Earlier this year, Lana and I traveled to Florida where I had the opportunity to spend some time photographing and filming manatees. Crystal River is known far and wide as one of the best places to see manatees, and we were lucky to time our visit with a cold front that sent temps dipping below freezing at night. During the coldest months of the winter, it is vital that manatees have access to warm freshwater springs for survival. If they are unable to warm themselves, manatees are susceptible to cold stress syndrome (basically manatee pneumonia), which is a significant cause of mortality for manatees. The springs of Crystal River are some of the last remaining natural refuges for manatees in Florida.
On our first night in Crystal River, we arrived at the hotel just in time to walk to the water’s edge and watch the sunset over Kings Bay. Under the orange sky, the water lapping at the docks was dark and murky. I remember remarking to Lana that we wouldn’t have much chance of seeing a manatee in these conditions, and she agreed. All the while, we were both fixated on something below the dock. A large gray shape that looked like a large stone, or the hull of a sunken boat. Suddenly, it dawned on us both simultaneously – a manatee! It surfaced right in front of us with a blast of air, and then one by one we spotted more and more manatees until it felt like we were surrounded. That moment was by far one of the most memorable wildlife “spots” of my lifetime!
The next morning we set out early for our first day in the water. Because of the cold temperatures, access to the warm springs was closed, ensuring that the manatees can rest without disturbance. We were still able to see plenty of manatees without venturing into the spring, as dozens of them filed by the boat on their way to the warm water. On my first swim, I quickly discovered a couple of things. First, despite their tranquil demeanor, a manatee moves very swiftly through the water. Second, the water was very cold! I have climbed all manner of frozen waterfalls and even slept in a snow cave in subzero temperatures, but I don’t think I have ever shivered as much as I did after getting out of that frigid water. As you reach the mouth of the springs, you can really feel how much warmer the water is.
I shot with a Nikon D850 paired with the 14-24 2.8 zoom on this trip loaded into an Ikelite dive housing. I’m very happy with this setup and the Ikelite housing makes all of the controls available, so there is very little difference between controlling the camera in and out of the water. The main things to remember when shooting in the water are to keep the lens at the wide end, keep the camera level, and don’t forget to focus. I set up back button focusing with a a wide net of focus points in AF-C mode. Since you and your subject are constantly drifting around in the water, you want to be sure you are continuously refocusing.
The town of Crystal River has a large tourism economy, and manatees are at the center of the region’s draw. There are numerous outfits that will take guests to one of the warm springs and offer a chance to swim with manatees. This has been a controversial practice, and during our time we saw a whole spectrum of good and bad behavior. Before considering a guide or getting in the water, take the time to learn manatee manners so that you are not inadvertently stressing the manatees during a critical time, and make sure that you are going with a licensed guide. The best guides will be the ones looking out for the well being of the manatees, calling out bad behavior, and presenting their trips as an opportunity to see manatees in their natural habitat and learn about them.
Boat collisions are one of the main threats to manatees. Manatees are often injured or killed by propellers when they are unable to get out of the way of fast moving boats. Virtually every manatee we saw had scars down its back, and researchers even keep books of photos of these scars to identify individual manatees. Manatees were recently downgraded from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but 2019 was the worst year on record for manatee deaths from boat collision. No wake zones and programs to educate boaters have been successful at curbing collisions in Kings Bay, but a broader reach is necessary to save manatees in other parts of their range.
On this trip, we created Manatee 360, a short documentary film in 360 degree “virtual reality”. The 360 degree format is incredible because when you put on a headset, it transports you right there into the water with the manatees – allowing you to get up close with the manatees in a way that you would never experience otherwise. While creating this film, Lana joined me in launching Just Float Films – our new production company dedicated to natural history and conservation storytelling. We are proud to share Manatee 360 with our friends in conservation at the Save the Manatees Club and the US Fish and Wildlife Service at Crystal River. We are also thankful to Wildlife Protection Solutions for making this all possible.
Manatee 360 is currently debuting at the 2020 Wildlife Conservation Film Festival. For more information on screenings and to view a trailer visit http://justfloat.film/manatee-360