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Florida Manatees

The Florida Wildlife Corridor team is immersed in planning the next Expedition, a fall 2014 journey that will traverse the Gulf coast for 1,000 miles. And I am starting to get into the field to photograph places and stories our trek will soon encounter. One important character of the Corridor is the Florida manatee.

A Florida manatee and her calf come to the surface for air while resting on a rainy day in the warm water of Three Sisters Springs.
A Florida manatee and her calf come to the surface for air on a cold, rainy day while resting in the warm water of Three Sisters Springs. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr / CarltonWard.com.

When we hike and paddle through their territory this September and October, the manatees will be out grazing in the warm, shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico and less visible in the rivers and springs. Not until the returning winter, when the Gulf temperatures drop, will the manatees migrate back up the rivers to seek refuge in the freshwater that flows from the Floridan Aquifer at 72 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Here, in the springs, is also the best place to photograph the migratory mammals.

I checked the weather in early March to learn that one more winter cold front would soon brush the coast. So I grabbed my water housing and paddle board, hooked my boat to my truck and drove north from Tampa to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to spend a few days shooting before the onset of spring.

The first day weather was warm and manatees were sparse. I did capture this frame of a single manatee resting in a sand clearing, thanks to a 20ft extension ladder mounted on my boat that gives enough height to look down through the water as I navigate with a wirelessly-controlled electric motor. I spent the day getting reacquainted with the area in anticipation and preparing for the coming cold front.

A manatee rests in a sand clearing near the outflow of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
A manatee rests in a sand clearing near the outflow of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr / CarltonWard.com.

Three days later, the air temperature dropped to 36 degrees F and manatees converged around the 72-degree springs. The north wind blew hard across the nearshore Gulf waters through the night, preventing the predicted high tide from ever coming back into the bay, and leaving the water depth in Three Sisters Springs the next morning too shallow for the manatees to enter. Instead they stacked-up in slightly deeper water right by the warm outflow.

The air temperature dropped close to freezing and the manatees stacked shoulder to shoulder at the outflow of the warm water spring.
The air temperature dropped close to freezing and the manatees stacked shoulder to shoulder at the outflow of the warm spring. They laid sleeping on the sandy bottom and came to the surface every 20-or-so minutes to breathe. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr / CarltonWard.com

The next morning, the air temperature was still cold with lighter winds allowing the high tide to come as charts predicted. With it came a drove of manatees into Three Sisters Springs. I stayed in the water for six hours straight, thankful for the neoprene hood just acquired for my wetsuit. Most of my time was spent observing at the surface. At one point, a mother and calf separated from the pod and swam toward the deeper water above one of the spring vents. I took a deep breath, submerged to the bottom and waited. I’ve had some free dive training, but am no pro and certainly not a manatee. Thankfully, they swam through the frame before my breath expired.

A manatee mother and her calf swim above a freshwater vent in Three Sisters Springs. A manatee mother and her calf swim above a freshwater vent in Three Sisters Springs, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr / CarltonWard.com.

Observing and photographing the Manatees of Crystal River was a true privilege. One cold morning, a mother and calf came over and rubbed up against me. With my legs planted firmly on the sand, the calf scraped his back repeatedly against my knees and calves. I stood as still as I could against the weight of the five hundred pound baby while its two thousand pound mother looked on.

Overall, I was impressed by the way the US Fish & Wildlife Service and local tour operators worked together to protect the manatee sanctuaries needed during seasonal migrations while managing the ability for tourists to responsibly experience these magnificent creatures and the fragile freshwater springs on which they depend.

Many of Florida’s springs are imperiled from factors including over-pumping of ground water from the aquifer and nutrient-laden runoff from fertilized lawns. Fellow Florida conservation photographer John Moran has been focused on Florida springs for decades. Please see his Springs Eternal photo essay and editorial in today’s Tampa Bay Times.

Related Links:
FloridaWildlifeCorridor.org
Florida Wildlife Corridor NG Blog
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
National Geographic Great Nature Project Florida Wildlife Corridor Portfolio

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Facebook.com/CarltonWardPhotography
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