Crystal River is known as the Manatee Capital of the World for the hundreds of manatees who gravitate there in the colder months — from mid-November through the end of March — to bask in the warm spring-fed waters of Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs when the temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico get too cold for them to survive.
It’s also home to the only National Wildlife Refuge in the United States specifically created to protect habitats for Florida’s beloved official marine animal.
Conservation efforts are a top priority at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and in Kings Bay, which was designated a Manatee Protection Area called the Kings Bay Manatee Refuge.
For boaters, idle and reduced speed/no wake zones have been implemented in the refuge areas to help protect manatees as injuries from boat strikes and propellers are the most common cause of manatee deaths.
While people are allowed to view and swim with the manatees in Kings Bay, viewing guidelines have also been implemented to protect these gentle giants.
"The hardest issue we face is managing the over 250,000 annual in-water visitors,” said Joyce Palmer, Manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. “We absolutely love the enthusiasm that people have for wanting to see these beloved creatures, but we want to educate the public about safety for both them and the manatees.”
There are seven Manatee Sanctuaries within the refuges which are off limits to human activities during the winter months (Nov. 15-March 31), to give manatees protected “safe zones' ' to get away from human activity. Refuge managers also have the authority to expand the sanctuary areas when manatee activity in the refuge is high due to cold waters in the Gulf.
Refuge staff are also tasked with helping rescue injured and orphaned manatees year round in Kings Bay,when needed.
On land, refuge staff and volunteers help educate visitors on manatees and their habitat.
A new visitor center with a newly designed interactive interpretive exhibit is under construction at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
“We are redesigning our visitor center so that people can make the connection that what we do as residents in Crystal River and visitors impacts the manatees,” Palmer said. “If visitors get that connection, our hope is when they leave, they will take that experience with them and want to protect manatee habitat.”
"Manatees are just a gateway to learn about wildlife conservation as a whole,” she continued. “It’s also about preserving water quality and aquatic vegetation, part of the ecosystem that manatees need, and we need to help protect.”
Learn more about Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge’s conservation efforts here.