What’s happening to the manatees? The conservation status of the Florida manatee remains in controversy as researchers investigate historical numbers compared to current day estimates. All the while, man continues to encroach on manatee native habitat forcing a co-existence between humans and manatees.
As part of his project “Man and Manatee”, International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) photographer Neil Ever Osborne sought to capture aerial images of Gulf Coast areas where manatees cluster in winter months. During colder weather, manatees seek out warmer water to sustain them. These areas range from protected tepid waters near natural springs, to shallow waters near power plants where warm discharge water attracts the gentle animals.
Field Dispatch from iLCP Photographer Neil Ever Osborne
Within the congregation, I count more than 20 sedentary animals. Plump bodies of gray mass clustered together, limbs touching perhaps for the sake of warmth. Only gentle gestures among the idle creatures suggest a common interest: conserve energy. At the Three Sister’s Springs near Crystal River in Citrus County, Florida, water temperatures remains a consistent 72F (22C). Here the Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, finds a well known wintering haven in the tepid waters of the natural spring. Fiction will tell us in Homer’s Odyssey, Sirens were half-woman, half-bird creatures, later to be confused as mermaids by other authors. As nomenclature stuck in books, science named the Order Sirenia after the tale that suggested manatees were once living mermaids. The 3 extant species of manatee and their close relative, the dugong, now belong in this grouping. At Crystal River in the cold season, the tourists are there by the dozens on any given day. At an arm’s reach away, omnipresent humans encounter one of nature’s most placid species. Some of the inquisitive animals do not mind. Some of the overzealous tourists get too close. Man and manatee co-exist here and the tale has the promise of success, pending sound conservation decisions and a decrease in the threats that continue to reduce manatee numbers around the state of Florida.
Q&A with Volunteer Lighthawk Pilot Bruce McGregor
A flight donated by LightHawk helped Neil create a current day assessment of this a charismatic species and the challenges it faces living in close proximity to heavily populated areas.
Q: Why did you decide to donate a flight for iLCP photographer Neil Ever Osborne to document manatees in Florida’s coastal waters?
Beyond my desire to support environmental causes through LightHawk missions, I have a special fondness for manatees. My experience swimming among them (prior to the current interaction restrictions, of course) revealed their gentle and affectionate nature. I recall one youngster who loved having her belly rubbed. As a resident of Florida, I am only too aware of the dangers that manatees face from habitat loss and errant boaters. Hopefully projects like Neil’s will educate the public to make room for these wonderful creatures.
Q: How was this flight different from your normal flying?
I also volunteer for Angel Flight which provides air transport to distant medical centers for low income patients. Otherwise, my wife Suzanne and I fly around the U.S. and Caribbean for pleasure and exploration.
Q: Why do you fly and how did that start for you?
Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, I was fascinated by the books and movies about early aviation and the aerial events of World War II. At about fifth grade, I started building static model airplanes and progressed to gasoline powered flying versions. After college and the military, I took flying lessons. Forty years and a series of single- and twin-engine airplanes later, I am flying more than ever. You could say that I am living my childhood fantasies!
Q: How long have you been flying donated conservation mission for Lighthawk?
Rudy Engholm, LightHawk’s Executive Director, recruited me at a meeting of Columbia aircraft owners in 2007. Missions were few at first as that airplane has a low wing, which is less desirable for the photo and observation missions that are most common in my area. Since I switched to a high wing airplane last April, my LightHawk missions and hours have soared.
Q: What’s one of the most amazing things you’ve seen while flying?
On a LightHawk mission out of New Orleans last July, I flew three videographers out to the BP oil well spill. Two monstrous rigs were drilling relief wells while a third captured most of the leaking oil and burned it in two enormous flares with flames shooting 100′ into the air. Fireboats sprayed streams of water to cool the lines feeding the flares. At least 60 other boats floated on a sea of iridescent blue-black oil film while supporting the big rigs. As we circled, the airplane periodically flew through the black smoke billowing from the flares with an acrid, sulfurous smell. This was a scene from Hell!
Bruce McGregor has been a LightHawk volunteer pilot since 2007. He has flown 13 donated missions including the one for iLCP photographer Neil Ever Osborne. He currently flies a Cessna P210N Silver Eagle.
What is Tripods in the Sky?
If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to document it, does it really matter? An unusual new conservation partnership of pilots and photographers, emphatically says “yes”, and is prepared to do something about it. Lighthawk pilots and iLCP photographers passionately volunteer their skills for the protection of wild nature in a new initiative called Tripods in the Sky focused on fueling the conservation efforts of conservation and science partners.
About Neil Ever Osborne
“I blend my backgrounds in science and visual communication to bridge gaps between people whose respective conservation goals are best met through collaboration. I do this using photography, multimedia, and visual communication strategies, while pursuing academic endeavors as a teacher and student of the conservation photography discipline.
I walk a fine line between being a conservationist and a photographer, but at the root of my work is the still image.” – Neil Tell me more!
The views expressed in this guest blog post are those of the International League of Conservation Photographers and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Readers are welcome to exchange ideas or comments, but National Geographic reserves the right to edit or delete abusive or objectionable content.