BE THE CHAMP! - Manatees
'When the mood takes them, manatees can be very interactive and will gently bump you for attention'
SNORKELLING WITH manatees is one of the must-do underwater experiences. And it is a straightforward addition if you find yourself in the Orlando area of Florida, between autumn and spring.
It’s an ideal natural remedy for draining days spent in the theme parks or at the DEMA show! Manatees seem to live life in slow motion, and spending time in their company is the ultimate underwater stress relief.
The freshwater springs close to the town of Crystal River are home to the largest winter aggregation of manatees anywhere. And unlike in most places, you are allowed in the water with them, as long as you play by the rules.
Florida manatees spend the summer months in the sea, but in the winter it gets too cold for them. They survive by seeking out the warmer water of freshwater springs.
The aim of the regulations is to provide manatees with unhindered access to this lifeline, while allowing people to observe this amazing species and win the manatee, and its conservation, more friends.
It works well, but snapping without breaking rules provides a unique challenge for photographers.
I’m just back from my fourth visit, my first for eight years, and this one was certainly different. Most notable was that I didn’t photograph manatees myself – I stayed on the boat to entertain my daughter Isabella, now 20 months old, while my wife enjoyed a well-earned break and took the photo above.
The other big change is that a year or two after my previous visit, new management regulations were brought in, to further safeguard the manatees in these springs. The main guideline from US Fish and Wildlife Service is to practise passive observation.
Which is what anyone experienced with nature would do naturally – simply stay still and watch – but at least now it is spelt out for all.
THE MANATEES ARE a big draw, and many visitors are not used to snorkelling or even being in the water. So before each boat-trip, everyone is asked to watch a video that explains the rules in detail, and your guide will ensure that you are following them.
Underwater photographers naturally want close encounters and are perhaps most likely to digress if they force the issue. Manatees are naturally curious, and the trick is to wait for the right individual. Problems occur when people want instant results.
Manatees are protected by US Federal law and the whole Crystal River waterway is a Manatee Protection Area. Breaking the rules has a maximum penalty of a $100,000 fine and up to a year in jail – not the ideal end to a Florida vacation!
Furthermore, the rules are enforced. There are Wildlife Officers patrolling, and many volunteers keen to stop anyone who is harassing the manatees.
When I was there before with a group, we heard that an America photographer who had been staying at our hotel was ordered out of the water and taken to the local police station for a stern
This is a unique situation for underwater photographers, so in a change of tone for Be The Champ!, I’ll use most of this month’s column to run through the essential dos and don’ts of manatee photography in Florida.
manatees aren’t lookers. In fact, it’s hard to fathom how early sailors ever confused these sirenians with mermaids – they must have been at sea for a very long time. But their pudgy looks and mellow disposition make them addictively endearing.
About a decade ago, I led a pair of photo workshops to Crystal River and every single person returned besotted. We would regularly leave our cameras on the boat, just to enjoy the experience.
I can think of no other trip or subject that has such an effect on dedicated snappers. When the mood takes them, manatees can be very interactive and will gently bump you for attention.
I remember how pleased we were to meet up at the subsequent BSoUP meeting and be able to gush to each other about these chilled-out and charming animals.
Photographically they are easy to shoot, but timing your trip will have a big bearing on success. The essential advice is to go mid-week – there are far more human visitors at weekends.
In the old days, we would aim for the coldest months of the year, January and February, when the springs attract the most manatees. The best photographic conditions (the clearest water and most attractive scenery) are within the famous Three Sisters Springs, but these are now closed off when the weather is coldest.
So many photographers now prefer to visit in October-November or March-April, when there will be fewer manatees, but more reliable access to the best photographic areas.
THE BASIC REGULATIONS reflect how we should behave around all marine life. There should be no chasing, cornering, grabbing, poking, prodding, riding and feeding of manatees. Get in the water slowly and quietly and don’t splash and shout when out with them. Swim as little as possible – floating and watching is the way to go. Always give manatees right of way.
More specific advice is to leave resting manatees to rest and give tagged manatees and mums and babies a wide berth. Touching with one hand is allowed, if the manatee initiates the interaction and if done sensitively. Manatees actually greatly enjoy a scratch and will return to the same person again and again if they value your technique!
You can submerge in certain situations, but not duck-dive or swim under water when manatees are around. Most photographers tend to hold their camera down and shoot from the hip, rather than submerging with it.
These manatee manners are nothing draconian. I have never had anyone question me or any of my groups for their behaviour, but I also have friends who tell me that they have been shouted at for “just having a big camera”.
The easiest and best way to experience manatees is to book onto a tour with one of the licensed operators.
You will have a comfy and warm boat, and an expert guide who will explain how to behave (note that the rules do get updated) and help you find the right individuals to get the best shots.
Essential to successful manatee photography is moving as little as possible and being patient. This means being in cool (22°C) water for several hours. Pack at least a good 5mm suit; although all the boat-operators do provide wetsuits, these tend to be 3mm garments. Some regulars even use drysuits.
Take a warm jacket for the boat, too. This might be Florida, but it can be chilly in winter.
Be patient and move as little as possible – this makes you more attractive to manatees. Most visitors tend to flap about in the water, so it’s easy to stand out and you will be rewarded by them seeking you out.
When a large, slow-moving animal wants to interact with you in shallow water, u/w photography becomes very easy.
Commercial photography and videography of manatees in Crystal River requires a permit from the local office of US Fish and Wildlife Service. It requires you to wear a day-glo yellow numbered vest and confers no special privileges in the water, but does allow you to sell images later.
Above: The best images come from manatees that are curious about you. Photo by Eleonora Manca. Taken with an Olympus OM-D EM-10 Mk3 and Panasonic 8mm. Nauticam housing. No flash. 1/100th @ f/8, ISO 500.
Pictured: Look out for interesting behaviours such as fish cleaning the skin of manatees. Taken with a Nikon D700 and Nikon 16mm. Subal housing. 2 x Inon Z240. 1/100th @ f/11, ISO 200.
Above: Shallow, calm water offers great opportunities for shots of Snell’s window, reflections and splits. Taken with a Nikon D700 and Nikon 16mm. Subal housing. No flash. 1/80th @ f/14, ISO 200.