Photographing Manatees

Where to find these magnificent "gentle giants" and how to get the best possible photos of them
By Jo-Ann Wilkins

Photographing Manatees

Where to find these magnificent "gentle giants" and how to get the best possible photos of them

By Jo-Ann Wilkins

Manatees, also known as "gentle giants," are incredible animals that weigh anywhere from 800 to 1200 pounds, measure up to 10 feet in length and can live to be a shocking 60 years old. These slow-moving creatures spend all their time eating, travelling and resting. They can be found in shallow waters of slow-moving rivers, canals, estuaries and saltwater bays that are rich in seagrass. Manatees are a migratory species that can be found anywhere from Texas to Massachusetts in the summer months and in the warm waters of Florida in the winter months. They hang around springs where the water temperature is constant at 72 degrees. They need the warmth in order to survive during the winter months. They are an endangered species and are protected by State and Federal laws. 



A mother nursing her calf. Nikon D300, F-9, 1/100 sec.
Manatees with a snorkeler in the background. Nikon D300, F-10, 1/200 sec. 
A mother and her two calves just outside of Three Sisters Springs. The visibility in the main canal can get pretty murky, as seen on this picture. Nikon D300, F-9, 1/60 sec. 


Where to dive with them

The best place to dive with manatees is Crystal River in Florida. Crystal River’s economy revolves around its manatees, so it is easy to find manatee tour operators and accommodations in the area. Trips are usually a few hours long. Underwater photographers who would like to spend more time with them in the water can also rent a boat. By renting a boat, you can spend the whole day in the water with the animals and not worry about crowds of tourists. When visiting Crystal River, the best place to observe the manatees is a site called Three Sisters Springs, where underground fresh water springs emerge. The water is crystal clear and warm, and the bottom is covered with delicate white sand. When the temperature outside gets cold, the manatees swim into this incredibly beautiful bay to rest and warm up.  

A man observing two resting manatees in Three Sisters Springs. The water is shallow and many tourists stand and walk on the bottom, but this sometimes stirs up the visibility and can scare the animals away. Nikon D300, F-9, 1/100 sec. 
A manatee swimming inside Three Sisters Springs. Nikon D300, F-11, 1/160 sec. 
Inside Three Sisters Springs, a manatee rests under the roots of a tree. Nikon D300, F-11, 1/50 sec. 


When to dive with them

The high season for manatee encounters in Crystal River is between November and March. Most tour operators will guarantee manatee encounters until March 15th, and planning a trip in January and February is probably the safest bet. Thousands of tourists come to Crystal River during that time to see the animals, so there are a few things to keep in mind: weekends are exceptionally busy, and large crowds can make your experience less pleasant. Since the water is quite shallow (around 3-5 feet deep in most places), many tourists walk on the riverbed and stir up the bottom, which in turn will upset your visibility. Furthermore, when tourists see a photographer with a manatee, they have a natural tendency to flock around you and the animal you are trying to photograph, which again, makes it difficult to take nice pictures. If you can, try to go during weekdays. You will have much more intimate encounters with the animals and better photography opportunities.  

A manatee being cleaned by fish. Nikon D300, F-9, 1/50 sec. 
A manatee coming up for a breath. Nikon D300, F-13, 1/40 sec. 


Important code of conduct

Anyone who goes to swim with the manatees must adhere to a strict code of conduct. For instance, you must not disturb a resting animal, you cannot chase, corner, ride, poke, prod and grab it, you cannot attempt to single or surround it, you cannot attempt to separate a calf from it’s mother and you are not to enter any designated sanctuaries for any reason. Volunteers and law enforcement officers are constantly monitoring the area to make sure tourists are respecting the animals. Underwater photographers should be extra careful to follow this code of conduct. Somehow, our large cameras attract the volunteers’ attention and they pay close attention to us. On my trip there, we were instructed not to free dive with the animals. I saw someone do a free dive to get to eye level with a resting animal (not close up, he had kept a good distance between himself and the resting animal) and he was warned to stop any free diving (our heads and bodies cannot go completely underwater). Furthermore, I saw a photographer do something stupid and unnecessary - he put his camera right over a rope, which serves to circumscribe the manatee sanctuary where no one is allowed to go.  It was not a big offense in itself, but he was called out of the water by a law enforcement officer and given a fine. So, photographers, please follow the code of conduct, it is there to protect the animals. 

A manatee injured by a boat. You can see the scars on its back and tail; part of his 
tail is cut off.  Nikon D300, F-13, 1/30 sec. 


Photography Tips

  • You definitely want to use your wide-angle lens when photographing manatees. However, be sure to also bring your macro lens for portraits of their wrinkled face, tiny eyes and whiskers. The water in Three Sisters Springs is so clear that you don’t need to be directly in their face with a macro lens. You can back off a little and still do a nice portrait. 
  • In the main canal outside of Three Sisters Springs, the water can get murky. Go into Three Sisters Springs and you will have crystal clear water. However, there aren’t always manatees inside of Three Sisters, but you will most likely always find them in the protected areas just outside of Three Sisters. Be sure to keep an eye out for animals entering the small canal to reach Three Sisters Springs.  
  • Manatees are mammals that must surface to breathe air. They can rest on the bottom for 3 minutes to up to 20 minutes. When they do come up for a breath, it is a good time to photograph them.  
  • Look near the edges of Three Sisters, close to the tree roots. Very often, the manatees go rest there and get their backs cleaned by fish. We call those ‘cleaning stations’ and are great photography opportunities.  
  • Mothers and calves are beautiful to photograph, especially when they are nursing. The mother’s nipples are behind her flippers. Therefore, if you see a calf sucking on the back of the mothers’ flippers, he is nursing. Be extra careful not to disturb them while they are nursing, as they will leave the area rather quickly.   
  • Once in a while, a bird will swim by you trying to catch a fish. They swim pretty fast but they are interesting to photograph... if you’re fast enough! 
  • Photograph the reflections of the manatees beneath the surface of the water. The white sand and the crystal water create beautiful reflections. 
  • Use a model to create perspective and interest in your photographs. Some manatees are playful and love to interact, but some do not. Using a model to show this interaction will create an interesting photograph.  
  • Unfortunately, many boaters have collided with manatees. Those who have survived bear large propellers scars on their backs and tails. You can document with a picture how these animals are vulnerable to human activity. 
  • Try split-shots (over-under shots). The scenery around Three Sisters Springs is very nice and is great for over-under shots. 
  • You are not supposed to do any free diving. It is therefore difficult to get to eye level with the manatees when they are resting. You can dunk your camera below you as low as you can without putting your head under water and take a picture. You may need many tries to get one good picture, but remember not to harass the animals and to not get too close while they are resting. 


A playful juvenile manatee. Nikon D300, F-13, 1/125 sec. 
Some manatees enjoy interaction with humans and are playful. This manatee hung around with us for a while. Nikon D300, F-10, 1/100 sec. 
Three Sisters Springs is a beautiful place to try split-shots. Nikon D300, F-13, 1/160 sec. 

Want more Manatee shooting tips and great Manatee photos?


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