Photograph by Paul Nicklen
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Most manatees alive today in Florida bear the scars from their encounters with boats. Almost every manatee we photographed had been hit by a propeller and we witnessed more than one death by blunt trauma. Not surprisingly, collisions between manatees and boats are a major cause of manatee mortality.
Photograph by Paul Nicklen

Florida’s Manatees: The Search for Warmer Water

Spending the day perched 90 feet above ground is not what one thinks of when photographing manatees, but that is what my partner, photographer Paul Nicklen, and I ended up doing in March of 2011. Manatees and humans are in a tug of war over fresh water. Our assignment was to visualize the complex and often conflictive dynamics between boaters, swimmers, homeowners, federal authorities and the manatees that overwinter at the Three Sisters Springs in Florida’s Crystal River.

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Manatees congregate near the place where warm water spews out of the ground in the Three Sisters spring, one of the last active springs in this part of Florida. They need the warm water to survive the cold winter months.

With over 1,500 golf courses, a large industrial agriculture infrastructure, and more than 3 million lawns, Florida demands a lot of fresh water. As more water is diverted from the springs to feed this insatiable thirst, the warm water of the springs stops flowing and is replaced by much colder seawater. For the manatees these warm waters are not optional, but a vital refuge where they rest, nurse their calves and most importantly, stay warm during the cold winter months when they come in from the ocean and coastal flats. Their presence is welcomed by the operators of the fast-growing “swim with the manatees business” but reviled by many home and boat owners who have to obey strict speed limits to avoid collisions with these gentle mammals.

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A manatee that lives near the Three Sisters Spring in Florida.

We documented many animals with propeller scars and we witnessed how allowing swimmers and paddlers into the spring, a seemingly innocuous activity, is having a negative effect on the manatees. While manatees do seek interactions with humans, mostly they want to be left alone. But in the Three Sisters, they get no respite. From early morning until sunset, boatloads of tourists arrive in the Springs. They are accompanied by an endless parade of paddle boarders, kayakers and canoers, many of them carrying picnics, beer, small children, dogs, and water toys.

We wanted to document interactions between manatees and the public but after experimenting—with poor results—with aerial photography, we considered renting a boom lift. A credit card and a driver’s license was all we needed to have a 90-foot heavy-duty boom lift delivered to our hotel. Paul then drove the orange behemoth on a mile or so journey to the Three Sisters. After a lot of maneuvering, we eventually positioned the boom lift at the water’s edge.

VIDEO: The warm waters of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida are one of the last remaining strongholds for the Florida manatee especially during the cold months when the water temperature drops below 68 degrees. They are also a popular recreation spot. Here, manatees gathered in a cordoned area around the warm spring are disrupted by the sound of a passing boat, causing them to temporarily flee their refuge.

From our aerial vantage point, we were able to create a time lapse using interval photography. It allowed us to show how boaters zoom by, how swimmers disturb the manatees, and even how a small noise, imperceptible to us, send all the manatees scrambling in a panic. Clearly, rules that have been carefully drafted to moderate boat speeds and public interactions with this endangered mammal are falling far short.

Despite record deaths among Florida’s manatee population since 2010, a petition by Save Crystal River, Inc. and libertarian watchdog group the Pacific Legal Foundation has been filed to force the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to follow through on a five-year-old recommendation that Florida manatees be downgraded from “endangered” status to “threatened”, which means they are no longer on the verge of extinction but could be in the future. The FWS recommended the demotion 7 years ago, in 2007 when a five-year study reported a steady population growth and reduced threats to manatee populations. However, by 2010 things had changed a record 766 Florida manatee deaths were reported. 2013 marked an even more depressing record with 803 manatees dead, due to less available warm spring water, other habitat loss and collisions with boats. The last survey of their population in 2011 placed them at under 5,000 individuals, so in 2013 Florida manatees lost around seventeen percent of their population.

Such a high rate of population loss should give us cause to be more concerned about Florida manatees, not less. If manatees are down-listed, they will lose some of the protections granted by the federal government, like compulsory idle speed limits. Pictures speak louder than words and we hope that our work can be used to argue for even stricter regulations that grant these beautiful creatures further protection.

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Although motorized vessels are not allowed inside the Three Sisters Springs sanctuary, there is intense traffic of kayaks, canoes and swimmers that, intentionally or not, disturb the manatees that are trying to rest, nurse their calves and recover from their wounds.

The story “When Push Comes to Shove,” was featured in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic.