How I Got the Shot

Florida manatees are an endangered species found in the rivers, springs and ocean around the state of Florida in the United States. By far, one of the best places to encounter these gentle giants is at Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, a state park filled with crystal clear blue water, perfect for capturing imagery of this sometimes curious and playful species.

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Professional Nikon Photographer Amanda Cotton is a widely published underwater photographer based in Florida.

Her work has been featured in science and diving magazines as well as National Geographic, BBC, Discovery Channel, The Weather Channel, Smithsonian Magazine, Times Publishing, CNN, Natural History Magazine and Earthweek.

A member of The Explorers Club and the Ocean Artists Society, Cotton was recently inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame.

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Under special permit, underwater photographers are allowed to enter the water with camera in hand to photograph manatees within the state park. Strict regulations are in place to protect the manatees from harassment and abuse as they move into the spring head area to rest and to keep their young warm, as temperatures fall in the winter months.

Many times, manatees will approach swimmers and photographers alike, as this species can be quite playful. With a friendly and outgoing manatee, the photography opportunities are endless.

 In this particular image (left), a young manatee moved in close to my camera several times, curious over its reflection in my large dome port. The sun breaking through the trees directly behind us added a nice dramatic backdrop for the scene.

Darkening the exposure on the ambient light helped make the sun rays stand out against the dark sand and roots in the background. The area inside the spring head of Three Sisters Springs is great for photography, with so many different lighting scenarios available to underwater photographers due to the tall trees and light-to-dark changes in sand color.

It never ceases to amaze me how incredible it feels to have a wild animal initiate contact and the interaction. Many times, manatees will attempt physical contact with swimmers.

According to the rules of the park, if a manatee initiates the physical contact, swimmers are allowed to touch the manatee in return. This has been somewhat controversial over the years because of confusion in determining who initiated the contact and encounter.

At Three Sisters Springs, magical encounters happen often. We, as underwater photographers and swimmers in the area, need to stay vigilant in respecting the animals and the surrounding environment of this special place so that generations to come can continue to enjoy it.

Recent changes to the park and its regulations in regards to swimming with manatees have restricted some access to them. These updated rules have been put into place to further protect manatees in the area from harassment. Many of the rules directly impact underwater photographers, both professionals and amateurs. It is recommended for any underwater photographer interested in photographing the Florida manatees in and around Three Sisters Springs to contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Crystal River for more information on how to safely and respectfully interact with this species. 


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