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Manatee season starts in November and for anyone who adores these large gentle creatures, it's truly a glorious time of the year! Once the air starts to cool, herds of manatees will be flooding into the many freshwater springs around Florida by the hundreds to stay warm and while you may find them in any coastal-connecting springs, there's one place that's unmatched when it comes to being the best place to see manatees in Florida.
So, where is this manatee wonderland it you ask? A short drive north of Tampa will lead you to a little town called Crystal River, and while the town itself is adorable and certainly worth exploring, it's the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, specifically the Three Sisters Spring, that you will want to put first on your itinerary!
Did you know?
Crystal River is the only wildlife refuge dedicated to the protection of the West Indian manatee!
Navigating the refuge's many areas can seem complicated, but if you are driving in, plan to arrive early and park at the Three Sisters Springs Center so you can hop on a FREE shuttle to Three Sisters Spring. Usually morning is the best time to go as it will be less crowded and cooler--meaning more manatees!
Though there is no water access from Three Sisters (and yes, there are plenty of rangers to enforce this rule) the views from the boardwalk are more than sufficient to satisfy manatee-watchers. Below is a photo taken from the boardwalk at Three Sisters Spring.
Alternatively, if you plan on boating into the refuge it's worth noting that much of Crystal River NWR is accessible to visitors by water (boating charters, kayaks, etc), with the exception of the Three Sisters Spring. During this high-traffic manatee season, it's roped off as seen in the cover photo.
"There are a few, free City boat ramps and private ramps (with a fee) that provide access to refuge waters. If you are interested in visiting other parts of the refuge (other than Three Sisters Springs boardwalk), you can use your own vessel, rent a vessel, or join a guided tour," according to Crystal River's official government page.
For anyone looking to join a tour, there are plenty of Groupon offers for swimming with manatees in Crystal River as low as $22 that you can book here! Remember to book soon, as spots fill up fast.