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  • Lisa Parsons

Crystal River Springs and the Manatees

On our journey through Crystal River on Florida's Nature Coast we discovered the vast network of natural springs and underwater caverns. We just scratched the surface of this fascinating system of natural clear water springs that feed a network of rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

Crystal Clear Water of Florida Springs

The springs are home to many species of plants, animals, birds, reptiles, and fish. During our kayaking down several of the springs we encountered, Florida Cooter turtles, soft shelled turtles, and other turtle species. We saw Green Herons, Great Egrets, Ibises, Cormorants, and Common Gallinules. The abundance of fish was impressive. Schools of Mullet, bass, bluegill, and Florida Gar. By far our favorite encounter was the West Indian manatees. These large "floaty potatoes" migrate to the springs because they are always 72 degrees. In the winter when the gulf waters are colder the manatees come inland to bask in the warmer waters, give birth to young, and feed.

Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River

Our first springs were the Three Sisters springs right in the town of Crystal River. The springs were a short paddle from a park in the backyard of our motel, Crystal Manatee Extended Stay. There is a kayak launch at Kings Bay Park. Its about a mile to paddle out along the bay and then turn down a canal. The canal, lined with houses with screened in swimming pools and boat docks, goes under a bridge (we have seen manatees there every time.) to the protected entrance to the springs.

The area around the Three Sisters Springs can feel a little like a zoo. Lots of tour boats, kayakers, paddleboarders trying to swim with the manatees. Luckily there are some rules and barriers in place to give the manatees a break.

The entrance to the headwaters of the springs is closed to people along with the area right around the spring. However that isn’t a problem because the manatees are very curious and friendly; often approaching swimmers and even getting inviting some pets or nose scratches. When they tire they just swim back in to their protected area and are off limits. While not a natural setting they offer the easiest most reliable way to see the manatees either by private kayak, paddleboard or you can book with one of the many companies that offer tours. You can also enter at the springs and view the manatees from a boardwalk. On our first trip in January we were able to kayak with the manatees and one swam up and nudged my hand. The weather was still a bit cold for swimming and we didn’t have wetsuits.

There are lots of ways to see the manatees and visit the springs. Below are three that are located right in Crystal River. You can scuba dive, paddleboard, kayak through the springs. You can join a tour on a motorized boat that takes you out to dive or snorkel with the manatees. You can also visit the Three Sister Springs park and view the manatees from above on a boardwalk. Here are some links below to help you plan your trip.

Three Sisters Spring: Central hub for information on how to visit these springs.

American Pro Dive Shop offers manatee tours, diving, guide service, scuba and snorkel rentals:

Fun 2 Dive: Kayak and paddleboard rentals.

Manatee Paddleboard and kayak Rentals:

Rainbow River Springs

The second spring we visited was the Rainbow River Springs. It is one of the most popular springs because there is a large swimming area and you can launch at KP Hole and paddle up the slow moving river to the headwaters of the spring, swim, and then paddle or float back to the start. We didn't see any manatees but we did see an alligator which curbed our enthusiasm for swimming on this particular trip.

At Rainbow River State Park you can rent kayaks, paddleboards, and canoes. There are also some short nature trails with waterfalls, boardwalks, and lots of exotic plants. They have a gift shop as well. This state park used to be a private resort and even had a zoo at one time.

Rainbow River State Park:

KP Hole: Offers kayak and canoe, and tube rentals, tours, and shuttle services,

Chassahowitzka River or Seven Sisters Springs

Main Spring Emerging from the Ground at Chassohowitzka

Our next adventure was on a spring that is hard to pronounce, let alone spell. It is Chassahowitzka River or also known as the Seven Sisters Springs. They are not as well less known and the area along the river is less developed. A photograph on a web page showed a brilliant blue hole surrounded by water and forest. We launched from a private park and paddled upstream less than a mile. At the end of the left narrow channel we found a small blue whole that was actually an entry between it and another smaller hole next to it. We parked our kayaks, looked around to make sure we didn’t have any unwanted alligators, donned our snorkeling gear and explored the hole. There were a number of fish swimming in the hole and in the shadows under the through opening. I crawled like a lizard across the top in shallow water to the smaller spring. Then I dove down into the hole and swam through the short tunnel to the larger hole. I took photos from down in the whole looking back up at the surface of the bigger hole. The color was amazing both looking up and looking down. Mission accomplished.

1, 2, The river is less developed.

3-6, Exploring a side channel

7,8, House for sale with its own side channel and spring

From there we ventured downstream and up some side creeks that narrowed as the shoreline closed in and the forest grew up around us. The water was clear so we could see what lay ahead of us as we paddled further in. We kayaked over and under a log. Then continued until we started seeing private property signs. Not sure about waterway laws in Florida we decided to turn around.

We continued back into the main river and explored grassy edges along the river watching a mother ibis and immature offspring gathering plants from under the water. Cormorants sunned themselves on tree branches. Turtles piled on top of each other on shoreline logs. Ospreys and herons flew overhead. It was easy to see that these springs along with the network of springs were teeming with wildlife both above and below the water.

Again we didn’t see any manatees but we didn’t mind. Being able to finally swim in the water on a hot day was worth it. The saying “water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink” could be rewritten for Florida “water, water everywhere but none to safely swim in”. Trips to lakes and rivers here are for fishing, not swimming. The springs still have alligators but the clear water lets you see below the surface and hopefully not interact with swimming snakes and alligators.

Chassahowitzka Boat Launch:

Florida Paddler- great article on different side channels to explore:

Weeki Wachi

The last spring we visited was Weeki Wachi. There are a few of options for visiting this spring. We tend to gravitate toward the off the beaten path routes so we brought kayaks and paddled from Roger’s Park at the downstream end of the springs. Across the water is a kayak and paddleboard rental shop that you can rent from. There are a number of restaurants near there.

Lots of houses lower down just upstream from Roger's Park. Trip from the upper state park to Roger's Park is 5.4 miles. You can arrange a shuttle.

Upstream is Weeki Wachi State Park. That is the theme park area. You can rent kayaks, paddleboards, launch private boats, or take an eco tour. However, you have to make reservations well ahead of time for any of those choices. The park boasts that it has a mermaid show with real live mermaids. There is also dining, wildlife shows, camps, etc. They offer a shuttle service so you can put in at the park and they will pick you up at Roger’s Park, which is 5.4 miles down the river.

We decided to paddle up to Hospital Hole, which we were told we would see manatees. It was only about 1000 ft. upstream. When we arrived there was a big group there and no manatees. We decided to continue upstream. It’s an easy paddle but there is definitely current coming down. So we went up a couple of miles and then turned around exploring a side lagoon and checking out some of the more interesting houses along the canal.

We stopped at Hospital Hole again. We were the only kayakers there. We pulled our boats off onto shore and swam around the hole. We were just about to give up when a manatee surfaced from the deep depths of the hole. His nose breaching the surface of the water followed by the sound of nose breathing. We drifted his way but he swam up to us. We were respectful and allowed him to swim near us. He literally turned his eye toward me and came within two feet of my underwater camera. His bluish grey eye is tiny compared to his mass.

There are hairs along the top of his head and around his nose. As he swam by me I realized that they really do look like “floaty potatoes” as they are sometimes referred as. Their bodies are the color of the rocks we have seen on the bottom of the springs. If they weren’t moving it would be easy to mistake them for a submerged rock. Some even have the green moss coloration on their back. One dead give away is many of them have propeller scars from boat propellers. He swam with us for about 10 minutes. Then he surfaced again, took a breath and then dove down again. I watched as he slowly faded into the dark recesses of the hole. I wondered if there is a cave down there that he went into.

Manatee coming up for air

We waited for a while and he didn’t resurface so we headed back to Roger’s Park. On our way we encountered two more from our kayaks.

Manatee with David Swimming in the Background

Weeki Wachi State Park:

Weeki Wachee Kayak Rental. Located right across the river from Roger’s Park: Roger’s Park:

There were more manatees in the springs on our first trip at the beginning of January when the cold water of the gulf was driving them into the springs. Things had warmed up upon our return so not as many manatees were present at the beginning of February. However, manatees are always present at some level in Crystal Springs and is said to be one of the best places to see them.

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