Category Archives: Manatees

Manatee Photography Guide and Tips.

A Morning with Old Friends

Earlier this week I got to enjoy one of the true blessings of living in the Sunshine State…I went swimming with the Manatees.

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

“How can you not love that face!?”

Manatees are just so darn  laid-back and lovable.  They really remind me of basset-hounds…that are ten feet long and weigh as much as a small car. But they don’t have a mean bone in their body and they like nothing more than slowly moseying up to you and rolling over so you can give them a nice belly rub.  Hard not to adore a gentle soul like that.

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

Our captain Wyn Walker of Blue Heaven River Tours was excellent…and his heated boat was a blessing!

We were having a cold snap (for Florida anyway) and I knew that meant that the manatees would be coming in from the Gulf of Mexico and heading for the warm fresh water springs on Florida’s west coast.  Manatees tend to be most active in the morning  so I was up at 4 am and made the 90 minute drive so I could be on a dawn tour.

I met Captain Wyn as the morning treated us to a colorful sunrise.   Rose and Kyle Hooten, a young adventurous couple traveling the country were the only other folks on the tour.  We changed into our wet-suits and 15 minutes later we were the first boat to reach Homosassa Spring where we could see a number of manatees just below the surface.

I grabbed my camera, climbed down the ladder and headed toward a buoy ten feet away that was moving suspiciously.  Sure enough, a manatee was ‘flossing’ on the buoy’s rope:

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

Manatees do love to play with ropes and lines…kinda like kids..

Within seconds, the manatees spotted us and headed over our way.  They seem to be innately curious.

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

“Meet my (not so) little friend!” Rose greets a manatee.

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

“Pleased to make your acquaintance!” Kyle and a manatee check each other out.

We were the subject of quite a bit of attention.  During our first 30 minutes or so, I’d guess that at least a half dozen manatees came over to us.  It really is quite a rush to have such a massive creature swim right up to your nose and stare directly into your eyes.

 

You are allowed to gently touch them with a single hand if they approach you.  Sometimes they come right up to you and start slowly rolling just so you can reach their belly.  A couple of them spent over five minutes with us, clearly loving the attention.  Even though I’ve done this many times, I found myself enthralled all over again.  Often I would just let the camera hang at my side and enjoy the moment…asking myself why it had been over two years since I had last done this.

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

Headshot

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

“Just take the picture Sonny!”

Over the next 90 minutes, we saw manatees on a regular basis.  A number of them were sleeping on the bottom, so of course we let them be, but every few minutes or so a manatee would come swimming by and check us out.

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

Certainly not the best over/under shot I’ve ever taken but I thought it was funny when I was taking a photo of our captain taking a shot of me when this shameless manatee photo-bombed us!

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

The eyes of a gentle soul…

Manatee Photography

Chillin’

After a while the chill soaked thru our wet-suits and the heated cabin started sounding pretty darn alluring. But then another manatee would roll up and we’d forget about the cold again for a few minutes.

But after 90 minutes we decided to called it a day and head back to the dock.  As we warmed up in the cabin, Kyle, Rose and I cheerfully gabbed about our day with the manatees and traded phone numbers promising to exchange photos.

It never hurts to remind myself that photography is about a lot more than just taking pretty pictures!
Jeff

PS:  If you would like to learn more about photographing manatees, check out a couple of my previous blogs here and here.

PSS:  A lot of the regulations concerning manatee photography have changed substantially over the past few years.  I’ll be posting a new blog within the next few weeks with updates and tips.

PSS: Check out my portfolio of manatee portraits here.

Underwater photographer and manatee

Kyle took this shot of me and my underwater rig…can you tell I was having a blast?!

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Perceptions

It is funny how perceptions differ between people.  It is certainly true for photographers as well.  There are some shots that I consider to be my best work that members of my family look at and politely say…”oh, that’s nice.”  On the other hand, there are images I’ve taken that I think are just okay but others really “ahhhh and oooohhhh” about.

The shot below is a perfect example.  I took this image earlier this year but I wasn’t happy with it.  Sure it was nice to get a manatee and a sunrise in the same shot but I didn’t like how part of the manatee wasn’t in focus so I didn’t even bother to process the shot for a few months.  But eventually I did and on a slow day, I named it “Morning Rendezvous” and posted it to my facebook account.  And it went viral.  Over 10,000 ‘likes’, hundreds of shares and comments.  More than anything that I’ve posted before…heck, more than EVERYTHING combined that I’ve ever posted.  People started tracking me down to buy prints and it is now, by far, my best selling print.  It’s been published and used as the banner for multiple websites…heck…the Crystal River Manatee Refuge even used it as the basis of a mural they had painted at their center!

I really don’t intend to brag.  But to be honest, this is a huge break for me professionally, so of course I’m very pleased.  It really is great to create something that strikes such a chord in people.  That is, after all, one of my goals in photography.

But did it have to be this picture?  Clearly most folks aren’t immediately distracted by the poor focus…which is all the perfectionist in me sees.

Funny, huh?!

Morning Rendevous

All I can see are those (out of focus) whiskers….

 

 

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Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

It’s that time of the year again!  Last week I made a trip over to the coast to snorkel with Manatees.  The weatherman said that Thursday would be the coldest day of the winter so far…which ensured that Manatees would be clustered around the (relatively) warm-water springs that abound in Kings Bay.

Although I look forward every year to photographing Manatees,  it is still a bit of a shock when the alarm starts wailing at 3am and I have to haul myself out of my bed, into my Subaru and make the two hour drive to Crystal River.  Sometimes, while making that trip, I start to ask myself if it is really worth the trouble…I mean, I have thousands of manatee photos…do I really need more?  But once I get in the water and the first manatee slowly paddles up and butts his head into my facemask, well, then I remember why I do this:

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

A face only a mother could love? This manatee greeted me within moments of hitting the water. You can see Steve, our Captain, in his warm parka on the back of our boat.

It’s really not only about the pictures:  Swimming with Manatees is a calming and peaceful experience.

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

This big fella really seemed to take a liking me me. I got a nice “Good-Morning” smooch.

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

Sea Cow Ballet

There is just nothing frantic about these lumbering beings and when they peer at you with their sleepy, hound-dog mugs, you just can’t help but smile.

The weatherman was right: It was COLD…and the wind-chill made it even more frigid.  One of the couples on our boat were from Russia (Siberia actually) and even they were freezing!  It was a relief to get into the water…which was at least 40 degrees warmer.  The darkness and silt resulted in poor visibility…maybe 8 feet or less.   But, the cold and poor water clarity were forgotten within minutes…because there were a ton a manatees about.

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

Manatee Flyby

As usual, most manatees didn’t seem very interested in the odd-looking humans, but one youngster was fascinated by us.  Even though we tried to observe him passively, he would have none of that.  He swam right up…bumped into us, held on with his front flippers and just seemed to have a ball snuggling up with his new friends.

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

“See you later buddy!”

All too soon, it was time to leave.  The Manatee in the photo above seemed to slide up to me and ‘wave’ goodbye.

When we got back to the dock, I decided to book a second trip on the 11am boat.  Usually, I only consider going out on the dawn trips because by mid-morning there are usually hundreds of folks in the water.  But the cold weather had resulted in a lot of cancellations, so I figured..what the heck, I’m already here.

Two German tourists from Hamburg were the only customers other than me on the next boat.  It was still pretty chilly (“Sehr Kalt!” according to one of my compatriots).   Although most tour boats inevitably head over to Three Sisters Spring, our Captain decided to try a  less crowded spot:  Jurassic Spring.   He was right…we were the only boat there.

There was plenty of sunlight, but the Manatees had stirred up tons of silt.  The good news is that this did enhance the sunbeams in the water and I was able to get some interesting shots.

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

Underwater Godrays

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

“Monet Manatee” The particulates in the water almost make this shot appear to be impressionistic.

Unfortunately none of these manatee had a fascination with people.  Since government regulations prohibit you from pursuing or approaching them, I had to patiently wait for them to come to me.  The cold water soon sent the Germans back to the boat for hot chocolate.  I stuck it out another hour trying to capture a last portrait or two before I joined them.

As I reviewed my photos the next day, I was initially pretty disappointed.  In the past, I’ve been spoiled by photographing manatees in the crystal clear waters of the Three Sisters Spring.  But there was so much silt in these shots that I had to instead concentrate on playing with the the moody ambiance created by the backscatter and particulates in the river.  Once I made that mental transformation I started to have more success processing my shots and ended up with some that are now among my favorite manatee portraits.  Funny how those initial impressions can be so wrong.

Take care!
Jeff

 

PS:  If you would like to learn more about how to photograph manatees, take a look at my Manatee Photography Guide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

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Manatee Photography: Tips and Suggestions

Those of you that subscribe to my blog know that I’ve been photographing Manatees for years.  Every winter, I look forward to the Manatees returning to Crystal River and my chance to interact and photograph these gentle giants.  And every year, I  learn a few tidbits that help me take better photographs (who says you can’t teach old dogs new tricks?!).  In today’s blog, I’d like to share with you the best of my manatee photographs as well as my learnings, tips and suggestions.

 

Manatee Photography: Tips and GuideBefore we get started, if you are looking for an in-depth review of how to photograph manatees, check out this article I wrote last year.

My first tip : Who to book your tour with

  1. Crystal River/King’s Bay
    • In the past, I haven’t recommended a specific tour company…because over the years I had found them all pretty much the same.  However, this year I took two trips with Bird’s Underwater and I was incredibly impressed.  They’ve been in business for quite a while and somehow manage to combine all the best aspects of the other tours with none of the downsides…and their pricing is competitive as well.  I’m not the only one who thinks highly of them, they also have an excellent Trip Advisor rating.  Here is a link to their website.  And…no, I (unfortunately) don’t get any kickbacks/discounts for this recommendation:)
  2. Homosassa
    • If you decide to try the more ‘photographer friendly’ Homosassa area, then I’d recommend Wyn Walker of Blue Heaven River Tours.  Wyn actually has an enclosed and heated boat, which is quite appreciated when climbing out of the chilly water.  His Trip Advisor rating is also excellent and he is passionate about the manatees..and his customers.  And again…no kickbacks…darn it.

Buy an underwater housing for your DSLR

Although you can get solid quality manatee photos from a waterproof point n shoot camera (which is what I’ve recommended in previous posts), I finally broke down last year and bought a Ikelite underwater housing for my old Nikon D700.  Although I got it used on eBay for half of the retail price, it still wasn’t exactly cheap.  But, I have to admit that using a DSLR provides a significant advantage.

When combined with a 15mm fisheye and an 8″ dome,  you can get truly remarkable shots of Manatees with a technique known as CFWA (Close Focus Wide Angle).  Since manatees will come right up to you (heck, they will bump you!), CFWA is perfect for this type of photography (I wouldn’t try it with Great Whites though).  Alex Mustard is a underwater photographer I have long admired and he has provided a great recap on techniques involved in CFWA…check out this link for more.

Note:  As of 2018, restrictions prohibit approaching closer than 6 feet from a manatee, so if you are using a wide angle lens, be aware of your distance. 

Shooting underwater with a fullsize DSLR takes some practice.  Over the years,  you get to know your camera’s controls without even looking, but don’t be surprised if using an underwater housing initially seems like learning how to use your camera all over again. The sheer size, bulk and weight of the housing can also be a bit intimidating but it manageable with practice.  Oh, and you will certainly get comments from your fellow snorkelers!

Hold your camera down and aim up at the Manatee.

I photographed manatees for years before I realized what a difference it made to use this technique.  It will allow you to capture the dome of the blue sky in your shot, which makes for a beautiful contrast to the grey manatees and green-blue water.

Manatee Photography: Tips and Guide

Looks like a huge blimp is flying overhead!

The photograph bellows illustrates a photographer using this technique:

2014 Manatee Photography: Tips and Suggestions

Regulations prevent you from diving below the surface, but you can accomplish the same effect by holding your camera below you and and angling it up toward the manatee..

Try to capture sunbeams streaming thru the water.

I think sunbeams are a magical enhancement in a manatee portrait.  Although silt in the water doesn’t help the clarity of your photos, it does enhance the sunbeams. Position yourself with the sun nearly in front of you and you should have some luck.

2014 Manatee Photography: Tips and Suggestions

 Try Off Camera Flash

UPDATE 2018:  Flash photography is no longer allowed when photographing Manatees in the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge (which includes Kings’ Bay/Crystal River/3 Sisters).   Photographers should no longer consider early morning trips in this areasince you won’t have adequate sunlight.  Fortunately, manatee photography is usually done within a few feet of the surface, so if it is a sunny day, you should have adequate light during the day.

Note:  Flash photography IS still permitted in the Homosassa River area (about 10 miles south of Crystal River).  Although the manatees are not quite as plentiful, there are still plenty when the air is cold.  You can find are tour companies on TripAdvisor who are located in Homosassa.

Using a flash attached to your underwater housing (not the one on your camera) is a tremendous advantage, for a few reasons:

  1. First of all, by moving the flash away from your lens, you deemphasize the ‘backscatter’ of the silt suspended in the water.
  2. It also helps you illuminate the bulk of the manatee and give it a more 3-D appearance.
  3. Finally, when it is overcast and/or visibility is murky…a strobe will cut thru the gloom and help you finish your day with some usuable shots that wouldn’t have been possible otherwiseManatee Photography: Tips and Guide

Be Aware of New Manatee Laws & Regulations

The laws and regulations that protect Manatees from over-enthusiastic tourists (and photographers) are reasonable and should be respected.  Not only that, they are actively enforced.  Know your responsibilities as a photographer and be well informed before you go…this video from the US Fish and Wildlife Dept. is a great recap (eff March 2014).  Note that the regulations seem to be upgraded every year…be sure you have the latest info.

A few watchouts/suggestions:

  1. No flash photography allowed in the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge (see above)
  2. I suggest that you ask your tour captain how the laws are currently being applied to photographers.  Since there can be some subjectivity to how the regs are enforced, your guide will be able to provide the latest scoop.
  3. Finally, you should be aware that there are those who would prefer that we not be allowed to snorkel with manatees and that all observation be restricted to above-water.  We should consider it to be a honor to be in the water with manatees and be on our best behavior.  It would be a shame if a few overly enthusiastic photographers were to cause all of us to loose this privilege in the future.

Hope this article helps you get better shots the next time you get to photograph these wonderful animals,

Take care!
Jeff

Manatee Photography: Tips and Guide

How could you not love these friendly critters?

 

 Manatee Photography:  Tips and Suggestions


 

 

Also posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Photo Tips and Guides, Underwater Photography, Wildlife

Photo Tips: How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River, King’s Bay and Homosassa

I’ve lived in Florida 40 years and visitors often ask me what they should do when they visit.   At the top of my list is swimming with the Manatees at Crystal River and King’s Bay.  I’ve done it a number of times and I’d like to share with you my learnings and photo tips to help you make the most of this incredible experience.

Manatee surfacing for a breath at sunrise.

Manatees are large, gentle creatures that seem to touch an emotional chord in most people that encounter them. They live in the coastal areas of the southern US and through-out the Caribbean.  Being mammals, they are sensitive to the cold.  As a result, every Florida winter they return from the ocean and head for the rivers that have underwater springs which pump out relatively warm 72 degree water.

Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

“Just Chillin’

Although there are a lot of springs that attract manatees, there two locations where you can readily swim with them:  Crystal River/King’s Bay and Homosassa Springs.  

Of the two, Crystal River usually has the highest concentration of Manatees.  As a result, it is the most popular and an entire industry has been built around this fact.  Crystal River is on the west coast of Florida about 70 miles north of Tampa (100 miles west of Orlando).  There are a bunch of small tour companies there that will take you on a pontoon boat directly to the manatees so you can snorkel with them for a couple hours.  The cost is about $75 per person and includes snorkeling gear and a wetsuit (you will need it…72 might be warm to a manatee but I guarantee you will find it chilly!)  If you haven’t done much snorkeling, don’t let that stop you… most of the places the tours hit are shallow enough that you can simply walk on the bottom rather than swim.

On the other hand, Crystal River’s very popularity has resulted in a number of rules and regulations to ensure that overly enthusiastic tourists (and photographers) don’t harass the manatees.  As a result, if your primary interest is in photographing manatees (rather than just snorkeling with them), then you might prefer Homosassa Springs.  For example, you are not allowed to use underwater flash/strobes anymore in Crystal River, but there are no such restrictions in Homosassa.  These regulations seem to change yearly as the government attempts to balance the best interests of the manatees and the public’s desire to swim with these wonderful creatures.  Please check online here and here  to ensure that you have the latest info.  If you book a tour, your boat captain will know the regulations…just ask. 

My photo tips for Manatees:

Equipment

  • Obviously you will need a waterproof camera. Fortunately, this isn’t like photographing 60′ below the surface inside a wreck…you are shooting in 5 feet of water (freshwater at that)   I’ve used everything from a high-end DSLR in an expensive underwater housing to $300 waterproof point-n-shoots.
  • A DSLR can certainly provide better quality and if you are trying to produce world-class work, then it is the way to go.  However, if the shots are just for your own use and you aren’t going to try to print anything larger than 8×10,  then a high-end waterproof point-n-shoot is a lot easier to use and will give you adequate quality.
  • If you know how to use Photoshop, you will want to shoot in RAW.  This will help to avoid blown-out highlights plus you can adjust the white balance in post processing to account for the shift into the blue spectrum.
  • Whatever camera you are using, practice using it in the water until you instinctively know how to adjust the controls.  I stress this because most of us don’t use underwater cameras often and even if you are using your regular camera in a waterproof housing, you will be surprised how difficult this can be in the water.  For example, the last time I was photographing manatees I was using my Canon S 100 in an Inklite housing.  I practiced using the camera in the housing for an hour the day before the dive.  But…almost as soon as I got in the water I noticed the camera had started a video recording.  For the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off in the housing.  Sixty seconds later the memory card was full and that camera was done for that dive.  Fortunately I had taken a backup camera with me.
  • An underwater flash can dramatically enhance your photos.  The water is often murky and fill-flash is helpful. 
    • However, as noted above, using flash when photographing Manatees is no longer allowed in the Crystal River/King’s Bay area 
    • This regulation only applies to the Manatee Refuge area.  So you might want to consider a tour in the Homosassa River where flashes are still allowed.
  • Take a roomy backpack or duffel bag with you on the boat and load it with a warm change of clothes (including socks), a towel and Thermos with hot coffee or chocolate (some tours have hot beverages on board).
  • If you have your own wetsuit (full wetsuit, not a ‘shorty’) mask and snorkel, bring them as well.  Bring water shoes and wear them when you are in the water. You probably won’t need fins and many tours won’t let you use them anyway (so they won’t inadvertently bother the manatees or stir up silt)
  • The boat ride to the dive site can take up to a half hour (depending which marina you start from).  There is often a lot of wildlife on the way, so I always bring my best DSLR with a long lens (300mm or more).  Eagles, osprey, herons and other birds will keep you busy.

    You can get great photos of manatees with a few photo tips

    You can get great photos of manatees with a few photo tips

When to Go

  • Manatees can be found in Crystal River year-round and the dive companies will tell you you can see them any day of the year.  However, you really want to come during the winter and if possible during a cold snap.  You can see literally dozens of Manatees on a one hour dive during the winter while you might only see a couple during a full day in the summer.
  • Most tour companies have two or three tours a day.  The dawn tour day used to be my favorite.  However, now that flash photography is prohibited the early tour isn’t a good choice for photographers due to the lack light around sunrise.
  • The least busy and therefore the best days of the week are Tuesday thru Thursday (unless one of these days is a holiday).
  • The two weeks before Christmas are excellent since most folks are focused on the holidays and don’t plan a manatee trip.  As a result, you will have the manatees almost to yourselves.Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

What company to Use

  • I’ve used a number of different companies and they all were all adequate.  I’d suggest using Tripadvisor  to check out reviews of potential companies.  Here is a link: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attractions-g34162-Activities-Crystal_River_Florida.html  
    • Be sure that a wetsuit rental is included in the price…otherwise you might be hit with a surprise extra charge.
    • The water is about 72 degrees Fahrenheit, so you might get chilly.  Some companies have heated boats which might be something you want to consider.
  • Personally, in Crystal River, I prefer a company by the name of Bird’s Underwater.  Their captains know their stuff and their price is very competitive (and no, they don’t compensate me for this recommendation).
  • In Homosassa, I’ve had great experiences with  Wyn Walker of Blue Heaven River Tours.  Wyn actually has an enclosed and heated boat, which is quite appreciated when climbing out of the chilly water.  His Trip Advisor rating is also excellent and he is passionate about the manatees..and his customers.  And again…no kickbacks…darn it.

 

  • 2015 Manatees 08 January 09922_1

    If you do have a DSLR in an underwater housing, then Over/Under shots can be a lot of fun.

Tips:

  • When you first get in the water, scout around a bit to see where the manatees are.  Don’t necessarily stop at the first manatee you see one.  What you are ideally looking for is:
    • A Manatee that is in relatively shallow water (less than 5 feet)
    • A Manatee that is close to and downstream from one of springs (this will ensure that your shots won’t show much suspended silt).
    • A Manatee that isn’t surrounded by a horde of snorkelers.
  • Often the manatees are resting on the bottom.  If see this, position yourself about ten feet in front of the manatee.  Try to find a spot that has a darker background behind the manatee (ideally, you want to get the dark blue water of the spring behind it).  Now… you….wait.  Usually it will come up to breath every 3 or 4 minutes rising slowly to the surface and back to the bottom.  If so, you should be able to get a number of shots every time it does this.
  • If the manatees are moving, you just have to try to anticipate where they are going and position yourself accordingly  Keep in mind that you are not allowed to harass them…which basically means that you shouldn’t do anything that makes them change their behavior.  In other words, if a manatee swims right up to you and rolls over, you can rub her belly (this really happens..and it is just incredibly cool when it does), but you can’t swim up to a stationary manatee and try to climb on it’s back.  Please review the official  regulations on the attached link: http://myfwc.com/education/wildlife/manatee/viewing-guidelines/
  • I’ve never had a captain rush me back to the boat, even when I was the last one from our boat in the water (actually, I’m always the last one in the water).  However, be aware of the time and the fact that unless you hired the boat for the entire day, that the captain does have another boatload of folks waiting back at the dock.Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

Post-production

  • Your primary task will be re-adjusting the white balance.  Manatees are grey, so you can usually just touch your Photoshop white-point stylus to their skin and get close to the right colors.
  • It can be challenging to get a shot that has the right exposure.  If you were able to shoot raw, then you should be able to recover most, if not all of the blown-out highlights that often result from the sun reflections off the surface of the water.
  • No matter how careful you set up your shot, you will probably see some suspended silt (backscatter) in your shots.  You can try using the dust filter in Photoshop but if that is a bit too severe you can just take a deep breath and take the time to use your clone tool systematically thru the frame and remove the ‘backscatter’.

UPDATE:

  • I’ve added a number of new techniques and suggestions in a more recent blog.  Click on this link to see more!

Final thoughts

If you want to photograph more after your tour, then take the time to hit some of the numerous parks located right on the water in Crystal River (none of them are more than ten minutes away).  I’ve gotten some incredible bird shots here…two weeks ago I watched (thru my viewfinder) an osprey desperately trying to steal a fish from another osprey that had just snatched it from the river.  Just another boring day in Florida!

 

PS:  After completing this blog, I was referred to an excellent photo guide by John Ares.  Check out the attached link: http://www.divephotoguide.com/underwater-photography-travel/article/underwater-photographers-guide-manatees-crystal-river/

Good luck and good shooting!
Jeff

Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

 

 


 

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