21. September 2018
Crystal River, Florida. This promised crystal-clear water in Sunshine State with its most famous sea creatures: manatees, seaweed-eating marine mammals, in which my eternal travel companions immediately came up with terms such as “sweet” or “cuddly”. And indeed: together with thousands and thousands of tourists every year we also went to this American town to get in touch with the relatives of the elephants, known from Greek mythology. Nowhere else in the USA is it allowed to observe the animals directly in the water.
Manatee in Sunbeams
Manatee, Crystal River, Florida, USA, Photo by PanOceanPhoto

The journey started with light luggage: snorkel, fins, mask, diving suit. No automatic breathing apparatus, no jackets! Also in hand luggage only the camera with dome port and housing. Lightning, tripods and snoots stay at home this time. That’s all we need. There will be no time for all the other interesting dive spots in the tropical tip of the United States. Then another time!

A city shapes nature

The city of Crystal River is just over two hours’ drive from Orlando International Airport. It takes its name from a river only a few miles long, which feeds itself from some fresh water springs and then flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The main attraction are without a doubt the manatees, who live here in their winter quarters. Escaping from the cold temperatures in the open ocean, they spend several months here. The perfect opportunity for us to get in touch with these peaceful creatures.

When we crossed the city limits, we were amazed: on every corner of the city, various companies offer snorkelling tours to the manatees. Big business, perfectly organized. We will also register for the next day with a larger provider. We were lucky: depending on the season and the day of the week, you have to book well in advance. But we are promised a place on a late tour.

So there is plenty of time to explore the city and its surroundings. This is where such a well-known spectacle of nature can be observed. The river course seems to be completely straightened. In the senior citizens state of Florida, every river meter with house and boat dock is built in. Stitching channels create additional property ownership that is easy to sell. The competition between nature conservation and commerce can be fought here with your hands.

The next morning we were led to a kind of training room. For more than half an hour, we were told about the various regulations and guidelines around the encounter with manatees.  The legally prescribed protective measures are quite rightly very strict and – one has to admit this too – make life quite difficult for us photographers: Absolute prohibition of lightning, no scuba diving, not even freediving is tolerated. The snorkel tip must always look out of the water, lead is taboo, and of course the handling, pursuing or harassing of the peaceful full-time vegetarians is also taboo. The English keyword is “passive observation” and describes well what it’s all about: letting the manatees decide whether and how they want to get in touch with people.

Bleak outlooks

Then we finally got out on the water. In the flat bottom boats typical for the area, we drove towards Three Sisters Springs. Most of the time, walking speed was prescribed – to protect the manatees. Finally we arrived at our destination and soon realized that we were not alone. A dozen or so boats floated around a closed protected area.

Equipped with wet suit (5mm were not too warm for me, no, not at all), mask and fins it starts. Well, fins are not necessarily mandatory, but then you have to swim with a floating noodle as a buoyancy buoyant body in the water. And quite honestly, as an experienced underwater photographer with several dives on the hump, no, that seemed to me a little bit unworthy. After a short review of the most important protection regulations, we were finally allowed to go into the water with a camera.

For a moment I had my breath stagnated. Visibility around the corner from home, just like in an excavator hole. Not two meters! While the Manatees’ main goal, the warm freshwater springs of the Crystal River, is indeed to provide wonderful views, the rest of the river is a rather opaque mix of salt and fresh water, depending on the tidal conditions. So brackish brackish water. And this in the so-called Crystal River! Also on the dividing lines to the protection zone there was hardly more than a body length something to be seen. So I snorkelled for a while.

Encounters in the water

In the cloudy water I suddenly saw a massive shadow beneath me. My first real mermaid! For some reason, which I cannot understand, these little-tailored animals, which are closely related to elephants biologically, are equated with ladies dressed in light clothing from sailor legends. In reality, I was faced with a shriveled, tiny, eye-friendly eating machine. Without ceasing, they try to grind the last bit of vegetal green from the seabed with their huge mouth.

The encounters in the open water were particularly interesting for me from a photographic point of view. The surface of the water offered wonderful mirror images. The sun transformed the murky water into a turquoise green world of dancing rays of light. How wonderfully curious and patient these animals are at the same time! Slowly they swim towards you, get close to you, turn on their backs and want to be admired. Thank God they don’t let my camera monster impress them.

I had a good hour and a half to take my pictures. I was very lucky to be able to observe a mother while suckling. Her teats have the female manatee underneath her fins. There is really nothing in nature that does not exist!

I left the water with a feeling of great calmness and relaxation. Manatees have their own rhythm. Her apparent serenity and tranquillity are easily transmitted. But reality quickly caught up with me. Around me, about half a dozen tourist boats romped about.

For me, this is an unusual picture. On many of my travels I am in very remote places and avoid bigger hustle and bustle. But not here. Here, tourism is combined with very strictly practiced nature conservation. How many destinations will take the same route in the future?

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