Manatees are awesome. Period.
In March we did a trip to Florida and the Bahamas focusing on a diversity of marine wildlife. The list included manatees (in Crystal River), hammerheads, dolphins, caribbean reefsharks, nurse sharks, southern stingrays (all in the Bahamas) and whatever else would cross our path. The trip was pretty successful and we bagged many shots of a wide diversity of the animals. Above all we enjoyed the company of old and many new friends! So here's the first experience we had. The manatees of Crystal River.
The story of the manatees is an interesting one from a biological perspective. The animals fasten during the cold winter months while sheltering in the warm springs around Kings Bay. During that time the chances of seeing the manatees in the springs are pretty much guaranteed and close in-water encounters are almost guaranteed as well. Until now though. New regulations are implemented to put more restrictions on not only the (eco)tourism in the area in general, but also on the in-water interaction with the mammals.
The plight of the manatee therefore is a textbook example of the tension between human and nature. Green parties fiercely fight to get more space and quiet for the manatees. This conservation battle in Florida is fought on a whole different level if compared to other locations in the world. In other places around the world appreciation for the wildlife is often very low and any form of a conservation movement absent. Also the battle between the different parties in the case of Crystal River is very "American" with parties threatening with law suits as well.
The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and its springs are managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife department. This party is in the midst of the clash between (eco)tourism companies (who aim for building a sustainable business upon manatees) and the "greens" (who aim for more protection for the animals).
We set out to see the manatees for ourselves with captain Wayne White while I also wanted to photograph some of the tension of the animal-human conflict. Collisions with boats are still happening although speed limits have been enforced in the area. Other causes of death are toxins in algae that the manatees consume or hypothermia (due to the cold weather).
We could experience first hand that quite a few of the manatees had been hit by boats in the past, since a lot of them had signs of (partly) healed scars of boat props. It is a shame these beautiful docile animals are hurt while it can be prevented. We could also see why it was hard to spot them in the water due to bright reflections, which emphasized the need to limit the speed of boat traffic. We also experienced why the interaction with humans can be an issue. On multiple occaisions we saw groups of tourists circle a manatee with some people even trying to grab/touch the animal while the it clearly wasn't interested.. Many videos circle the Web where manatees actually seek out contact, which gives people wrong expectations. Intimate encounters do happen, but some people don't let the animals initiate the contact, usually resulting in a manatee fleeing the scene or diving behind the signs of restricted manatee "resting areas".
Due to the fact that Springtime had arrived early this year (temperatures were very high for the time of year) we encountered the manatees outside the springs. After a long period of fasting they were out in the bay feeding on the newly grown algae. While feeding they sometimes made a big mess of our visibility! Some of the manatees had even left the bay and were on their way to the Gulf of Mexico for other manatee business.
It was great to see (and hear) the animals graze in the waters of Kings Bay. It became very clear why they are called seacows too ;-)
We even got to swim with a mom and baby manatee! This mom was not too interested in having us around (on a mission to find more food?!). So after we tried to follow them for a while we slowed down and gave them the space they were looking for.
Please find more images of the manatees in the photostory section.