Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places to see endangered West Indian manatees that migrate each winter along the “Manatee Coast” north of Tampa Bay. This 40-acre U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sanctuary is a protected manatee habitat that includes the spring that forms the headwaters of the Crystal River.
Three Sisters Springs Image: systemslibrarian (flickr)
Only approximately 2600 of the gentle vegetarian water mammals are alive today, threatened by development, pollution, and motorboats. Many surviving manatees have massive scars on their backs from run-ins with boat propellers. Despite efforts to regulate human destruction of these rare gentle animals, recorded manatee deaths last year were at an all time high. But work continues to save the manatee and their Florida home.
It’s likely that manatees inspired ancient sailors’ tales of mermaids. Manatees are actually thought to have evolved from a wading, plant-eating animal, and share a common genetic ancestor with the elephant. They can grow as large as 13 feet and weigh more than 3,000 pounds. The slow moving mammal is completely defenseless and spends most of its time feeding and resting.
Up to 600 divers a day enter the narrow corridor at King Spring sanctuary to interact with the manatees. Because they are officially listed as an endangered species, do not enter designated manatee sanctuaries for any reason, and if you get near them, idle boat engines, and avoid splashing or loud noise, including scuba gear bubbles. View them from a distance, and if in the water, use snorkels.
Homosassa is a Creek Indian term meaning "place where wild peppers grow". The Manatee Education Center is located 7 miles south of Crystal River at the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, a partnership project between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Park Service. Outside the park in Homosassa Springs, you can watch manatees through a glass observatory known as the Fish Bowl, as well as animal displays featuring alligators, bobcats, western cougars, white-tail deer, black bears, pelicans, herons, snowy egrets, river otters, and even a resident hippo.
Nearby Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge has over 31,000 acres of musk grass, widgeon grass, oaks, cypress, and red cedars stretching between the Homosassa and the Chassahowitzka River. Originally established in 1943 as a waterfowl sanctuary, it is now also critical habitat for West Indian manatees. Other wildlife includes alligators, raccoons, river otter, deer, turkey, black bear, bobcat, green turtles, gopher tortoises, and Eastern indigo snakes.
Birdwatchers may spot cormorants, great blue herons, green-backed herons, ospreys, white pelicans, laughing gulls, wood storks, peregrine falcon, ducks, coots, and songbirds. The Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge is only accessible by boat. Enforced restrictions apply prohibiting airboats, hunting, fires, and camping.
Most Crystal River resorts offer manatee tours to view Florida manatees safely and responsibly. The Best Western Crystal River Resort is a favorite with divers.
Other nearby attractions include the pre-Columbian shell mounds of the Crystal River Archaeological State Park, the 1852 Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins Historic State Park, and the top-rated World Woods Golf Club.