Visitors flock to Florida’s Nature Coast in search of the elusive Florida Manatee.
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
The vivid turquoise water in the Three Sisters Springs glowed and glittered as if possessed by a bioluminescence. A color impossible to capture on film or canvas- (I know, I’ve tried), I’d like to say it was the stuff of fairies and enchantments, but I’ve come to know that color as a sign of limestone and fresh natural springs. Science or fantasy, it held the kind of radiant beauty that grips your heart and captures your soul.
Today began as a gloomy day, this first anniversary of my mother’s death. She passed away last year after a two-year battle with cancer and chemo. I had no desire to face this day and the sky matched my mood. I needed to run away. So I skived off- skipped out alone and headed to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge with a ghost at my side, a silent companion, a memory of mom and the adventures we used to take together.
I’m not sure why I picked this place in Crystal River, a winter haven for the Florida Manatee. Being March, the weather had warmed to welcome spring. Flowers bloomed. Fresh sprouts popped from the trees. I already knew the manatees would be out in the Gulf of Mexico, not trying to keep warm at the springs. So I confess, that I went without any expectations other than a walk around the springs. Perhaps I was in search of a little refuge myself.
I took the Crystal River trolley to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR)- the depot is tucked behind City Hall. Before the journey, I happened to mention to the driver I was a spring hunter. He gave me a map to all the springs in the Crystal River area- and there are many. I felt like I’d been given a treasure map! The future spring hunting adventures began forming in my mind. I could almost hear my mom laugh.
We crossed highway 19 through downtown Crystal River- it is so small that you could walk it and the driver told us (it was just me and a couple) about the history of the sleepy fishing town. Our trolley rolled past Kings Bay Park, Hunter Springs, and a replica of a Civil War sailing ship. And soon we entered the bumpy gravel road into the Refuge.
Three Sisters Springs
There are wooden boardwalks built around the Three Sister Springs to allow viewing of the springs and visiting manatees without disturbing the environment. I had been to this place years ago with my god-daughter and my old traveling friend, but the water had been muddy- so this brilliant blue-green was astonishing. It was so beautiful, it didn’t look real! One of the volunteers told me that it was cleaned up and restored by the South West Florida Water Management District (SWFMD), as erosion and debris were taking their toll on the springs- a natural manatee habitat. I noted sandbags, well blended in, on the banks. She said the sandbags were seeded with native wetland flora. I saw a few wetland plants popping out of some. It would be a natural jungle again soon.
Volunteers were posted along the boardwalk to answer questions and also to keep an eye on the visitors that snorkel up into the spring. Tour operators throughout Crystal River offer “Snorkel with Manatee Tours.” They lead groups up the channel from Crystal River and into the spring area. The springs are actually marked off limits to swimmers, as they are set aside areas for the manatee.
A park is land set aside for people, but a refuge is a place for animals. Animals come first at a wildlife refuge. (Paraphrased from the refuge warden) And here the manatee is top-dog.
I left the boardwalk and took a stroll through the nature trail, slower than usual, my silent companion by my side. Wildflowers, poison ivy (I’m highly allergic- so I always notice it!) and the occasional view of the river. There were houses across the river. Heck, there were houses everywhere, all around except in the 40 acres of the Crystal River NWR! This area was destined to become like the others, another volunteer said, just another development, but back in 2008, Friends of Crystal River NWR fought to save the springs and raised the funds to purchase the land and establish it as a refuge.
The draw of the blue became too much to bear, and I returned to the boardwalk- and just in time too, as a mother manatee and her calf swam up the passage to the springs. They were gray, like rocks and torpedo shaped, their powerful back flipper moved up and down, propelling their hefty bodies through the water (check out the video below) And hefty they are. Averaging from a 60 lb newborn to over one-ton, they are massive marine mammals.
Manatees have no natural predators. Herbivores, they like to feed on the sea grass- the trolley driver pointed out an area in the river that was fenced in to promote the re-growth of the seagrass, as these gentle, yet hungry giants spend their days grazing on vegetation, and there have been up to 300 manatees wintering in the area. It was in dire need of replenishment.
Surprisingly, several more manatees came up into the Three Sisters springs area. The volunteers were quick to warn off the snorkelers. Touching a manatee is prohibited by law. Though there are proposals to remove the manatee from the endangered list, the manatee remains a protected marine mammal in Florida. Rules about engaging with manatees are strict and enforced, like the No Wake zones around Crystal River. The folks at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have a whole set of rules and regulations regarding manatees on their website. But I wasn’t there today to swim or snorkel with manatees, just admire from a distance.
Before I left, the clouds vanished and the sun appeared, sparkling across the springs, the gloomy morning slipped away, forgotten. So much beauty exists in this world, waiting to be discovered uncovered, savored and saved. Today I explored a much-needed refuge, hidden in a Crystal River suburbia. When I boarded to trolley back to City Hall, I made room on the seat for my mom, my invisible companion. Another adventure together conquered.
Spring Hunting at Crystal River National Wild Life Refuge
I easily get lost in springs and spring- hunting quests- bewitched by the bubbling boils, captivated by the caves and vents, and there are 5 springs you can see at the NWR. The main springs are in the Three Sisters Group- Pretty Sister, Deep Sister and Little Sister. Pretty Sister is the biggest and it’s easy to see why she shines. If you walk along the boardwalk past the other sisters to the river view, you can catch a glimpse of Idiot’s Delight. Continue along to where the boardwalk ends and take the nature trail along the riverside. The river is shrouded by bushes for the most part, but there are some overlooks. Magnolia springs is out there, in the river
Things to Know Before You Go
- The best times to see manatees in the springs are from November thru March, when they seek the warm (73F) temperatures of the natural springs. When the weather warms up they tend to head out into the gulf.
- The Trolley to the Crystal River NWR is located at: 123 NW US Highway 19, Crystal River, Florida 34428
- Contact: (352) 586-1170
- Fees: $15 adults; $7.50 kids 6-16; Senior & Military discounts available. This is for a wristband for all day on-and-off trolley use. The fees go towards the upkeep of the Wildlife Refuge.
- There are porta potties at the NWR, but no other facilities. I did see a picnic table by the boardwalk and a covered pavilion by Crystal Lake.
- There is a cool wooden playground behind the main trolley depot for kids to burn off excess energy.
- Walk-in year round- but no parking! Find a place to park at the shops and hike up.
- Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge (foot entrance) is located at 1502 SE Kings Bay Drive, Crystal River, FL 34428
- If you enter by foot, pay at the gate house ($2 less than the trolley ride fees) and instead of walking up the gravel road, turn right and take the nature trail along the refuge boundary and river to reach the boardwalk and springs.
Winter Home to the Florida Manatee: Check out this video!
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