Access to the water at Three Sisters Springs has been closed to visitors because of the high number of manatees.
According to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex officials, an estimated 300 manatees huddled together in the refuge's waters Monday to stay warm. A video posted on Citrus County's Facebook page showed hundreds of the docile animals huddled in the waters.
Wildlife officials closed the springs late Monday afternoon. The boardwalk and land access remain open.
Wildlife officials said the temperature in the springs is 72 degrees and the safest place for manatees to rest. So, for now, swimmers need to stay out.
"If we allow for disturbance to occur these animals will be awakened and in a way forced to leave the resting area and they'll lose the energy they need to find food before going back to sleep,” Ivan Vicente with the US Fish and Wildlife Service said.
Wildlife officials said they have noticed more active behavior among the manatees.
"We're seeing a lot more cavorting more manatees greeting each other a lot more playfulness between manatee and manatee," Vicente said.
Even though water access is temporarily closed, visitors can still watch the manatees from the boardwalk.
"This is a once in a lifetime experience. We've seen manatees before but not this magnitude," visitor Theresa Burris said.
"It’s beautiful to see these gentle creatures just rolling around in the water. We're going to have to bring the grandkids down sometime to see this," Burris said.
Wildlife officials said parts of the springs will continue to be closed to swimmers. They said they will monitor weather conditions and update on a day by day basis.
An estimated 300 manatees are huddled together in Three Sisters Springs to escape the cold, prompting officials to close the springs to the public. (Katie Jones, staff)
Officials said they expect more manatees to enter the springs as the tide floods. That will increase the expected influx of manatees currently holed up in the springs.
Officials said they will reassess the situation sometime Tuesday and decide when the springs can be reopened to the public. They thanked the public for allowing the manatees to rest and stay warm during the current cold spell.
Three Sisters Springs is located at 915 N. Suncoast Blvd. in Crystal River. Reservations can be made at http://www.threesistersspringsvisitor.org/ to purchase an all-day trolley pass to ride into Three Sisters Springs.
Meanwhile, at Blue Spring State Park in Volusia County (below), State Park rangers counted 340 manatees Tuesday morning. About three weeks ago, as many as 400 manatees crowded into the spring to stay warm in the constant 73-degree waters. The sea cows migrate from the St. Johns River when temperatures drop in the winter. The record manatee count at Blue Spring was 414, set last year.
About 340 manatees crowded into Blue Spring in Volusia County on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, to take refuge from the cold weather.