Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
If you’re looking to spend some quality time watching one of the world’s strangest water mammals, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge along Florida’s Gulf Coast is the place to go. The 46-acre refuge was established around a single purpose, to provide a safe haven for the West Indian Manatee, whose broad, flat tails are thought to be the inspiration for mythological mermaids. These endangered manatees migrate en masse to Crystal River’s warm-water springs during the cool winter months, and it’s estimated that about 20 percent of the U.S. manatee population congregates here between December and March.
Crystal River NWR sits alongside the town of Crystal River, in Kings Bay, about 80 miles north of Tampa and 85 miles northwest of Orlando. The unique location is home to a network of underground springs that together create the headwaters of the Crystal River. A collection of nine islands offers vital resting areas for the slow moving manatees, which can suffer injuries and stress from passing motorboats.
Crystal River NWR is accessible only by boat, and some of the best ways to explore its stunningly clear waters are by paddling and fishing in a canoe or kayak, or by joining one of the town’s many scuba diving, snorkeling, and manatee-watching tours.
Diving and Snorkeling
Florida’s spring systems are renowned among scuba divers and snorkelers for their warm, gin-clear waters, and in Crystal River NWR, this beautiful backdrop is made even better by the opportunities for in-water encounters with manatees. King’s Spring is one of the biggest underwater attractions, thanks to its 60-foot depth and a dramatic underwater cavern. Many local dive shops offer diving tours and classes, as well as snorkeling and manatee-watching trips.
Low-impact watersports help protect the refuge and the manatees, so canoes and kayaks are the best vessels for wildlife spotting throughout King’s Bay and the surrounding springs and waterways. Rentals are plentiful in Crystal River, and rates run about $10 per hour or $40 per day. Three Sisters Spring is a popular and idyllic destination nestled into the subtropical forest, and its narrow entrance is accessible only by canoe or kayak.
Manatees aren’t the only marine creatures that spend their winters in the area—fish enjoy the warm spring waters, too. Fishermen visiting here during the winter season can hit the coastal waterways in search of freshwater favorites such as largemouth bass and alligator gar, as well as saltwater fish such as mangrove snapper and tarpon.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication