|"Thicker Than Water" - Manatees in Three Sisters Spring|
|Carlton Ward boats out before dawn on Crystal River. In the background a tour boat full of eager passengers.|
When I started getting into underwater photography, I knew I'd eventually return to immortalize that same wonderment I felt nearly fifteen years before. This winter, when I got a call from Carlton Ward Jr to spend a few days looking for aquatic cows, I packed up my truck and headed out.
|Gray snappers school near the main vent in Three Sisters Spring|
|A Florida snapping turtle walks across the sandy bottom in search of its mate.|
|Carlton walks to the put-in.|
The forecast called for rain and thunderstorms on the second day and we were a little discouraged because we came to an empty spring on the first. By this time in the season, the daily temperatures were rising and we weren't too hopeful that we'd find manatees. That morning, a massive storm cell was pounding at the roof and with a only a few hours of sleep under our belts, the snooze button cried for mercy when the alarm went off. It was a combination of the fear of total failure and faith that something good might happen that ended up dragging me out of the house. So, at 5:30am albeit reluctantly, we geared up and took off to the water.
We swam, hauling our gear and a dive flag for what seemed like a mile. Going into the spring run, it was dark but crystal clear. Floating at the surface, all I could hear was a barrage of rain pounding hollow notes on my wetsuit while thunder bellowed overhead. When I submerged, there was silence. Ten yards ahead a group of manatees slept next to the spring boil. It was absolutely magic.
The rain created an incredible atmosphere. Looking up, the intoxicating arctic blue of Florida's springs was accompanied by liquid diamonds dappling the surface. I couldn't believe my luck.
We enjoyed the intimate session with the manatees for almost an hour before a group of eager snorkelers showed up. I hate to admit it, but I loathed that they intruded on our private session. I had heard plenty of stories about tourists scaring the manatees and murking up the water.
It was a rainy day, though, and the groups were small, maybe 60 people total came through. The longer I spent in the water I started to notice that the tour operators corralling the visitors were deliberate and extremely attentive to how the manatees were approached. Each visitor was required to watch an instructional video on how to swim with manatees beforehand and it showed. The visitors floated at the top of the water column, not disturbing the sandy bottom, and they enjoyed their safe distance, probably never to forget their experience of swimming with the gentle giants. Then, they left, and the manatees stayed, sleeping in their cool blue sanctuary.
|Mullet school along the mangroves in Three Sisters Spring.|
There's something to be said about proper wildlife management and responsible business owners working in tandem for a mutual goal. In my years of being outside and working my way around tour groups, I've never been so impressed with how well they balanced their excitement with their stewardship. Education is the key, and I'm stoked to see it worked. USFWS invested in making the videos and speaking with their local tour operators and it has paid off. Go team.
|Mac Stone and Carlton Ward pose for a photo in Crystal River.|