida’s state bird. If you’re up for it, launch your kayak (there’s a fee) and paddle away. Don’t forget to bring your beach stuff, find a nice spot on the grass for a picnic, and jump into the designated swimming area. Just remember, leave the alcohol and dogs at home, but service dogs are welcome. 

Viewing Manatees around Crystal River, FL
Photo by Jeff Stamer from AdobeStock

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, is the only refuge in the U.S. made specifically for manatee habitats. Getting around here is mostly by water, except for the Three Sisters Springs area, where you can land on foot via a shuttle, but won’t be able to access the water. 

This park is an outdoor lover’s dream, acting like a natural zoo where animals roam free in their own space. There’s even a talk on manatees where you learn all about these “sea cows” and you might even see manatees being fed up close. The park is designed with shaded paths linking animal viewing spots, complete with signs so you know where you’re going and what you’re looking at. There’s also a trail that lets you spot some snowy egrets. It’s an easy, fun way to connect with nature and get up close with these gentle giants.

Idiot’s Delight

Immediately outside of Three Sisters Spring, Idiot’s Delight in Kings Bay is where adventures and getting close to nature await you. As the sunlight filters through the clear water, it lights up a whole world beneath its surface where colorful fish swim in schools, dolphins come to play, and manatees slowly float by. This place feels like your own little piece of paradise, where you can kayak or swim in calm waters surrounded by Mother Nature’s greenery.

Feel the cool water against your skin, take deep breaths of the clean air, and listen to birds chirping in the background. It’s the perfect escape, giving you a chance to chill out and feel at one with the outdoors. 

Viewing Manatees around Crystal River, FL
Photo by Debby Hudson from Unsplash

Magnolia Springs 

Magnolia Springs is a key sanctuary within the Kings Bay area, where manatees, especially those transitioning from the Three Sisters Springs, follow the shoreline and enter the springs from the south. Its deeper waters provide a quiet, more peaceful spot far removed from the common boat traffic.

The sanctuary not only provides a critical habitat for manatees to rest and feed but also offers a special opportunity for people to observe these creatures in a natural setting. For anyone who’s interested in the wonders of marine life and the preservation of natural habitats, a visit to Magnolia Springs is both an educational and memorable part of any trip to Crystal River.

Traveler Tip from Magnolia Springs: “Don’t crowd the sanctuaries and stay far enough away so that you don’t get blown in by a sudden gust of wind. Boat traffic can be hectic in the area. Watch out for other users, especially swimmers and paddlers.”

Manatee Magic: Discovering Crystal River’s Gentle Giants

In Crystal River, FL, discovering the best spots to see manatees is an adventure in itself. It gives you an opportunity to connect with nature like never before. Its crystal-clear waters and natural springs provide sanctuaries for these gentle giants, especially during the cooler months when they seek warmer waters. It’s a memorable encounter that leaves a lasting impression, and an experience you won’t soon forget. 

Discover more of Florida’s natural springs? Click here to uncover additional hidden gems awaiting exploration!”


**Disclaimer: There is a good chance that this post contains affiliate or sponsor links. If you make a purchase through them, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you (for which we are extremely grateful).

Also, while we do our best to highlight LGBTQ-friendly destinations and businesses, info provided is based solely on personal experience and recommendations by community partners. We hope that nobody experiences discrimination or homophobia while visiting Florida and beyond, but we make no guarantees. Please inform us if you experience discrimination or homophobia while visiting any destination so we can make updates to our recommendations.

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