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Dive Photo Guide


An Underwater Photographer's Guide To The Manatees Of Crystal River
 April 1, 2010 @ 02:58 PM (EST)

By John Ares

Swimming with manatees is one of the top snorkeling experiences in the world, and Crystal River is one the best places to enjoy this experience. Below you will find all the practical information needed to plan your trip to Crystal River, as well as tips and techniques on photographing manatees.

About Crystal River

Crystal River, located in Florida's Gulf Coast 90 minutes north of Tampa, has seemingly two main industries:  a nuclear power plant and manatee tourism. The abundance of manatees in Crystal River is due to the areas warm freshwater bays, which are fed by springs that have an average temperature of 72 degrees year round. If manatees are exposed to water temperatures of less than 62 degrees for prolonged periods of time they can fall victim to hypothermia, and so they congregate in the Crystal River area during the cold winter months to stay warm.  



The Manatees

If whales are majestic, dolphins are playful, and sea lions are mischievous, then manatees are endearing. Florida is home to the West Indian Manatee, which can reach 13 feet and weigh up 3,000 pounds. The gentle giants are herbivores, feeding on a large variety of submerged vegetation.  Unfortunately, this endearing animal is endangered.  With only about 5,000 surviving, manatees face many threats, the most serious being collisions with boats.  


Snorkeling With The Manatees

There are several locations in Crystal River to choose from, the most popular being Kings Bay and Three Sisters. No matter which place you decide, SCUBA diving and even free diving with the manatees is strictly prohibited, and all trips are snorkeling only. Naturally, there are some equipment considerations for snorkeling in the cold, freshwater.

In the winter months, wear a full cold water wetsuit for 68F water.  Bring boots, thin neoprene gloves and a beanie or hood. Air temperatures can be even colder; reaching lows of 30 degrees on some winter mornings, so bring warm clothes for the boat in the morning.

Use open heel cold water fins and photographers mask (close fitting, black skirt). Also bring a dry, self-draining snorkel because the old, non-self draining kind can cause you to stand up at inappropriate times, make noise and stir up visibility.

Weight belts, while generally discouraged, are available. Keep in mind you will be snorkeling in freshwater, which means you will be less buoyant than in salt water.  Having a weight belt allows you to gently lower your position by exhaling rather than having to splash and dive down.  Diving down will disturb the Manatees and it is a violation that could get you severely fined.  No noise, no splashing.

There is no room on the boats for big dive bags, so bring a large catch bag for equipment on the boat.  The boats do not have camera tables but this is not a problem, just try to get as close to the stern as practical to let novice snorkelers get off the boat first without interfering with your photo equipment.

The visibility can be variable, perhaps one foot to 20 feet, dependent on human and manatee concentration and their activity.  Every day is different and each is trip is unpredictable.


Photographing The Manatees


Due to the manatee’s large size, you will want to be equipped for wide-angle photography. If using a point and shoot camera, consider using a wide-angle wet lens or adaptor. SLR users should use wide-angle lenses with a 90 degree angle of view or wider.

A fisheye lens is the best choice, as it allows you to focus close and still get wide shots of the manatee. Super-wide lenses are good for portraits.  An 8” dome port is helpful for over/under split shots when using the wide SLR lenses.

Using a 50 or 60mm macro lens, especially when using a full frame camera, can be good for portraits as well, after all "safety shots" are satisfied. Use high capacity cards since you are not limited by air and can easily shoot a couple of hundred images in two hours. 

You should bring strobes with you.  Manatees will flinch at strobes, but not flee.  They are not fish and are somewhat used to humans and photographers.  Let them settle down and don't keep firing.  Rapid firing will annoy them.

Tips and Techniques:

Below are few tips and techniques to consider when photographing manatees.

1. Stay horizontal, level in the water.  Don't stand in the shallow water.

2. Shoot upward, hang the camera below. Using the viewfinder will require your strobes to be level or slightly lower than the lens.

3. Vary exposure technique.  Manual  / TTL / Available light.  You will be dealing with changing lighting conditions as the sun rises and scene brightness changes dramatically. 

4. Use strobes and think about backlighting and sunbursts because you will be there around sunrise.  Have strobe arms as wide as possible to minimize backscatter.

5. When near a manatee that might be approaching, remain totally motionless.  While interacting, try to approach from the right side of the manatee.  You may be alone, so this scenario especially applies if you have no model.  You will be able to shoot one-handed portraits while interacting with your left hand. You will want to shoot with your right hand to be able to hit the shutter.  The manatee will indicate that you rub them by first rotating away from you, but staying close.  It will want you to gently brush them on the back from the direction of head to toes.

6. Avoid the front flippers and face as they are sensitive and recognize they have sensitive hairs on their body.  They may then roll toward you and allow you to gently stroke the algae covered surfaces to help clean them.  I negotiated with my manatees for two belly-rub-rolls for each picture.  They seemed to like this ratio and I had up to 15 minute encounters. Note that there is some controversy over the ethics of touching wild animals and endangered species, but it is allowed.

7. Shoot groups (dormitory shots) in varying directions using natural light.

8. Be aware of Florida Fish & Game Observers and film crews on shore and volunteers in kayaks nearby.  You do not want to become noticed for the wrong reasons.

9. Shoot Over / Under Shots, you will have to stand up.  Step on a rock when standing for these shots so they don't stir up the bottom.

10. Shoot manatee scars and obvious boat inflicted wounds.  Most Manatees have scars recording their encounter with fast moving stern drive keels and propellers.  The more the damage is publicized, the more sympathy the public will have.

11.  Be alert for cold stressed manatees and report any sightings to your captain.  Don't photograph or annoy them.  These individuals display white spots around the face.  This should not be confused with white rings on their backs from previously attached barnacles.  Pay attention to the video shown by your operator to know what cold stress looks like.


Planning Your Trip

Dive Store / Boat Support:

There are only two places in Florida where you can swim with Manatees legally--Crystal River and Homosassa Springs seven miles south.  You need a boat to get to concentrations of the manatees.  Bird’s Underwater in Crystal River charges $35 per head per day for manatee snorkel tours.  

Bird’s Underwater has a full service dive shop and a dock with five boats right on the water so it is very conveniently located on Florida Route 19, and for moving equipment around.  All the staff we met were long time employees and very knowledgeable about manatee behavior. 

A morning trip means meeting at the Store at 6:15 AM.  This is the earliest departure from Bird’s Underwater and it will get you there before the crowds arrive. There are other trips at 11 AM, but the devoted will get the early boa

At this hour you are watching the manatees wake up and you need to be patient and let nature run its course.  The trade off is that you are also the first on the scene. By 10 am many boatloads of family snorkelers are in the area.  You will be in the water up to two hours so rushing isn’t necessary.

When To Go:
While the manatees are there all year, most go into the Gulf in the spring and return to the relatively warmer springs in January through March. Manatee trips occur all year, but in the warmer months, they need to search for them with less predictability.   If it gets too crowded, Florida Fish & Wildlife will ask for voluntary "closings." 

Surface Intervals:

Since you will be chilled after a couple of hours in the water in the morning, you may want to do some terrestrial activities in the afternoons.  Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park is a few miles south on Route 19.  This park has a great assortment of rehabilitated manatees, local birds, and other animals.  This is easily a half-day and is family oriented. 

Commercial Photography Permits:

A Commercial Photo Permit is required for Kings Springs if you will be publishing photos as a professional.  If you are using Three Sisters, a permit not required as of this writing, but this could change in the next couple of months.  The permit costs $100 and can only be made by check or money order.  They prefer to have the fee mailed ahead of time.  Florida Fish & Wildlife is near the dive store and the fee can be dropped off if necessary.  For more info contact Ivan Vicente of Florida Fish & Wildlife at 352-563-3088 x 213. 


Keeping Manatees Safe

Because manatees are so severely threatened there are a lot of guidelines and regulations for swimming with manatees.  The Florida Fish & Wildlife (FF&W) is charged with enforcement of three laws, the Federal Endangered Species Act, The Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Florida Manatee protection statutes. To help enforce the rules, the FF & W have enlisted the help of volunteers that patrol the waters in kayaks.

The rules will be laid out for you through a video that your snorkel operator is required to show you.   As photographers, if we abide by the rules we will reinforce the correct reputation as guardians of the species rather than as insensitive Paparazzi that is accelerating their demise. Below is a list of activities to avoid while snorkeling with the manatees. 

1. Don make high pitched noises. Manatees are sensitive to high-pitched sounds.  Strobe arm joints generate high-pitched noises so be cautious when adjusting arms.  Nothing will more predictably ruin your shot of a group of resting manatees than moving one joint of your arms.  You need to adjust the joint tension before you enter the area where the manatees are.  Aim strobe arm joints after you have exited the boat, prior to entering the Spring.  Most likely, you will be able to stand in shallow water in the river near the boat to get set up.

2. Don't get between a mother and calf.  Calves will come to you very willingly, given your correct silent behavior.

3.  Don't approach a "Radio Tagged" manatee.  These manatees have been recently released from rehab and have a radio tag attached to them by a rope signaling their positions to a satellite in order to monitor their recovery.  The floating transmitter tags are obvious. 



4. Don't chase any manatee. 

5. Don't Dive under them or free-dive next to them on the bottom.  You can get the sunburst or silhouette without having to dive down by lowering the camera and shooting up.

6. Don't swim over resting manatees.  A sleeping manatee can be very sensitive to disturbances above it.  Only approach the ones that come up for a breath or approach you.  Do this with slow speed, and be as still as possible.

7. Use quiet etiquette.  Your water entry from the boat needs to be quiet.  No splashing the surface with fins near manatees.

8. Don't wake up sleeping manatees. A sleeping manatee has its face planted on the bottom.  Sometimes they sleep upside down.

9.  Don't walk on the bottom, stirring up sediment, stand on a rock for over / under shots.  

10. Don’t rapidly fire strobes.  Shoot once, let them get their composure and continue shooting at a pace that does not annoy them.

11. Don't pet a manatee around the face or flippers.  Pet the back and belly if approached and the Manatee is willing to interact.  Go slow and follow their cues.  Did I mention, fall in love?

Overall, remember that you are diving with endangered species and many groups are watching out for their well being.  Realize that Fish & Wildlife wants us to continue to have the access we currently enjoy.  Abide by the rules outlined and you will have an amazing experience.

For more information on planning your manatee trip with Bird's Underwater, visit their webiste at www.birdsunderwater.com or call them at 1-800-77-2763


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