Photographing Your Swim with Manatees

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Manatees are amazing and endearing mammals that weigh 800-1,200 pounds, are roughly 13 feet long and can live up to 60 years. Thriving in shallow, slow-moving and seagrass-rich waters of canals, rivers, bays and estuaries, manatees are gentle, peaceful and graceful animals that use all their time traveling, eating and resting. Because they are typically a migratory species, the West Indian manatees are usually found in the warm springs of Florida in the colder months and anywhere from Massachusetts to Texas in summer months. There are several places where nature lovers and adventurers can dive, interact with and photograph the manatees, the most popular being Crystal River, Fl., particularly at Three Sisters Springs and Kings Bay.

Why Should You Swim and Photograph Manatees at Crystal River?

Located in Florida, Crystal River is the best place to swim and photograph manatees. Boasting of an economy that revolves around the manatees, Crystal River has many manatee tour operators, trained captains, experienced crews and a wide range of accommodations for tourists. For those interested in exquisite manatee photographs, one of the best sites to observe and capture images of the sea cows is the Three Sisters Springs, where several freshwater springs emerge. At Three Sisters Springs, the water is warm and crystal clear and the bottom surface has delicate white sand, making the photographing of manatees easier, thrilling and fun.

Finding Manatees in the Three Sisters Springs

Since the main canal outside the Three Sisters Springs is often murky, you should go inside the springs to take manatee photos in the crystal clear water. Inside the Three Sisters Springs, you can clearly see and photograph the manatees with little trouble. However, there are usually few manatees inside Three Sisters, so you should try looking for them in the protected areas and in the small canal where you can spot them as they try to get into the springs. You also can look for manatees near the edges of the springs (around tree roots) where they often rest and have their backs cleaned gently by fish. These edges are called “cleaning stations” and they are great opportunities for photographing manatees. Likewise, since manatees come to the water surface every 3-20 minutes to breathe, you can time and photograph them as they come up to breathe.

Equipment for Photographing Your Swim with Manatees

Manatees are very large, so wide-angle photography is advisable. For instance, point-and-shoot cameras should be used with adaptors or wide-angle wet lenses while SLR cameras should be used with wide-angle lenses having a 90-degree angle of view or larger. Fisheye lenses are preferred because they allow for close focus and wide shots of manatees. For portraits, super-wide lenses are ideal while 8-inch dorm ports are great for under/over split shots when wide SLR lenses are used. Macro lenses (50-60mm) are also good for portraits when full-frame cameras are used, once all “safety shots” have been satisfied. Similarly, since air cannot limit you and you can shoot several images in a few hours, you should bring high capacity cards.

Taking Photographs of Manatees

Once you are in the water, stay horizontal and level. Hang your camera below and shoot upward. When using the viewfinder, your strobes should be slightly lower or level with the lens. Vary the exposure technique, from manual, TTL to available light, making sure to accommodate the changing lighting conditions when the sun rises or the scene brightness changes dramatically. When using strobes, keep the strobe arms as wide as you can to reduce backscatter. Also consider sunbursts and backlighting because you will be at Three Sisters Springs at around sunrise. Use models to show interactions, create perspectives and generate interest in the photographs. Likewise, use over-under shots (split-shots) to capture the beautiful scenes around the manatees.

When manatees approach you, remain motionless to allow them to initiate interaction. Approach a manatee from its right side, interact with your left hand, hit the shutter with your right hand and shoot one-handed portraits. To indicate that you should rub it, the manatee will rotate away from you while remaining close. The manatee then will want you to brush it on the back from head to toes and may roll toward you and allow gentle stroking of its algae covered surface, helping to clean it. Make sure to take photos as you give belly rubs. However, you should avoid the face and front flippers of the manatee as they are very sensitive. Remember that controversy exists over the ethics of touching an endangered species such as the manatees, but it is allowed.

The crystal water and the white sand create beautiful reflections. So make sure to take photos of the reflections of manatees below the water surface. You can take dormitory shots (shoot groups) in different directions by using natural light. Photographs of manatee mothers and their calves can be really beautiful, so take some shots of nursing manatees. However, be careful not to disturb manatees that are nursing.
Finally, if you come across manatees that have survived boat collisions and bear obvious scars and wounds, document this with a photograph in order to show the vulnerability of these animals to human activity. By publicizing the damages inflicted on manatees, you can stir up public sympathy and encourage more people to help save the animals. For more information on manatee tours, visit the “Captain
Mike’s swimming with the Manatees” site.


Swimming with the Manatees boasts the best water adventure in Crystal River, Florida with lots of things to do for you and your family. For more information, contact us online, or call us at (352) 571-1888.

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