Conservation Photographer Paul Nicklen Spreads a Little Love for the Manatees

Conservation Photographer Paul Nicklen Spreads a Little Love for the Manatees

Everyone's favorite aquatic marshmallow, the manatee, is having a bit of a moment. Just a couple weeks ago, Florida's warm waterways set the mood for a sizable manatee orgy, causing traffic jams on nearby roads. Rubberneckers first thought they were witnessing a whale in distress, but it was just good old fashioned sea cow polyamory.

Manatees have also been in the headlines recently for less fun reasons, specifically concerns of habitat loss thanks to pollution. All-star photographer and underwater and harsh-environment specialist, Paul Nicklen, recently took to Instagram to relive one of his favorite assignments for National Geographic, an article called "Manatees: When Push Comes to Shove — The Florida manatee is thriving in Kings Bay, and so is tourism. Therein lies the problem.” Nicklen, who spends his life telling the stories of animals most threatened by climate change, was surprised by how much the assignment affected him.

At first, it was supposed to be a story on behavior, but it very quickly became a story on conservation, water over-usage by humans, encroachment, effects of tourism, boat traffic in critical manatee corridors, and the importance of keeping these disappearing warm water springs alive. [Christina Mittermeyer] and I were super proud that the work we did actually played a role in how these manatees and their habitat were managed going forward.

A subsequent post describes realizing that to do the story the justice it deserved, he needed to shoot from the air. After a flight in a small airplane wasn't successful for getting his shot, Nicklen decided that the still image wasn't enough to show the harmful effects of tourists on a group of manatees. Determined to make a time-lapse of tourist behavior, he rented a 90-foot boom lift, found his ideal angle, and let the scene play out.

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Please watch this video to the end. This is a continuation from my previous post where I talked about our assignment for @NatGeo on Manatees. In photography, when trying to come up with an idea, I do not put logistical or technical restrictions on the images I want to make or the story I want to tell. After spending weeks in the water with manatees, @CristinaMittermeier and I realized that the best story-telling image was to be shot from the air. I tried a small airplane but that did not work. Finally, we shopped around and found out that we could rent a boom lift that would allow us to sit 90 ft up in the air for as long as we wanted. @USFWS gave us access to their property, and using some skills I learned in my early years in construction, I drove this beast of a machine right up to Three Sisters Spring. We sat up there day after day and the world forgot we were there. We witnessed so many infractions and harassment of manatees by overzealous tourists. Not out of being malicious but rather, pure excitement. But, at the end of the day, this excitement is hard to manage and manatees pay the ultimate price. Cristina decided to do a time lapse of the chaos. At some point, someone made a loud bang which sent most of the manatees scurrying out of their life sustaining warm water spring and back into the cold. It was this video that helped enforcers have a stronger voice in protecting the vulnerability and sensitivity of manatees to tourism. As human populations grow, we need tighter controls that protect the species that we hold so dear. With @neileverosborne #nature #photography #manatee #florida #video #timelapse #tourism

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What resulted was a powerful short video demonstrating the fragile behaviors of the manatees and the callous, self-important actions of visiting tourists. Nicklen, traditionally a still photographer, pushed beyond his regular techniques to find a way to communicate more through his footage, an important reminder that sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, but a carefully recorded video speaks volumes.

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