Photo of the week: Manatee in Crystal River, Florida

Manatee in Florida's Crystal River.

This image was not only my first ever attempt at underwater photography, but it represented a dream come true for me to swim with manatees (aka sea cows). These mermaids of Floridian canals and rivers had fascinated me ever since I first clamped eyes on a manatee at Sea World when I was a small child. I immediately fell in love with these huge giants, their vulnerability and their slow meandering paths through the murky waters of Florida. Frequently victims of power boat blades, these gentle giants spend most of their lives in shallow waters, dozing, swimming and eating contentedly. Favouring warmer waters, there are several regions of Florida where you can see and swim with Manatees, none more famous than Crystal River. That’s where Ali and I headed to celebrate one of our landmark birthdays in February 2010.

After squeezing into a wetsuit, goggles and a rubber bonnet, we slipped into the murky and ‘warm’ waters of Crystal River. Barely 5 foot deep, the river was home to dozens and dozens of manatees. Before I could even start to swim from the boat I felt manatees around me, under me, gently nudging me to get past. The water was so murky I could not see a thing, so somewhat nervously I swam through a narrow, dark channel, barely 1 foot deep in places, to reach a safe haven of the manatees. Here, in a clearing, the waters grew warmer and then cleared, enabling me to look eye to eye with my favourite animal for the first time ever.

We spent over 3 hours in the water with the manatees – it was the best £30 I have ever spent! It was an amazing opportunity to spend time interacting with the manatees and experiment with underwater photography and video.

We used a Panasonic Lumix DMC FT1 underwater camera/ video camera purchased especially for this occasion. Its performance underwater is supreme compared to its out of water performance when it can be slow to respond and can suffer camera shake from the need to firmly push the shutter release button to take a shot. Underwater, it was good – in unclear waters it focussed easily on the subject and was not distracted by floating particles in the water. It withstood being submerged for over three hours, and the absence of a protruding zoom lens enabled the manatees to get up close and personal with the camera – often coming closer for a curious look… sometimes even trying to take a friendly bite of the camera! The buttons are large enough to control underwater with wet gloves on, and it was easy to flit from photos to video camera settings. One bonus, is that you can interrupt filming to take a picture – which is exactly how I got this shot (above).

This image reminds me of trying new photography techniques and is a memory of a dream come true. That’s why it is my photo of the week.

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