The Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River is probably the most unique and inspiring place you could imagine to both see, and really appreciate, the wonderful Florida manatee.
The name of the springs refers to the three “lobes” of Pretty Sister, Deep Sister, and Little Sister that contain a total of 19 freshwater springs which are the source of the warm clear water that fills the area and then exits through the Spring Run into the nearby canals and then Kings Bay.
Set in 58 acres of pristine vegetation within the city limits of Crystal River, in an area that became a wildlife refuge in 2010, the Three Sisters Springs are one of Florida’s few remaining urban springs.
Unlike the other significant springs in Kings Bay, the setting of the Three Sisters means that the crystal clear waters that emerge from the underground aquifers do not merge with the darker waters of the bay until they exit through the Spring Run in to the nearby canals.
Which means that the visibility in the Three Sisters can be absolutely stunning and creates a magnificent backdrop for the manatees that enter the springs!
However, because it is completely open to the public, most of the “swim with the manatee” operators take their tour parties there, so what can seem like a unique and tranquil haven, quickly turns in to thriving mass of assorted legs and torsos when the next group arrives.
On really busy days so many tourists enter the Three Sisters that it becomes a complete zoo and all the sand kicked up from the bottom turns the beautifully clear water in to a murky grey…
All the fresh water springs emit water at a constant temperature of 72°F, but because the Three Sisters is enclosed its water has to flow out of the Spring Run in to the nearby canal before it meets the cooler water of Kings Bay.
Surveys of the manatee population in the Kings Bay area by US Fish and Wildlife Service have shown steadily increasing numbers with a peak of 706 in February 2015. But under normal circumstances it is estimated that less than 100 will actually enter the Three Sisters regularly, with the rest preferring the roped off refuges where tourists cannot enter.
However, when there is a cold spell that number increases dramatically and the Fish and Wildlife Service will close the Three Sisters to tourists so that the manatees are not hassled when they are most stressed.
The tidal nature of Kings Bay means that the water height in the Three Sisters also varies with the tides – something that the manatees can sense through their vibrissae, the incredibly sensitive facial and body hair believed to give them a kind of three-dimensional spatial and navigational awareness.
One of the most interesting experiences I had during the 10 days I spent in Crystal River was early one morning at the entrance of the narrow channel that provides access in to the Three Sisters Spring.
Entrance to the Three Sisters is not allowed before 07.00, which that morning coincided with more or less the low tide and as I entered the water and made my way towards the channel I realized that I was surrounded by several large manatees that were all waiting patiently for the water level to rise.
It was really quite something to be surrounded by three to four meter long animals who seemed either oblivious (hard to believe given their vibrissae…) or accommodating of my presence!
Then I realized that in all probability the manatees were simply cold and were enjoying the warmth of the water coming out of the Three Sisters!
Quite how long the Three Sisters will remain open to the public is far from clear as there is a strong belief among the conservationists that allowing large number of tourists in is greatly stressing the manatees that use it and it should be made a true sanctuary with observation only allowed from a boardwalk around the springs.