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Exploring Florida’s Freshwaters
By Matthew Sullivan, July 14, 2023 @ 03:00 AM (EST)

A Florida manatee floating effortlessly in the stunning blue of a north Florida spring: Every winter, thousands of manatees journey into springs and rivers around the state to escape frigid coastal temperatures. The springs remain a constant 72°F year round, the perfect manatee sauna. Fisheye lenses work best for manatees, as not only are manatees big, they are often friendly and will come right up to you. It is important to keep in mind that not every manatee is interested in an interaction and be mindful and respectful of that fact. Wait for a friendly manatee to engage you on their terms (Nikon D700, Nikon 8–15mm f/3.5-4.5 fisheye, Zen 230mm dome, 2x Retra Flash strobes)
 

For good reason, most divers and underwater photographers visiting Florida head right for the world-famous Blue Heron Bridge, or the sharks of Jupiter, or perhaps the reefs of the Keys. However, to ignore Florida’s incredible freshwater ecosystems would be a mistake. From lakes and ponds to crystal-clear springs and blackwater rivers, the diversity of habitats for freshwater life in the state is amazing. Hundreds of fish species, reptiles, plants, and of course, the much loved manatee, call Florida’s freshwaters home.

By far my favorite lenses for photographing the freshwater realm are wide-angle lenses, especially fisheye lenses. Nothing shows off an environment like a fisheye, and while there are, of course, macro opportunities to be had, the wide-angle opportunities are far more impactful and numerous in my experience. Freshwater environments often provide less space for maneurverability, so keeping your rig as compact as possible can be invaluable for creating images. Perhaps the most crucial bit of gear for shooting in fresh water is actually incredibly cheap—strobe diffusers. Most freshwater fish are highly reflective, and unless you have a strobe that naturally has a very wide beam spread, hotspots can ruin many a freshwater fish image.

While certain freshwater animals like manatees or snapping turtles often show curiosity and will approach the camera, the vast majority of freshwater subjects in Florida require a much more patient approach. Many fish can only be photographed during their breeding activity, as they will be totally distracted and almost oblivious to the presence of a photographer. The images of the largemouth bass below, both the courtship and egg guarding, are examples of this type of behavior. Research ahead of time to find out when your target species is spawning or guarding eggs is incredibly important with regards to photographing freshwater fish. It will be an exercise in frustration otherwise!

The hope by putting this small portfolio together is to show divers that perhaps it is worth spending a few extra days on their next Florida visit dedicated to freshwater diving and photography. Just be careful of the gators! None are featured here, but almost every body of water in the state plays host to these toothy friends!
 

Arguably the coolest turtle on Earth, the alligator snapper: That pink worm-like thing in its mouth is actually a lure it will wiggle around while waiting for unfortunate fish to swim directly into its guillotine jaws. While they can occasionally be found in springs, alligator snappers are much more frequently found in blackwater, murky, creepy rivers and creeks. With a fisheye lens, it was possible to fill the frame with the turtle’s huge head. Because the water is so murky, beam restrictors were used on the strobes so as not to light up all the debris and detritus in the water (Nikon D7100, Tokina 10–17mm f/3.5-4.5 fisheye, Zen Mini Dome, 2x Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes with reduction rings)
 

A common fish in Florida’s rivers, the mosquitofish: They can be found by the hundreds or thousands in certain places, buzzing about just beneath the surface. This one just blew a bubble and appears to be kissing its reflection. The tracking capabilities of the OM System OM-1 made this image possible. Mosquitofish earn their name, constantly moving in unpredictable directions. The OM-1 locked focus and did a far better job at keeping the fish in focus than is possible manually (OM System OM-1, Olympus 60mm f/2.8 macro, 2x Ikelite DS230 strobes)
 

Each winter, Florida gar aggregate in springs and rivers to spawn. Among the most prehistoric looking of all fish, gar are voracious predators and their mouths are lined with large, razor-sharp teeth. Despite their fearsome appearance, around divers they are quite skittish and very much prefer to keep their distance. This is an image that shows off the importance of a fisheye lens in freshwater environments. They allow you to capture a huge scene and in this case, give a glimpse all the way up into the forest above the spring (OM System OM-1, Olympus 8mm f/1.8 PRO fisheye, AOI 4-inch dome, 2x Ikelite DS230 strobes)
 

A closer look at a set of Florida gar from the school above, cruising through a spring. Using a slow shutter speed allowed natural light to bleed into the frame (shaded springs are dark places) and let the surroundings melt into a painterly aesthetic while the strobe light kept the gar nice and sharp (OM System OM-1, Olympus 8mm f/1.8 PRO fisheye, AOI 4-inch dome, 2x Ikelite DS230 strobes)
 

Perhaps not as gnarly as the alligator snapper but no less charistmatic is the common snapping turtle. Snapping turtles often get a bad rap as they have a tendency to be quick to defend themselves when on land. However, in the water, they are quite curious and will often approach snorkelers or divers. This individual is very well known in the spring she calls home and is both used to people and blind, so her inquisitiveness is likely due to her inability to see. She has to find out what is around her by getting close and using her sense of smell. A mini dome can be a crucial tool in freshwater environments as space to maneuver can be limited. It also allows for much more impactful close-focus wide-angle images. The dome was right in the face of this big snapper (Nikon D7100, f/3.5-4.5 fisheye, Zen Mini Dome, Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes)
 

A largemouth bass guarding a clutch of eggs at the very edge of a spring: After excavating the nest on which the female will deposit eggs, the male largemouth acts as guardian. He will vehemently defend the nest against any intruding fish. Interestingly, bass seem to know divers pose no threat and will allow a close approach while they’re on their nest. But any fish that comes within a few feet will immediately be chased away. While this fish was easy to approach because it had eggs, the Nauticam Extended Macro Wide Lens (EMWL) proved invaluable for getting a very low, almost in-the-nest perspective than could be achieved with a regular fisheye (Sony a7R Mark II, Canon 60mm f/2.8 macro, Nauticam EMWL with 130° optic, 2x Nikonos SB-105 strobes)
 

A Florida redbelly turtle cruising below the surface underneath a winter canopy: Year round, turtles are active in Florida. During winter months, the colder water temperatures push them into the springs like the manatees, and they are often much more photogenic and approachable during the winter. The cold keeps them far more sluggish than normal. This is another scenario when doing your research ahead of time and understanding reptile behavior is valuable if you are going to specifically shoot turtles in the springs. Spring, summer or fall would be far less successful (OM System OM-1, Olympus 8mm f/1.8 PRO fisheye, AOI 4-inch dome, 2x Ikelite DS230 strobes)
 

A male largemouth bass attempting to induce the larger female to mate over a nest he meticulously excavated. For hours, the male bass will court the female, constantly rearranging or clearing out the nest, nibbling her belly and tail. Mating will take place in just a few seconds before the male spends several weeks guarding the eggs and then the newly hatched fry. Many fish are creatures of pattern. They’ll return to the same spot over and over again. While these bass swam around, they always came back and interacted in the exact same spot over the nest. Don’t try to follow them from place to place; sit in the same spot and wait for them to come to you. This approach often allows for better pictures as the fish often seem to forget you’re there (OM System OM-1, Olympus 8mm f/1.8 PRO fisheye, AOI 4-inch dome, 2x Ikelite DS230 Strobes)
 

A photographer lines up a shot on a massive common snapping turtle emerging from the algae. Agricultural runoff and increasing water temperatures are resulting in large algal blooms in many rivers, creeks and springs. The algae suffocates and kills many of the native plants and coats the bottoms in a grimy mess. Some springs have escaped this fate for now, and this snapping turtle didn’t seem to mind either the algae or the dome port up in its grill (Nikon D700, Nikonos 13mm RS fisheye, 2x Retra Flash strobes)
 

The spectacular yellows and oranges of this male bluegill contrast fantastically in the blue spring water. Several sunfish species can be found around Florida, from the diminutive and rare bluespotted sunfish up to dinner plate-sized bluegills. Normally a skittish fish, they can be approached when guarding nests, or as in this case, while he picked microscopic food bits out of the spring boil. Another example of a tiny dome and compact system coming in clutch. The small size made it possible to get right up on the bluegill and have the housing on the bottom pointed up into the water. With a larger dome, that wouldn’t have been possible (OM System OM-1, Olympus 8mm f/1.8 PRO fisheye, AOI 4-inch dome, 2x Ikelite DS230 strobes)
 

Normally a salt- or brackish-water fish, this gulf pipefish found its way many dozens of miles from the nearest salty water. Pipefish aren’t the only marine fish that will sometimes show up in springs. Stingrays, snapper species, and striped bass can often be found in Florida’s freshwaters. As with the bass image above, the small size and close-focus wide-angle capabilities of the Nauticam EMWL made the image possible. Photographing this image work with the Olympus 8mm f/1.8 fisheye would be impossible (Sony a7R Mark II, Canon 60mm f/2.8 macro, Nauticam EMWL with 130° optic, 2x Nikonos SB-105 strobes)
 

A big, boat-scarred manatee snuffling around for snacks on the bottom of a spring: An unfortunate reality of life as a manatee in Florida is contact with boats. Manatees favor shallow waters, be it rivers, springs or estuaries, and Florida does not suffer from a lack of boats. Almost every single manatee in certain areas sports boat strike related injuries. This manatee was quite young and still had a vicious prop scar down her side, clearly visible in the image (Nikon D7100, Tokina 10–17mm f/3.5–4.5 fisheye, Zen Mini Dome, 2x Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes)

 

See more of Matthew's work on his Instagram page or website.

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