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A firsthand and photographic look at Florida’s manatees

Photographer and scientist Jason Gulley decided to use his camera to make people care about nature.
Manatees spend most of their lives in shallow water. As mammals, they need to surface to breathe air. While manatees can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes, they typically surface every three to five to minutes. This photo was taken in Fanning Springs.
Manatees spend most of their lives in shallow water. As mammals, they need to surface to breathe air. While manatees can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes, they typically surface every three to five to minutes. This photo was taken in Fanning Springs. [ JASON GULLEY | Special to the Times ]
Published Apr. 21
Updated Apr. 21

As a research geologist, I’ve spent the last 16 years studying how humans have impacted our planet. A few years ago, I had an epiphany. Scientists know more today about how humans have messed up the planet than at any other point in history. But fewer people believe humans are impacting our planet than when I headed off to university in the late 1990s.

I think at least part of the modern disconnect between science and public perception is that scientists tell stories using opaque, technical language and graphs. Scientists have the technical background to have emotional reactions to reams of data presented in graphs, much like gaming enthusiasts have the background knowledge that triggers an emotional reaction when the technical specifications of new gaming systems are announced. Scientists and gamers know what those figures portend for the future. The average person doesn’t.

A manatee swims near the propeller of a docked boat. As the number of Florida's boaters increases, so does the number of manatees injured or killed by watercraft. In 2020, at least 90 manatees were killed by boats. Based on the prevalence of propeller scars identified during population surveys, biologists estimate that nearly two-thirds of Florida's manatees have been injured by boats at some point in their lives.
A manatee swims near the propeller of a docked boat. As the number of Florida's boaters increases, so does the number of manatees injured or killed by watercraft. In 2020, at least 90 manatees were killed by boats. Based on the prevalence of propeller scars identified during population surveys, biologists estimate that nearly two-thirds of Florida's manatees have been injured by boats at some point in their lives. [ JASON GULLEY | Special to the Times ]

While graphs and data may not be inspiring to everyone, photographs are. There is a reason National Geographic is one of the most recognizable publications in the world. People love pictures. People love pictures because they have emotional reactions to them. And pictures have changed the course of history by helping the average person visualize data.

Lewis Hine’s photographs of children working in American factories in the 1900s sparked early legislation against child labor. Eddie Adams’ photograph of a prisoner being executed on the streets of Saigon and Nick Ut’s picture of a naked girl fleeing a village bombed by napalm fueled the antiwar movement that ended American involvement in the Vietnam War. Kevin Carter’s image of a vulture lurking behind a starving Sudanese child sparked worldwide outrage about famine in Africa, and video of George Floyd’s death in police custody reignited a worldwide Black Lives Matter movement. In each case, there were plenty of data sets showing that children were working in factories, and that war, famine and racism were horrific, but photographs revealed the brutality behind the graphs and triggered the emotional, urgent response needed to spark change.

About two years ago, I decided to use my camera to show how humans were impacting the glaciers, caves and springs that I study.

My foray into environmental photography was accelerated by the ongoing pandemic. Travel restrictions shut down all my field research, and so I turned my camera on one of my favorite local research subjects: Florida’s springs.

A Florida manatee buries its head under a thick mat of algae in Crystal River. Pollution from farm fertilizers, confined animal feeding operations, leaking septic tanks and poorly maintained wastewater treatment facilities have flooded springs with excess nutrients, fueling algae blooms. In addition, groundwater pumping to feed the agricultural, development and water bottling industries has reduced water flow, giving algae more time to grow. Algae have smothered the eelgrass that was once prolific in Florida's springs, wiping out an important manatee food source.
A Florida manatee buries its head under a thick mat of algae in Crystal River. Pollution from farm fertilizers, confined animal feeding operations, leaking septic tanks and poorly maintained wastewater treatment facilities have flooded springs with excess nutrients, fueling algae blooms. In addition, groundwater pumping to feed the agricultural, development and water bottling industries has reduced water flow, giving algae more time to grow. Algae have smothered the eelgrass that was once prolific in Florida's springs, wiping out an important manatee food source. [ JASON GULLEY | Special to the Times ]

Florida has more than 1,000 known freshwater springs, one of the densest concentrations in the world. For centuries, visitors have flocked to marvel at the billions of gallons of cool, clear water that gush out of the porous limestone aquifer. First used as water sources by indigenous Americans, the springs were visited by Spanish explorers searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth in the 1500s and became some of the state’s first tourist attractions during the 1800s.

Over the last several decades, a combination of development, climate change, overpumping of the aquifer and pollution from agriculture and sewage has erased much of Florida’s pristine underwater spring landscape. Groundwater pumping to feed the agricultural, development and water bottling industries has reduced water flow. Other springs have stopped flowing entirely. Simultaneously, pollution from farm fertilizers, confined animal feeding operations, leaking septic tanks and poorly maintained wastewater treatment facilities have flooded springs with excess nutrients, fueling algae blooms. The white, sandy bottoms and waving thickets of eelgrass featured in films from the 1940s and 1950s have been replaced by thick mats of green, hairy algae. Without eelgrass, the foundation of healthy springs, ecosystems are collapsing.

A manatee sleeps on its back in Crystal River. As air-breathing mammals, manatees must surface to breathe. While awake, manatees will typically surface every three to five minutes. While sleeping, however, they can remain submerged for up to 20 minutes at a time. Their need to surface puts them in danger of being hit by boats.
A manatee sleeps on its back in Crystal River. As air-breathing mammals, manatees must surface to breathe. While awake, manatees will typically surface every three to five minutes. While sleeping, however, they can remain submerged for up to 20 minutes at a time. Their need to surface puts them in danger of being hit by boats. [ JASON GULLEY | Special to the Times ]

I decided to photograph the issues surrounding the declining health of the springs as part of a self-funded public education and outreach plan. I first started publishing on Instagram and later pitched stories to newspapers and magazines. I chartered helicopters to photograph sewage lagoons at sprawling dairy farms and agricultural areas that are drivers of nutrient pollution. I dived to document the thick blankets of algae choking out native vegetation. I photographed river water flowing into underwater caves in response to declining water levels in the aquifer. I also eventually had to photograph manatees because of their connection to springs.

Manatees depend on springs for survival. Because they lack the insulating blubber of marine mammals like whales and seals, manatees cannot survive for extended periods of time in water colder than about 68 degrees. Cold stress can be fatal. Florida’s springs discharge groundwater with a constant temperature of more than 70 degrees and, at least historically, had abundant eelgrass for manatees to eat.

I needed one good manatee image to show the importance of springs to Florida’s most iconic animal. I’m not much of a wildlife photographer, and manatees never seemed very interesting to me. I had only seen them in photos, where they were always depicted as lumbering, so-ugly-they’re-cute creatures that just bobbed around in the water.

A Florida manatee swims through the murky waters of Crystal River.
A Florida manatee swims through the murky waters of Crystal River. [ JASON GULLEY | Special to the Times ]

I expected to spend one intensely boring day photographing manatees and then move on with more exciting aspects of my project, like photographing underwater caves. What I quickly discovered, however, was that I was wrong about manatees. They weren’t boring. Observed in clear water, they can be playful, social and graceful swimmers. I ended up spending up to five hours a day over the next four days quietly observing and photographing manatees at rest and at play. Those four days inspired me to continue photographing manatees as part of a long-term project.

About 90 percent of the recipe for making a successful photograph can be summed up as: Be there with a camera. While springs are warm for manatees, they’re freezing for humans. Wearing my drysuit with thick layers of insulating undergarments allowed me to spend all day lying motionless in cold water, where I would wait for something interesting to happen. Unlike land-based photography, telephoto lenses don’t work well underwater. Particulate in even clear water obscures subjects and water eats light. Underwater photography is all about minimizing the distance between the photographer and the subject. With manatees, that meant sitting around waiting for one to swim near, as federal law prohibits chasing or approaching them.

Manatees are a rare, but tentative, conservation success story. More than a century of hunting (manatees were once a popular source of food for Native Americans and early Floridians), watercraft collisions, entanglement in fishing gear and habitat loss decimated Florida’s manatee populations, and the slow-moving mammals became one of the original 78 species protected by the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1966. When systematic aerial surveys began in 1991, Florida’s manatee population only numbered 1,267. A combination of legal protection, habitat protection, public education and changes to fishing and boating practices allowed manatee populations to rebound, and in 2017 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service controversially changed the status of the Florida manatee from endangered to threatened, removing many federal protections for the species.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biology team examines a trio of dead manatees on Indian River Lagoon's Merritt Island. Decades of pollution from fertilizer and septic tanks have fueled growth of algae that turn Indian River Lagoon into a dark pea soup, which blocks light from reaching seagrasses. As seagrasses have disappeared, manatees are reportedly starving.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biology team examines a trio of dead manatees on Indian River Lagoon's Merritt Island. Decades of pollution from fertilizer and septic tanks have fueled growth of algae that turn Indian River Lagoon into a dark pea soup, which blocks light from reaching seagrasses. As seagrasses have disappeared, manatees are reportedly starving. [ JASON GULLEY | Special to the Times ]

A surge in manatee fatalities underway this year underscores that survival as a species is anything but certain. As of April 9, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reported 649 manatee deaths in 2021. Many of these deaths are concentrated in Indian River Lagoon, where development-fueled pollution has triggered algae blooms that have killed off the seagrass beds manatees relied on for food sources. With nothing to eat, manatees are reportedly starving to death. I spent a few days in March photographing in Indian River Lagoon. Bodies of manatees, towed to remote beaches for field exams by biologists, were decomposing in shallow water and on remote beaches around Merritt Island. Vultures filled the trees and the stench was horrific.

A biologist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses a blue marker to outline scars on a deceased manatee in Indian River Lagoon. The location and spacing of scars suggests this manatee was struck multiple times by boat propellers while still alive. Nearly two-thirds of manatees have been struck by boats in their lifetimes. Many have been struck multiple times.
A biologist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses a blue marker to outline scars on a deceased manatee in Indian River Lagoon. The location and spacing of scars suggests this manatee was struck multiple times by boat propellers while still alive. Nearly two-thirds of manatees have been struck by boats in their lifetimes. Many have been struck multiple times. [ JASON GULLEY | Special to the Times ]
Related: Florida manatee die-off may slow, wildlife official says, but it's not over yet

The die-off made international news, but most images that ran with the story were stock or file images of healthy, happy manatees. Budget cuts have shuttered many community newspapers and gutted the newsrooms of many remaining. Photo desks have been hard hit, and many papers have replaced professional photographers by telling writers to snap photos with mobile phones. As a result, fewer images of tragedies like this one are being photographed and published.

As I continue to work to get my photographs published in traditional media outlets, I also use Instagram as a platform to inform people about Florida’s looming environmental problems and the work of scientists, veterinarians, biologists and volunteers who are trying to solve them.

Manatees decompose on a remote beach on Merritt Island.
Manatees decompose on a remote beach on Merritt Island. [ JASON GULLEY | Special to the Times ]

Jason Gulley is a contributing photographer to National Geographic’s Adventure Instagram account and an associate professor of geology at the University of South Florida. His environmental photography has been published in the Explorers Journal, WIRED, the Washington Post, the New York Times and National Geographic. Follow him on Instagram at @jason_gulley_science. His website is jasongulley.smugmug.com.