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Tripods in the Sky: Manatees

The Scoop

What’s happening to the manatees? The conservation status of the Florida manatee remains in controversy as researchers investigate historical numbers compared to current day estimates. All the while, man continues to encroach on manatee native habitat forcing a co-existence between humans and manatees.

Florida manatee entering Three Sisters Spring through pillars that prevent boaters from entering the sanctuary. Trichechus manatus latirostris. King's Bay, Crystal River, Florida, USA. © Neil Ever Osborne


As part of his project “Man and Manatee”, International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) photographer Neil Ever Osborne sought to capture aerial images of Gulf Coast areas where manatees cluster in winter months. During colder weather, manatees seek out warmer water to sustain them. These areas range from protected tepid waters near natural springs, to shallow waters near power plants where warm discharge water attracts the gentle animals.

Female Florida manatee with calf in Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Trichechus manatus latirostris. Florida, USA.


Field Dispatch from iLCP Photographer Neil Ever Osborne

Within the congregation, I count more than 20 sedentary animals. Plump bodies of gray mass clustered together, limbs touching perhaps for the sake of warmth. Only gentle gestures among the idle creatures suggest a common interest: conserve energy. At the Three Sister’s Springs near Crystal River in Citrus County, Florida, water temperatures remains a consistent 72F (22C). Here the Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, finds a well known wintering haven in the tepid waters of the natural spring. Fiction will tell us in Homer’s Odyssey, Sirens were half-woman, half-bird creatures, later to be confused as mermaids by other authors. As nomenclature stuck in books, science named the Order Sirenia after the tale that suggested manatees were once living mermaids. The 3 extant species of manatee and their close relative, the dugong, now belong in this grouping. At Crystal River in the cold season, the tourists are there by the dozens on any given day. At an arm’s reach away, omnipresent humans encounter one of nature’s most placid species. Some of the inquisitive animals do not mind. Some of the overzealous tourists get too close. Man and manatee co-exist here and the tale has the promise of success, pending sound conservation decisions and a decrease in the threats that continue to reduce manatee numbers around the state of Florida.

Florida manatee with injuries in Three Sisters Spring. Trichechus manatus latirostris. King's Bay, Crystal River, Florida, USA. © Neil Ever Osborne


Q&A with Volunteer Lighthawk Pilot Bruce McGregor

A flight donated by LightHawk helped Neil create a current day assessment of this a charismatic species and the challenges it faces living in close proximity to heavily populated areas.

Q: Why did you decide to donate a flight for iLCP photographer Neil Ever Osborne to document manatees in Florida’s coastal waters?

Beyond my desire to support environmental causes through LightHawk missions, I have a special fondness for manatees. My experience swimming among them (prior to the current interaction restrictions, of course) revealed their gentle and affectionate nature. I recall one youngster who loved having her belly rubbed. As a resident of Florida, I am only too aware of the dangers that manatees face from habitat loss and errant boaters. Hopefully projects like Neil’s will educate the public to make room for these wonderful creatures.

Florida manatees in Three Sisters Spring. Trichechus manatus latirostris. King's Bay, Crystal River, Florida, USA. © Neil Ever Osborne


Q: How was this flight different from your normal flying?

I also volunteer for Angel Flight which provides air transport to distant medical centers for low income patients. Otherwise, my wife Suzanne and I fly around the U.S. and Caribbean for pleasure and exploration.

Q: Why do you fly and how did that start for you?

Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, I was fascinated by the books and movies about early aviation and the aerial events of World War II. At about fifth grade, I started building static model airplanes and progressed to gasoline powered flying versions. After college and the military, I took flying lessons. Forty years and a series of single- and twin-engine airplanes later, I am flying more than ever. You could say that I am living my childhood fantasies!

Florida manatees congregating near Big Bend Power Station. Situated on Tampa Bay, Big Bend Power Station is located on Big Bend Road on nearly 1,500 acres in southeastern Hillsborough County, close to Apollo Beach. Big Bend Power Station has four coal-fired units with a combined output of more than 1,700 megawatts. Big Bend Power Station meets strict environmental regulations through the use of flue gas desulfurization systems or “scrubbers,” which remove sulfur dioxide produced when coal is burned. Florida manatees congregate near these power stations where water temperatures are warmer. Trichechus manatus latirostrus. Florida, USA. Aerial photography was made possible by LightHawk. © Neil Ever Osborne


Q: How long have you been flying donated conservation mission for Lighthawk?

Rudy Engholm, LightHawk’s Executive Director, recruited me at a meeting of Columbia aircraft owners in 2007. Missions were few at first as that airplane has a low wing, which is less desirable for the photo and observation missions that are most common in my area. Since I switched to a high wing airplane last April, my LightHawk missions and hours have soared.

Q: What’s one of the most amazing things you’ve seen while flying?

On a LightHawk mission out of New Orleans last July, I flew three videographers out to the BP oil well spill. Two monstrous rigs were drilling relief wells while a third captured most of the leaking oil and burned it in two enormous flares with flames shooting 100′ into the air. Fireboats sprayed streams of water to cool the lines feeding the flares. At least 60 other boats floated on a sea of iridescent blue-black oil film while supporting the big rigs. As we circled, the airplane periodically flew through the black smoke billowing from the flares with an acrid, sulfurous smell. This was a scene from Hell!

Bruce McGregor has been a LightHawk volunteer pilot since 2007. He has flown 13 donated missions including the one for iLCP photographer Neil Ever Osborne. He currently flies a Cessna P210N Silver Eagle.

Adult Florida manatee surfacing for breath. Trichechus manatus latirostris. Florida, USA. © Neil Ever Osborne


What is Tripods in the Sky?

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to document it, does it really matter? An unusual new conservation partnership of pilots and photographers,  emphatically says “yes”, and is prepared to do something about it.  Lighthawk pilots and iLCP photographers passionately volunteer their skills for the protection of wild nature in a new initiative called Tripods in the Sky focused on fueling the conservation efforts of conservation and science partners.

About Neil Ever Osborne

“I blend my backgrounds in science and visual communication to bridge gaps between people whose respective conservation goals are best met through collaboration. I do this using photography, multimedia, and visual communication strategies, while pursuing academic endeavors as a teacher and student of the conservation photography discipline.

I walk a fine line between being a conservationist and a photographer, but at the root of my work is the still image.” – Neil Tell me more!

The views expressed in this guest blog post are those of the International League of Conservation Photographers and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Readers are welcome to exchange ideas or comments, but National Geographic reserves the right to edit or delete abusive or objectionable content.


  1. Eric Swaim
    Dover, Ar
    September 21, 2011, 10:07 pm

    My daughter and son are in florida workig at the Ellie Schille Homosassa springs wildlife park in Homosassa.Fl. She is doing her intership for college there and my son is into reptiles and he is working in the reptile house they are both very nature aware and my daughter is graduating with a degree in park interpitation. Both know how important these animals are and love to work with them and explain to park tourist how gentle and important to future generations these animals are and how it would be a great lose to us all if they become extincted. I heard that National Geographic is returning to the park and i encourage everone else to go and see the wonderful manatees.