Protected: Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge - USA


Within the congregation, I count more than 20 sedentary animals. Plump bodies of gray mass clustered together, limbs touching perhaps for the sake of warmth. Only gentle gestures among the idle creatures suggest a common interest: conserve energy.

At the Three Sister’s Springs near Crystal River in Citrus County, Florida, water temperatures remains a consistent 72F (22C). Here the Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, finds a well know wintering haven in the tepid waters of the natural spring. Fiction will tell us in Homer’s Odyssey, Sirens were half-woman, half-bird creatures, later to be confused as mermaids by other authors. As nomenclature stuck in books, science named the Order Sirenia after the tale that suggested manatees where once living mermaids. The 3 extant species of manatee and their close relative, the dugong, now belong in this grouping. At Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in the cold season, the tourists are there by the dozens on any given day. At an arm’s reach away, omnipresent humans encounter one of nature’s most placid species. Some of the inquisitive animals do not mind. Some of the overzealous tourists get too close. Man and manatee co-exist here and the tale has the promise of success, pending sound conservation decisions and a decrease in the threats that continue to reduce manatee numbers around the state of Florida.

Established in 1983, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is the only refuge created specifically for the protection of the endangered Florida Manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian Manatee. This unique refuge preserves the last unspoiled and undeveloped spring habitat in Kings Bay, which forms the headwaters of the Crystal River. The refuge preserves the most important aquifer fed spring havens in Kings Bay (King Spring and Three Sisters Springs), which provide critical habitat for the manatee populations that migrate here each winter. In addition to the establishment of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, manatees are also protected in Kings Bay by seven federal manatee sanctuaries (November-March), and the recent designation (2012) of the entire Kings Bay area as the Kings Bay Manatee Refuge (or Kings Bay Manatee Protection Area). All three (the refuge, sanctuaries and protection area) are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help protect nearly 600 manatees in Kings Bay each winter.

Aerial photography was made possible by LightHawk.

Purpose and Outcomes

• Documentary work provided visual evidence of manatee harassment to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

• Stock photography was subsequently published in a series of editorial magazines and on-line blogs to raise awareness for manatee conservation and management in Florida


On assignment in Florida Neil assisted Paul Nicklen and I with field work. His grip on the project logistics really helped us deliver the manatee story that ran in the April 2013 issue of the National Geographic Magazine. We would work with him again anytime.

Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen, National Geographic Photographers