Self-PortraitSelf-portrait with manatee, taken with D800, natural light, Sigma 15mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/125
We did it! We took our teenagers, age 13 and 15, to different waters. No warm Caribbean sea with reef fish and stingrays, but a cold freshwater river with springs and animals that appeal to the imagination. Our journey brought us to the manatees of Florida's Crystal River.
Getting ready for a family of four who are doing three days of snorkeling includes packing photo gear and video stuff, 7mm wetsuits, masks, booties and hoodies, sweaters and jackets ... we needed eight pieces of luggage and a schedule that would fit in with any military operation!
Early February, when the water of the Gulf is the coldest and the manatees seek refugee in the Florida springs, we arrive in Citrus County, Crystal River.
It's late afternoon and the air feels chilly when we enter the Holiday Inn Express, welcomed by a very kind manager. Mission: unpack, prepare gear, get some sleep!
The next morning before heading out, we need to see Mr. Vicente, who will deliver a photography permit and special photo vests, but although we have an appointment, it is the morning after the Super Bowl and there is nobody at the wildlife refugee. Luckily, Stacy Dunn of Manatees in Paradise provides us with the vests, and Mr. Vicente by phone ensures her we'll get the license later that day.
Off we go!
From the first moment spotting manatees on the boat, they capture our hearts! And entering the water at Three Sisters Springs is a bit surreal. I am eager and I'm first to enter the water. When I see the children submersing in the cold water, I am a bit hesitant, not sure what to expect. Until a manatee with calf swims underneath us, entering the spring. With pure joy and excitement, I lift my head out of the water and urge the children to do the same! I want to share my joy. It will be one of the scarce moments of a total of eight hours snorkeling that I'm not watching underwater through my mask. We can't get enough of it and Stacy provides us with excellent guidance as the well-respected and involved captain and manatee protector she is. We immediately bond and we all interact with the manatees but only if they seek us out. No waking up sleeping animals or swimming after them to touch them. And guess what: this approach is very rewarding. During the first hour our children have a manatee checking them out and clinging onto them, a great experience they will not easily forget. And the last day a female manatee just can't part from me, getting very close which allows me to capture our tête-à-tête on picture with a self-portrait.
After three days, it's time to say goodbye to this gentle creatures. We all agree this was a splendid trip, well worth the packing and traveling and cold (yes, we're real Caribbean wussies by now). I'll never forget the eye contact, the genuine interaction and the funny way they go from active to sleeping mode in a second: they just stop swimming, bow the head and slowly descend flippers first...and rest, motionless, only ascending to breath and descending...to sleep again. On our list of enchanting encounters, this is No. 1!
A video from the encounter was made by my husband Michael Maes. Enjoy!
An extra thank you to Alex Mustard for the tip to book this trip!
To view more of Ellen's work, visit her website.