Manatees – the face everyone loves, sometimes too much

Hello Everyone.  Happy Holidays to you and your families.

Cindy and I recently had the pleasure of hosting a visit by some of our dear friends from California.  Since a few of them had never visited Florida, we wanted to make sure they experienced some of the more unique offerings of the Sunshine State (NO, not Cafe’ Risque).  One of the experiences near the top of the list was a visit to Crystal River for an afternoon of snorkeling with endangered West Indian Manatees.  Crystal River is one of the few places in the United States where swimming with West Indian Manatees is permitted, although it is heavily regulated.  I am aware that “manatee tourism” has its fair share of detractors out there.  Because we humans sometimes do very stupid things, harassment of manatees by misinformed swimmers has been very well-documented over the years (click here for some sad examples).  One of the largest problems related to human harassment is that it can lead to behavioral changes in manatees which can increase their risk of harm.  Behavioral changes like avoiding the warm freshwater spring sanctuaries where humans regularly visit can expose manatees to a host of other threats such as an increased risk of boat strike, hypothermia or even starvation during cold winter months.  This added stress is hardly needed since most manatees in the wild already have scars from earlier encounters with boat engines and propellers (apparent in a few of the images below).

Although somewhat controversial, I am also unaware of any scientific consensus that the practice of passively observing manatees in the wild needs to be banned.  Because of the “grey-area” associated with this pursuit I made sure we used a reputable guide who was knowledgeable about manatee biology and behavior and who also demonstrated a history of leading responsible eco-tours.  Coupled with the fact that half of our group were veterinarians, I was comfortable that we would follow the rules during our time in the water.  I also liked that our guide quickly showed a thorough understanding of recent regulatory changes designed to enhance the authorities’ ability to enforce existing rules to protect manatees (click here if you’d like to see an editorial on the new rules).

While in the water we observed about 30 different manatees.  The group included several mothers with young calves and we felt fortunate to see a lot of them sleeping and eating during our time in the water.  I know that everyone in our group gained a new level of respect for these amazing marine mammals.  Having participated in my own encounter, I now believe that one tangible benefit of allowing passive observation of manatees in the wild is the increased respect for these mammals that such interactions can help foster.

Please consider taking an affirmative step to help save some Florida manatees by donating to an organization that is working to improve their future.  One such group with whom I have worked is Sea to Shore Alliance.  You might remember my earlier blog post about a manatee rescue they handled (click here to see that earlier post).  Every dollar helps!

Here is a link to a short video from the day and below is a slideshow of a few of the day’s images.  Hope you enjoy!

Underwater Images of West Indian Manatees at Crystal River, Florida (2010). – Images by James White

14 Responses to “Manatees – the face everyone loves, sometimes too much”

  1. chad says:

    jimmy these images are beautiful. glad to see the manatees have you looking out for them. i could watch that video over and over. i love the light on thier bodies. hope you had a great thanksgiving.

  2. frank stotts says:

    These pictures are so beautiful . I knew you would be taking pictures of manatees before long. Please put me on the list when you publish your first coffee table book. Keep up the great work.

  3. James says:

    Here’s a funny manatee joke:

    Gotta love manatees!!!

  4. mj says:

    Hey Gum,

    Sounds like a good trip. I love Manatees! I have never been snorkeling in the Crystal River though, it’s on my list of things to do now. That water looks amazing! You and Cindy keep things interesting! Love the pics as always.

  5. Christie says:

    Great photos Jimmy. Keep up the good work!

  6. Gretchen says:

    Jimmy, wonderful photos. So good of you to show off some of Florida’s finest spots to your friends. There are also some very adventurous manatees in the inlets at Ft. Desoto. I need to read the new rules and help educate. Thanks for all you do to educate us!

  7. Mel says:

    I can see you’re getting more comfortable with your gear and underwater composition/exposure. The surface ripples making patterns on the manatee backs is very nice – for some reason it gives me a calming perspective about the photos.

    Are these telephoto images or are you able to get pretty close to them? I seem to remember they are pretty docile and not easily distracted from eating, napping, etc. Have you considered a “portrait” session with them as part of conservation efforts?

    Thanks for talking about the issues with this type of tourism – I was unaware of efforts being taken to protect manatees from being loved too much.

    • Jimmy White says:

      Thanks for looking in Mel. These images were all made with a wide-angle zoom behind a dome port. Even in water this clear one must still work to lessen the water’s filtering effects on light and color. This usually means get as close to your subject as possible (or legal in this case).

      In general, most underwater work is made using either wide-angle lenses or macro lenses. I’m sure there are people out there breaking that rule but it seems to be the the case with my work.