Diving Underwater With Manatees

A great guide for how, when, and where to photograph Manatees
By Stanley Bysshe

Diving With Mermaids

Underwater photo tips for Manatees in Florida

By Stanley Bysshe


Classic Pose

17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F4, 1/50, ISO 1600


Mermaids, Sea Cows, Gentle Giants, the West Indian manatee goes by many names, to which you can include photographic model. These slow moving giants love to hang out in 4-9 feet of water and are quite accessible to underwater photographers. It takes a little planning however and knowledge about the rules required for manatee viewing.


Up Close and Personal

"Up Close and Personal" 17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F6.3, 1/50, ISO 250, Inon Flash x2


Florida Manatees

Florida has very strict rules about swimming with, boating around and underwater photography when it comes to endangered manatees. Sanctuaries are set aside that no one can enter. The fines are substantial. So it is best to plan a trip with an outfit that knows the rules. While Manatees can be spotted anytime there is a time of year that is best for photography.


When the water gets cold, the animals will seek the constant temperature of fresh warm water springs (72 degrees) and gather there in large numbers. So the best time to plan a trip is January thru early February. Crystal River and Three Sisters Springs are probably one of the best-known places for an encounter and there are any number of guided tours.


Three Sister Springs

Three Sister Springs at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, F9, 1/50


Crystal River and Birds Underwater

Our trip started with a flight to Orlando Fla., and a two hour drive to Crystal River. While there are several places to stay I have added links to two of the most convenient. They are also very close to two of the best dive operators. I think you will find that Birds Underwater and Crystal River Divers have great service and guides. Look no further! Plan your trip mid-week to avoid weekend and holiday crowds.

Yes there can be crowds, and dangling legs can spoil a nice shot. I would contact either of the shops and try and arrange a quiet time to visit. For an added expense a private boat can be arranged. You can rent boats on your own, but if you don’t know the area, you can waste a lot of time. The tour operators know where the manatees are likely to be on any given day, and the above two will get you out early, which is key. As an aside there are some interesting fresh water dives in the area, which I plan to research on a follow-up trip.


Close Up

"I'm here for my close up", 17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F22, 1/125, ISO 1600


Manatee Trip Tips:

·    Unless you plan to try some of the local dives, this is a snorkel trip. But, it will be cold (hopefully, if you want to see lots of manatees); water temp 72 degrees or less and morning air temp in the 40s or lower. So plan on 5mm with a vest or more. Most of the guides snorkel in dry suits.

·    All photography has to be from the surface. That is, you cannot dive underwater (so you don’t need weights). Floating and not standing is key to keep from stirring up the sand. Special permits can be obtained through the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife station to photograph underwater. There is a fee and you get a yellow vest that designates you as someone who can submerge around Manatees. Again, these activities are closely monitored.

Macro or Wide-angle photography?

·    Wide Angle all day long. This is the place for your wide-angle rig; dome ports, fish-eye and wide angle zooms. So you need to get close. The vis outside the Springs can be very poor, so again get close. Inside Three Sisters the water is constantly flushed out, so if there aren’t a lot of people the vis can be spectacular.


Classic Pose #2

17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F4, 1/50, ISO 1600

·    Use of flash is restricted and may not be used until one hour after sunrise. So be prepared to do a lot of available light shooting. Know how to use your ISO settings. One trick to play with is to set your camera at Shutter Speed Priority (Nikon terminology) and Auto ISO. That allows you to shoot slowly moving animals with relatively fast SS in low light, as the camera will boost the ISO to compensate.

·    If the day is sunny, fill flash will help. In shallow water you can bounce the flash off the sandy bottom for fill flash.

·    If you are in Three Sisters Springs, look for other wildlife. For this, flash can be used anytime. This is also a good place for split shots (over/under).

·    Don’t chase the manatees. They will come to you or at some point just stop moving. The juveniles are especially friendly!


Photographer Love

"Take me home!" 17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F18, 1/125, ISO 1600


A manatee photography trip is worth the effort. They are great creatures just to see and be near. But while they seem to be holding their own, the manatees are endangered and chances to photograph them underwater may be limited. There are available specialized photo trips or you can go on your own. Either way you have to be with someone who knows the local rules for the best opportunity to photograph a Mermaid.

All photographs were taken with a Nikon D3s in an Aquatica Housing. 8 inch Dome Port. 17-35mm 2.8 Nikon wide angle zoom lens. Dual Inon Z240 flash when used.


Additional Images From These Locations

17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F5.6, 1/60, ISO 1600


17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F7.1, 1/100, ISO 200, Inon Flash x 2


17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F8, 1/100, ISO 200, Inon Flash x2


About the Author

Stanley BysscheI have enjoyed diving and underwater photography for over three decades. When I retired, my wife and I spent three years living full time on the island of Curacao and it was there that I was able to dive almost every day. Now back in the States, I don't get to dive as much but I still share the passion for photography that brings divers to this site.




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