Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

Wildlife Reserve in Crystal River

Image by James R. D. Scott Getty Images

The winter home of nearly 20% of Florida's West Indian manatee population, this wildlife refuge protects almost the whole of Kings Bay. Up to 800 of these gentle, endangered sea creatures have been counted in a single January day, and, like any wildlife spectacle, this draws crowds of onlookers, as well as swimmers and snorkelers. Note that conservationists advise against swimming with or touching manatees, arguing that this causes the animals undue stress.

Nearly 50 commercial operators offer rentals and guided tours, via every type of nautical conveyance, and the chance to swim with wild manatees. In season, the corralled manatees and crowded bay are a far cry from any natural wildlife interaction, which is better gained by taking one of the area's top-notch paddle tours. One place to begin is the refuge headquarters (open 8am to 4pm), though at the time of research it had been flooded and was closed indefinitely. Another is the park's Three Sisters trail. Note that although manatees live in Kings Bay year-round, the population dwindles to a few dozen between April and September.

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