Twenty years ago, if I had a camera in my hand it was (with very few exceptions) being used to capture a tropical scene, either beneath the water or along its margins. I was young, new to photography, arguably shortsighted, and positively obsessed with the ocean. If Jimmy Buffet didn't sing about it or Cousteau didn't document it, I had very little interest in shooting it. Admittedly, the bulk of these photographs weren't very good and ended up in a film box packed away deep in the basement, but I sure had a good time taking them.
As I aged, I begrudgingly expanded my subject matter and techniques, learning about off-camera lighting, more advanced filtering, camera and optical mechanics, high dynamic range sequencing, and digital editing. I finally began venturing inland...way inland: to cities, farms, churches, and even studios: the driest of environments where the risk of flooding an underwater strobe was absent and the pay was better. Yet there was a draw to the ocean that was hard to shake and I returned whenever possible. In a counter-intuitive twist, all of that time spent shooting and training away from the sea led to an arsenal of methods that ultimately helped me to walk away from a coastal or underwater shoot with images destined for publication or licensing rather than a box in the basement. The interaction of light with water will always be my greatest photographic love and I consider myself lucky whenever I get the chance to chase after it.
In October of 2015 I made a trip to Florida's gulf coast to shoot a couple of commissioned photos, expand my portfolio of shoreline images, and to see if I could track down a manatee or two willing to have its picture taken. I knew the last of these tasks would prove to be the most problematic. Manatees are extremely sensitive to water temperature and venture up river to find warmth in the spring fed waters near Kings Bay during the winter months when the gulf cools. This migration typically begins in November but there are always a few that hang around and I was hoping to find one.
With four days to myself, I tried to plan out the best use of my time, shooting coastal images in the softer light of dusk, crawling into Kings Bay to look for manatees in the mornings, and scoping locations during the hard sun of midday. I also made the drive north to visit some of Florida's underground springs including Devil's Den, a water filled cavern that over the years has given up fossils of numerous extinct animals from the Pleistocene (an epoch dating between approximately 1.8 million years ago through about 11,000 years ago) as well as human remains from more than 7,000 years ago. The cavern at Devil's Den looks like a scene right out of Raiders of the Lost Ark with a glass-smooth, turquoise blue pool illuminated from a hole in the cave's ceiling. The water, like that of other springs in the area is a constant 72 degrees and crystal clear.
I have long since forgotten the number of times I've visited Florida however most of these trips were to the southeast portion of the state and the keys where I could easily reach the vibrant coral reef that can't be found along the gulf coast. Whatever the western coast of Florida lacks underwater however, it makes up for with its stunning coastline and seemingly endless sugar-white sand beaches. There are hundreds of miles of shoreline to explore and I found myself wishing I had more time to do so. There were just too many choices: Popular beaches like Clearwater and St. Petes, coastal islands like Anna Maria and Fort De Soto, sprawling keys like Longboat and Siesta...they went on and on...and I was still half a state away from Marco Island and the 10,000 Islands chain. Yet I wasn't able to venture that far for one simple reason: I needed to travel north every morning to Crystal River...I wanted manatee images.
After three days of shooting, I was feeling good about about the coastal scenes I'd captured but getting a shot of a manatee was proving to be more than a bit disappointing. There were several issues I was contending with and by Thursday I was ready to give up. Finding one in the first place wasn't easy this time of year and once we finally did, a group of excited snorkelers stormed into the water to see, breaking one of my strobe arms and stirring up the mucky bottom along the way. Dredging activities in the area reduced water visibility to less than two feet so when I finally came face to face with a mother and her calf, the water was so cloudy, getting a good image was maddeningly impossible. After two days of similar experiences, I'd decided to cut my losses...a decision that made it about three hours before crumbling. I really hated to return home without giving it one more try so Friday I reconfigured my camera and returned to the bay...and this time I got lucky.
I'd slipped into a canal and was looking under a dock when I first saw her. She was probably in the 1500-pound range and was noisily chomping away on sea grass. Manatees can consume more than 10% of their body weight daily and she seemed intent on reaching that goal. With new U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulations prohibiting scuba diving after the animals or even flash photography, there was only one way I'd get any decent photos: She'd have to come to me. And that's exactly what happened. We swam together for almost half an hour and as we did I fired away while she surfaced, rolled onto her back and nuzzled my mask. After three frustrating days I'd found my perfect model.
Manatees live a life that makes me a bit envious, dividing their time between eating, resting, and traveling. Their numbers have been steadily increasing, largely due to the hat trick of laws in place to protect them including the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. They're an animal worth protecting and with a bit of luck, they'll make it off the endangered species list sooner than later.
Water and light....and everything in between...what could be better?