This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic News Watch blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.
One of the things I love most about photography is its ability to reveal things that are otherwise hidden to the human eye. When I first arrived at the Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida to assist Paul Nicklen, a photographer doing a story on the Florida manatee on assignment for National Geographic Magazine, we got a glimpse into the love-hate relationship between the manatees we came here to photograph and the humans who call this place home.
The Three Sisters Springs is one of the last remaining strongholds for the Florida manatee. The warm waters that seep out of the ground year round are critically important to manatees during the cold winter months, when the water temperature drops below 68 degrees. In 2013 a record 829 manatee deaths were attributed to cold shock, underscoring the importance of these last few springs to this endangered mammal’s survival.
Over the past 50 years the springs and the vast network of canals that connect the springs to the ocean have been overtaken by waterfront properties, golf courses and condos. The Three Sisters have been one of the main stages where the battle between residential development and the need to protect the last flowing springs has been fought. No larger than a public swimming pool, the Three Sisters Springs are one of the few springs where locals have been able to keep development at bay. Three years ago, they were slated to become 300 waterfront condos, but local activists were able to purchase the property and turn it into a sanctuary for manatees. The Fish and Wildlife Service, who manage the manatee population and monitor the Three Sisters, constantly find themselves refereeing between angry citizens, home-owners, businesses that specialize in “manatee tourism” and of course, the manatees.
Running out of warm places where they can survive the chilly winter months, the manatees are forced to navigate the treacherous maze of canals and marinas to seek refuge in the Three Sisters Springs and this puts them at odds with local boaters. They come in from the colder ocean in groups of two and threes, mothers and calves, and very often alone, to find a quiet place to rest. As soon as they enter the canals, however, they must dodge an endless parade of motorized vessels. The manatees, extremely peaceful and mellow are quite often too slow to realize a boat is approaching and the consequences are often a collision between soft mammal skin and propeller. The manatees often fare worst and most of the animals coming into the Three Sisters sport one or more scars from these encounters with boats. Some battles, like the one to force boaters to reduce speed have lasted for years and have been very contentious. Angry residents eager to enjoy fast water sports do not appreciate having to navigate at idle speed to accommodate the slower mammals. Many manatees die as a result of these collisions, further aggravating their already perilous situation.
In addition to coastal development and motorized vessels, there is a third and powerful force the manatees must contend with. Crystal River has a thriving “swim with the manatees” business and locals depend on tourism to keep the wheels of the local economy turning. Over the few weeks we spent here, we witnessed how the access of swimmers and paddlers into the spring, a seemingly innocuous activity, is having a negative effect on the manatees. Of course we all fantasize about swimming with manatees. These gentle creatures are cute and mellow and often they are the ones who seek to interact with humans. More often than not, however, they just want to be left alone, and in the Three Sisters they get no respite. From early morning until the sunsets, boat after boat of loud tourists, some clad with wetsuits and fins, others braving the chilly water with just their bathing suits arrive in the Springs. They are accompanied by an endless parade of paddle boarders, kayakers and canoers. These smaller boats come in carrying picnics, small children, dogs and water toys. I am sure their intentions are good. Furthermore, I am certain that the interaction with the manatees has a positive and lasting effect on their views on wildlife conservation and the environment.
This seemingly harmless activity, however, has very detrimental effects on the manatees. Although they desperately need to rest and keep their bodies close to the warm water, the swimmers, paddlers and motorized boats constantly displace them from their life-sustaining sanctuary. Manatees, including nursing mothers, injured and nearly hypothermic animals are constantly awakened and scared away. Although the Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a constant presence of wonderful volunteers who monitor the interactions between manatees and humans, it is impossible for them to see what is going on from ground level.
Hoping to gain a bird’s eye view of the Three Sisters, and having experimented —with poor results – with aerial photography from a low-flying Cessna, we pondered the idea of renting a boom lift. To my surprise, renting such a large piece of heavy machinery is actually quite simple. A credit card and a driver’s license was all we needed to have a monstrous 90-foot heavy-duty boom lift delivered to us. We all looked in shock as the driver unloaded the orange monster and handed us papers. Paul, who as a young man worked in construction promptly volunteered to drive it and with the blessing of the Fish and Wildlife Service we started the 2-kilometer journey to the edge of the Three Sisters. Watching Paul and his assistant, iLCP Fellow Neil Ever Osborne, drive the beast into position gave me a sense that we were on the verge of producing important images.
With a lot of back-and-forth and eager to keep our promise to be mindful of all the vegetation and signage around the springs we eventually positioned the boom lift at the edge of the water. As soon as we clambered to the basket and lifted it to 90 feet – its maximum extension – we realized just what an advantageous point of view this was. Surprisingly, although we were perched high above the heads of the many tourists who were busy below us, many failed to notice the machine entirely. A notable exception was an angry man on a boat who demanded vociferously to know if we had a license to drive a boom lift. Paul and Neil, both poster boys of Canadian politeness, kept assuring him that we were well within legal parameters.
From the vantage point of an aerial view, we were able to create a time lapse (see link above) using interval photography. It allows us to see how swimmers disturb and scare the manatees and how the rules that have been carefully drafted to moderate the interactions with this endangered mammal are often ignored or dismissed and just plain inadequate. The time lapse reveals that the manatees desperately need more space and peace and quiet to survive the winter months. We were proud to hand this time lapse to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Our hope is that it can be used to create laws that, for once, favor the manatee.
To learn more about how you can help protect Florida’s manatees, visit the Save the Manatee Club website. Please sign their petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make Three Sisters a true winter sanctuary for manatees so they can rest undisturbed; and implement a no-touch policy for this endangered marine mammal.