Note from Steve: A few weeks ago, I announced that PhotoNaturalist was looking for more writers. Well, today I’m excited to introduce one of our new contributors: Jeff Stamer. Jeff is a great wildlife/landscape photographer from Florida, and his first post is all about photographing manatees in the wild! Enjoy!
It seems that nearly everyone visits Florida at one time or another—at least it sure looks that way when I’m on the interstate near Disney:)
Many of those tourists are photographers, and as a long-time Florida resident I’m often asked about good photo locations. Although Florida is blessed with a wealth of photogenic subjects, the one “bucket list” item I share with all photographers is: “Go Snorkel with the Manatees!”
How Christopher Columbus could have mistaken Manatees for mermaids is beyond me (even if it was a LONG voyage), but manatees are one of those creatures that seem to tug an emotional chord in everyone that encounters them face to face. They are huge, gentle, friendly and surprisingly graceful creatures that you can photograph from inches away in clean fresh water.
Even if you only have an inexpensive waterproof point-n-shoot camera, you can get great shots. And while you are focused on getting the next National Geo cover shot, the rest of the family can have a great time too.
With more than a few years of manatee photography under my belt, I could probably fill up a book with ‘how-to’ tips, but when you get right down to it, here are the essentials:
You gotta find manatees
Manatees are migratory, but in winter most of them concentrate at warm water locations in Florida. There are only a couple locations that allow you to actually snorkel with them, and the best is Crystal River Florida (76 miles north of Tampa, 86 miles west of Orlando).
Book a tour
There is an entire industry in Crystal River designed to take folks out to snorkel with Manatees. For about $70, most of these businesses will have a Coast Guard certified captain take you and ten other folks out on a pontoon boat for a 3 hour tour (you normally spend about 2 hours actually in the water). They usually provide a mask, snorkel and wet suit.
Be there at sunrise
Like most photography, it pays to be there early. Swimming with manatees is popular and as the day progresses, so does the number of snorkelers. Since the bottom is sand, visibility is usually best first thing in the morning before most of the tourists have gotten out of bed. Take the first tour of the day.
Any underwater camera will do!
I’ve graduated to a full frame DSLR in an underwater housing for my manatee photography, but for years I used an affordable underwater point-n-shoot. Since most of your shots will be close up (many manatees are NOT shy) and in shallow water, you don’t need a state-of-the-art underwater photography system to get decent quality photos.
Try a different perspective
Regulations prevent you from diving around the manatees—you have to stay near the surface of the water. To get a different perspective, try holding your camera below you as a manatee approaches and aim it up so your camera will capture the sky in the shot.
Know the Rules!
Swimming with Manatees is a privilege, and like most privileges it has corresponding responsibilities. These regulations are enforced—I’ve seen photographers pulled out of the water by Wildlife Officers.
Fortunately, your captain will inform you about all of the rules. Here are a couple photographer-specific rules you should be aware of:
- Flash is only allowed an hour after sunrise until an hour before sunset
- Fast repeating strobes are not permitted (i.e. you can’t use your flash more often than once every 5 seconds)
Rules are revised on a regular basis, so check here for the latest.
I imagine that for some, photography is all about the photographs. I can understand that— heck, I obsess over my shots in Photoshop as much as the next guy. However, for many of us, photography is about a lot more than pretty pictures: it encourages us to experience the beauty and diversity of the earth in ways few other activities can.
This is one of those activities that I would do even if I didn’t have a camera with me. When a manatee slowly swims right up to you and rolls over asking for a belly rub, it’s an experience I doubt you could ever forget.
So if you are going to be one of 75 million folks that visit Florida this year, give yourself a break from the beaches and theme parks—go swim with the manatees!
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About the Author: Jeff Stamer got his first camera, a secondhand Kodak Brownie back in 1964. A lot has certainly changed since then, but he will tell you that love of photography hasn’t been one of them. After a 30 year interlude with an international Fortune 500 corporation, Jeff returned to full-time wildlife and landscape photography in 2010. He has since been making up for those lost decades with a vengeance. Jeff writes a regular photography blog and maintains a well-respected website at: http://www.firefallphotography.com/