Tag Archives: underwater photography

Underwater St. Lucia

St. Lucia Pitons

Yup, those are the Pitons. The tallest one darn near killed me…it was like climbing a ladder for two miles!

My family recently returned from a couple of weeks on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.  Known as ‘the Helen of the West Indies’ it fully lives up to the nickname.  It’s lush, volcanic and reminds me of Kauai (which I consider to be the most gorgeous place on earth).

The first week was spent with family.  We hiked an insanely steep volcanic mountain (Gros Piton), went horseback riding, zip-lined, rode ATVs and drank a substantial amount of rum.  Plus I learned how to drive on the left side of the road…and that was truly entertaining!

The second week was just my wife Anita and I.  One of the reasons we had picked St. Lucia was because of the incredible scuba diving there: we took full advantage and dove every day.

Over the past five years, I’ve struggled  to grasp the fundamentals of underwater photography…with mixed results.  But on this trip, my equipment worked perfectly (which is NEVER a sure thing).  Plus, I fell into a grove and started to get images I was really happy with.  These may not be ‘world class’ photos but just the same, I want to share them so you can appreciate the amazing, bizarre and captivating world that lays just below the ocean’s surface.

Underwater St. Lucia

This little gal was a very cooperative subject and let me fill a good part of a memory card while capturing her portrait.

Underwater St. Lucia

Anita indulging in her favorite underwater activity: Wreck Diving.

Underwater St. Lucia Underwater St. Lucia

Underwater St. Lucia

Scorpionfish: Creator of the original ghillie suit!

 

Underwater St. Lucia

Jack Elam had nothing on the Lizardfish

Underwater St. Lucia

“Don’t look up!” Banded Coral Shrimp just hanging around.

“Who…me?!” Juvenile Grouper hiding in a Strawberry Vase Sponge

Underwater St. Lucia

♫You Poor unfortunate soul♪ Vocal stylings by the Goldentail Morey Eel..

 

Underwater St. Lucia

“I have you now!” They might look like the Darth Vader of the depths but Moray Eels actually go out of their way to avoid divers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Underwater St. Lucia

“Waiting for the Starship Troopers” This Spider Crab looks like an extra in my favorite Science Fiction movie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Underwater St. Lucia

One of the earth’s most elegant creatures: a young Spotted Drum

One of the earth's most elegant creatures: a young Spotted Drum

A whole bed of garden eels. They sway back and forth in unison as the current shifts.

I know that most of you read this blog because of an interest in landscape or wildlife photography, but I hope you don’t mind this little side-trip into another fascinating part of our incredible earth.

Jeff

 

PS:  If you go diving in St. Lucia, Anita and I highly recommend Scuba Steve’s.  Steve and Shirley have one of the most personable dive operations we’ve experienced anywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Underwater St. Lucia

 

 

 

Posted in Caribbean/Central & South America, Underwater Photography Also tagged , |

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver’s Paradise

When I first began my career in photography, I was drawn to the icons…Yosemite, Yellowstone, Arches (you know the list).  The internet and libraries are filled with info about “Photographing the Southwest,”  “How to photograph the Grand Canyon” and “Fifty Places to Photograph Before you Die.”  These icons are famous for a reason…great photographs can be taken there and as an aspiring photographer it only made sense to  ‘fish where the fish are.’

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Bonaire Bound

But there is a downside too…and that is that it is unlikely that your shots are really going to stand out.  Yes, they still might be impressive, beautiful and inspiring….but honestly, it is pretty difficult to take a unique photograph of Half Dome from Yosemite’s Tunnel View when 43 trillion other photos have been taken from the same spot.

One solution is find a new way to photograph an old icon: a different angle, a creative perspective, something…anything new and different!  You will find this piece of advice in nearly every photography article ever written.  It’s good advice, and I certainly strive to dream up new ways capture these legendary vistas.

But there is another way to take a unique photo.  Find a place that isn’t already well known to every photographer on the planet.

I can’t honestly say that this is the reason my wife and I spent a week on the island of Bonaire earlier this fall.   To be honest, we were there because we are divers and Bonaire is well known as a “Diver’s Paradise.”  I hoped there might be something else to photograph, so I searched the internet.  But even Google failed to give me much except lots and lots of underwater shots.  But I’m an optimist, so I packed my cameras, tripods, lenses and another 80 pounds of photo gear…just in case.

I’m glad I did!

It turns out that there is a lot more to photograph in Bonaire than just fish.  A lot more…

First a bit about the island.  Bonaire lies about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela and is the least well-known of the “ABC” islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao).   Cruise ships don’t visit often and with less than 17,000 natives it is quiet and uncrowded.   It’s a Dutch island and people are friendly but respectful (you don’t get mobbed by people yelling “hey pretty lady, buy my t-shirts!”  Surprisingly, the island is very dry…looking more like the desert Southwest than the typical lush tropical rainforest you might expect.

First of all, there is some fascinating wildlife to keep your camera busy.  Yes, they have iguanas (which I simply love….running around like half-baked dinosaurs)!

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Iguana Rex

And then there were the birds…wow!  Bonaire has over 210 species of birds.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Barika-Hel

For me, a highlight had to be the Flamingos.  Bonaire is host to the one of the few places in the world that has breeding grounds of the Caribbean Flamingo.  Heck, I’d never seen a flamingo except in a zoo….and in Bonaire I saw thousands.  They don’t like noise or movement, so you need a long telephoto and some stalking skills, but where else can you get shots like this?Barika-Hel

As you know, I adore hummingbirds, so I was delighted to see hummers swarming the flowering bushes and trees around our resort even before we got to our room!

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Ruby Topaz (Chrysolampis mosquitus)

The Ruby-Topaz hummingbird and the well named Emerald hummingbird  are both gorgeous and much different from the Ruby-Throated hummers we have back at home in Florida.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Emerald Hummingbird (Chlorostilbon mellisugus)

For the entire week, after our morning dives, you would often find me with my 70-200mm staked out by the flowers near our room.  Other tourists would be walking to their rooms, spot me, take a wary look at the guy creeping around with a camera… but then they would see the hummers and their faces would light up and they would start whispering and pointing.

Oh yeah, they had parrots too! (at least I thought they were parrots).  Right outside our room..often roosting in the same trees as the hummers were what the locals called ‘Loras.’   They looked like a huge parakeets on steroids, which it kinda turns out they are.  Meet the Caribbean Parakeet (Aratinga pertinax, subspecies xanthogenius) .  They certainly had no fear of people and posed patiently while I burned thru some memory cards.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

The Schwarzenegger of Parakeets!

There aren’t many big critters on the island.

Spotted Trunkfish

Meet Larry, Curley and Moe

The most interesting are the donkeys. Apparently the early Dutch imported a lot of donkeys for use as pack animals.  When cars and trucks became available, the donkeys were let loose to roam the island and fend for themselves.  Since they aren’t native, life was challenging for the newly emancipated burros, but in 1993,  Marina Melis and her husband Ed Koopman, established a donkey sanctuary on Bonaire for sick, wounded and orphaned donkeys.  Now over 400 donkeys call the Donkey Sanctuary home.  For a small donation you can drive thru the compound.  If you ever wanted the opportunity to get a close-up photo of a donkey, here is your chance.  Hey, it’s not photographing Grizzly’s catching spawning Salmon, but it makes for an entertaining photo op!

Spotted Trunkfish

“Hey Pretty Lady, are you going to finish that carrot?”

How about landscapes?  Well, to be honest, we never even made it to the northern part of the island which is the home of Washington Slagbaai National Park.   This park covers 1/5 of the total island and locals told me it had the most potential for landscape photography on Bonaire.  Unfortunately, I really only explored the southern coast and  central part of the island around our resort (near Kralendijk, the Capital).

The salt flats on the southern end of the island are pretty dramatic.  The water in the flats is actually pink…well maybe mauve…well, it changes, depending on how the sunlight hits it.  The huge mountains of salt in the background can make some fascinating images when contrasted with the salt ponds and if you happen to find a couple flamingos necking in a salt pond in the foreground, you might actually get one of those unique images we were talking about:)

Spotted Trunkfish

“Caribbean Fantasy”

Also on the isolated and unpopulated southern coast were the remains of the slave huts and ship markers that are a fascinating but disturbing reminder of a past when slaves worked under harsh conditions harvesting sea salt from the nearby salt flats.  The huts are minuscule and must have been like ovens with whole families crowded into them.

Spotted Trunkfish

The obelisks were built in 1837 as markers directing ships to the correct beach where the salt would be loaded.

Since there isn’t much light pollution on Bonaire and nothing but ocean to the south, I hoped this might be a good spot for Milky Way photography.  I was right!   It might have been a bit spooky but it made for some wonderful and unusual photography.

Spotted Trunkfish

Cursed Obelisk

After my wife and I returned home, I got a note from one of the folks I had met on Bonaire telling me about a Photo Contest the island’s tourism bureau was conducting.  The top prize was a week of lodging for two along with food, rental car and free diving.  I’m not much on contests, I’d rather be out taking photos than filling out forms but my wife encouraged me to enter.  I find it is usually a good idea to listen to her advice….and guess what?

Spotted Trunkfish

I should always listen to my wife!

Looks like we will be going back to Bonaire in 2016!

Jeff

PS:  I have a long way to go with my Underwater photography before I ever see the end of my learning curve.  But I love a challenge,  Plus the underwater world is alien, colorful and visually stunning. My UW shots didn’t win any prizes, but I’d like to share a few of them with you anyway:

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Spotted Eel

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Caribbean Reef Squid

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

My wife loves these little guys. They are just plain funny looking. We call them Cowfish but I’ve been told it is actually a Spotted Trunkfish

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

 

 

Posted in Caribbean/Central & South America, Hummingbirds, Milky Way Photography, Underwater Photography, Wildlife Also tagged , , , , |

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

Posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Manatees, Underwater Photography Also tagged , , |

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

I’ve just returned from a two week photo extravaganza in Hawaii and I have a lot of photos, stories and tips that I’m dying to share with you.  After the first ten days or so, I was starting to think that my biggest problem would be deciding what I would write about first, but that turned out not to be an issue after my wife and I did a night snorkeling Manta Ray tour!  Holy crap…this was one of those kick-you-in-the-head incredible events that leave you positively giddy!  I mean it was otherworldly, graceful, enthralling, ethereal, beautiful, exhilarating,…and another hundred adjectives that elude me right now.  Read on to learn more about an experience you will be adding to your bucket-list.  This article will give you some pointers and tips that will ensure you make the most out of your trip and also help you take incredible photographs to keep along with your memories.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Just imagine this big guy shooting up at you from the ocean floor! (Click on the photo to see a full resolution image)

So, what makes this so impressive?  Well, start by looking at the photo above.  Imaging laying on the surface of the ocean, at night, and you start to notice shadows moving on the periphery of your sight, then this massive, but impossibly graceful apparition swoops up from the ocean floor, slowly opens its huge mouth and heads right toward you.  Then, inches away from your nose, it turns away and silently glides back into the darkness while your body rocks from the water displaced by its passage.  Now imagine four or more of these creatures doing this same ballet repeatedly over an hour.  Oh, and by the way, when I say massive, let me clarify…many of these suckers are easily 12′ or more from wingtip to wingtip and can weigh 2,000 lbs.   The captain on our boat referred to one local Manta they call Big Bertha that is more than 20′ across!  If you would like to read more about Mantas, check out this link.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Almost like you are on another world having a “Close Encounter of the Third Kind!”

Absolutely insane.  This was without a doubt, the most incredible thing I did in Hawaii (which is truly saying a lot).  Not only that but my wife ALSO agreed that it was the highlight of our trip…which is perhaps an even more impressive fact:)

Okay, I’m assuming you want to give this a try this now, so here are some answers to some questions that often come up:

Is it safe?

Mantas eat plankton.  If they mistakenly get a fish in their mouth, they spit it out.  They certainly don’t dine on Homo Sapiens. Also, unlike, stingrays, mantas don’t have stingers (so don’t concern yourself about a repeat performance of the sad story of the Croc Hunter, Steve Irwin).  Put it this way, the nickname for Mantas is the “butterfly of the sea”…gentle, non-aggressive, no worries.

One other thing, there are two locations that most of the tours go to…one is by the Sheraton at Kona and the other is near the airport.  Both locations are within 100′ of the shore, so it isn’t like you are heading out a couple miles to sea.  If the boat sprang a leak you could swim ashore in two minutes.   Also, the Kona coast is pretty calm so unless you are very susceptible to seasickness, you can leave the Dramamine at home.

Sharks?

Some folks have a real phobia about sharks…but attacks are rare. Your chances of getting hit by lightning is much higher and a fatal traffic accident while driving to the marina is even more likely.  I did an internet search and couldn’t find a single record of a shark attack during a night manta ray dive.  I’d worry about other things instead.20130912_Hawaii_3625

Is it difficult?

No…we had boy and a girl under 7 years old on the tour.  You basically float on the surface while breathing thru a snorkel about ten feet from the boat. Most boats have large floating platforms (see photo to the right) with hand grips you hold onto (so you don’t even have to really swim).  This float has lights that shine down into the water…which attracts the plankton and the plankton attracts the mantas (and the mantas attract the tourists)!

By the way, the two kids didn’t have a good time for the first five minutes.  The reality of floating in the ocean at night wasn’t as cool as they had anticipated.  Once the Mantas showed up they settled down and had a great time.  Obviously folks that hate the dark or the ocean might not enjoy this as much as most.

Is it expensive?

My wife and I paid $90 each.  For a bucket-list item, that seems cheap to me!  Of course, you still have to get to Hawaii…which is anything but cheap.

Where can I do this:

The Big Island in Hawaii near Kona is the only spot in the Hawaiian Islands that I’ve heard of.  However, if you ever get to Australia, Bora-Bora or the Maldives, I understand that you can do night dives with Mantas there as well.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Here is a critical Thing to Know:

Not all tours are the same.  Some of the folks we saw on another tour were given glow sticks and a cheap underwater flashlight to attract Mantas (their boat didn’t have the lighted floating platforms).  Needless to say, those folks didn’t see many mantas and probably didn’t have a memorable experience.  When you are deciding which tour to take, be sure they use the lighted platforms.  We used a tour operator named “Sunlight on Water“…they did a fine job (no, I don’t get kickbacks from tour operators…wish I did though).

One other thing, I was checking out Trip Advisor and saw that some folks on other tours didn’t see a single manta when they went out.  Being wild creatures, no operator can guarantee sightings, but if your tour operator knows what they are doing and have the right equipment, you should have a very high chance of success.

Other hints:

Most of the tours start about an hour before sunset (so the actual start time depends on the time of year).  You will be told that your tour will be about 3 hours long, but your time actually in the water will probably be 45 minutes to an hour)

Bring a towel and some dry warm clothes to change into when you finish your dive (yes, it is Hawaii and the water is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but that is less than 98.6 and you will feel a chill by the end of your time in the water.)

Our tour operator supplied a wetsuit, snorkel gear and gave us hot chocolate on the way back to the harbor.  Check to see if yours does the same.  It really is nice to have something to get the taste of saltwater out of your mouth.  Our tour also had a warm fresh water shower right on the deck which was great as well.

Tips for my fellow photographers:

Don’t use a Flash!

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Backscatter at its worst…

I know this seems counter-intuiative, it would seem to be common sense to use a flash at night, especially underwater.  The problem is that using your flash/strobe will result in backscatter because of all the plankton (backscatter is a term used to describe when an underwater flash illuminates small suspended particles in the water resulting in thousands of little specs of light in your photo…see example to the right).

The tour operators told me all this, but I had lugged my strobe nearly 5,000 miles and I had to give it a try.  Sure enough, even though I had my strobes set up on the arms set as wide as possible away from the camera housing, I still got terrible backscatter.

If I ever have a chance to try this again I might try to have an assistant hold another flash unit off-angle about six feet away and trigger it remotely.

The floating platform actually generated a lot of light…enough for me to get great shots without the flash.  And since those lights are shining straight down and you will be off to the side, the backscatter won’t fill your frame.

 

Take the first 15 minutes to Experiment

This will be difficult advice to follow.   You will be so excited and overwhelmed by the mantas that you will want to capture every moment.  Trust me that the action will get better the longer you are in the water (you often get in the water right at sunset and it takes the mantas some time to be attracted to the lights).  Use these first minutes to try different camera settings (ISO/Shutter speed/exposure) to get your camera ‘dialed-in’.  It is more important to finish the night with a couple dozen killer shots than to review you work the next day and see that you got 200 frames, but they are all mediocre.

ISO

I shot with an ISO of 800 on my Nikon D700, which has very good high ISO resolution.  This is one of those settings you will want to experiment with during those first 15 minutes to see how low you can keep your camera’s ISO and still have good exposure on the mantas.

20130912_Hawaii_3558

Looks like one of those old WW2 movies with the British bomber caught in the spotlights above Berlin!

Shoot in RAW

If your camera has the ability to shoot in RAW (as opposed to JPEGs), do it.   There can be a substantial dynamic range between the areas illuminated by the spotlights and the shadows and manipulating a raw file in photoshop will give you the best chance of coaxing those details out of the shadows and avoiding the ‘blow-outs” in the highlights.

Use Shutter Priority

The Mantas move slowly and I found that a shutter speed of 1/250 successfully froze their motion.  In retrospect, I think you could probably get away with as low as 1/100th.

Use a fast Wide Angle Lens

The Mantas will get close.  By close I mean that they bumped my underwater camera housing a couple times!  Coupled with the fact that they are huge, a wide angle lens will be ideal.  And since there isn’t much light, the faster a lens you have, the better.  I used a f2.8 15mm Sigma Fisheye and it did a tremendous job.20130912_Hawaii_3537 crop

Try a Video

The Mantas  perform what you would swear is an underwater ballet…it is incredible (and I’m not even a fan of the REAL ballet).  Still photos are great, but they fail to capture the grace and fluid movement of the Mantas.  If your camera has the ability to record video, you might want to give it a try.

Post Processing

Since your shots are taken at night with limited lighting, you will have to invest a significant amount of time in photoshop to develop high quality prints.  A full review of processing underwater night photos is beyond the grasp of this post, but here are some guidelines:

Adjust your white balance.  Fortunately, mantas are white on the bottom, so you have something on which to click your white balance tool and get an initial setting.  I found that a color temp of 11,ooo or so was close to correct if the manta was close to the dive platform, but I had to increase the setting up to 30,000 if it was near the sea floor and away from the lights.

Then use your Fill Light tool to reveal some of the details lost in the shadows and also adjust your Exposure as needed.

You will likely spend some time with noise control.  I had to move the Luminance slider all the way up to 50 or so to get the noise level down to an acceptable level…far more than you would dream of doing with a typical daylight shot.  I also found it helpful to cut the manta out and put it on a separate layer, which allowed me to use even more drastic noise control on the background while maintaining detail on the ray.

 

20130912_Hawaii_3512.1

Here’s a good view of a Manta starting its “roll” below the floating light platform…you can also barely see some snorkelers holding onto the platform.

Capture ALL of the Manta

Don’t come home with shots only of the bottom of the Mantas.  I say this because if you are not careful, you will end up with most of your shots showing something similar to the photo above.  The reason is because the Mantas have a particular ‘dance’ they will perform for you repeatedly.  They swoop in along the sea floor until they are right below the lighted platforms. They then swoop straight up scooping up plankton (you will be shocked how big their mouths are…and you will see ALL the way down into them).  Just before they get to the surface (and you), they flip upside down (exposing their bottom side to you) and spin away.

After my first ten minutes I reviewed the shots I had taken and saw that 90% of then showed the bottom of the rays.  After that I concentrated on getting shots of them during their ‘approach’ BEFORE they did their flip.

One last thing

Don’t get so wrapped up in taking photos that you fail to take a moment to appreciate just how magnificent this experience is.  About 50 minutes into our swim, I heard some folks shouting and hollering loudly so I popped my head up to see a new group of snorkelers that just joined in the fun.  These folks were so excited that they literally couldn’t restrain themselves.  Now, I’d be the first to admit that I was raised with the old-fashioned ‘real men don’t show emotion’ mindset…but I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I put my camera aside for a couple moments and let go of a couple little ‘woops’ myself!

I really hope you get swim with the Mantas someday.  If so, I know you will find the experience to be as mind-blowing as I did!
Jeff

20130912_Hawaii_3518.1

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Hawaii, Photo Tips and Guides, Underwater Photography, Wildlife Also tagged , , , , |

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

 

 


 

Posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Manatees, Photo Tips and Guides, Underwater Photography, Wildlife Also tagged , , , , , , , |