Documenting the World of Manatees
David Schrichte's photos are a labor of love

Photographer David Schrichte.

Photographer David Schrichte has captured the spirit of endangered manatees with his beautiful and endearing images. (Photo by Alex Schrichte.)

By Nancy Sadusky,
Director of Online Communications

If you've ever seen a manatee photo that has made you gasp with delight, chances are it was taken by photographer David Schrichte. Over the years, he has captured the spirit of these endangered mammals with his beautiful and endearing images. And if you have ever met David in person, you wouldn't forget him either. He is as generous and nice as he is talented.

David's images have been featured nationally and internationally, appearing in a variety of publications including National Wildlife, Condé Nast Traveler, Earthwatch, National Geographic Traveler, Spirit of Aloha, and New York magazines. His photos have also appeared in children's books and drive guides, and one of his images even appeared on the television game show Jeopardy. David's photos have graced the cover and inside of Save the Manatee Club's annual manatee calendar since it was first produced, and his photo appeared on a billboard for the Club in 2009. His manatee images are also featured at the Save the Manatee Club web site and in many of the Club's educational materials and public service messages.

Growing up in Madeira, Ohio, David was drawn to water. A self-described "river rat," he spent many summer days swimming and exploring local rivers, lakes, and rock quarries. His interest in wildlife and underwater photography was inspired by television programs such as Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, Marty Stouffer's Wild America, National Geographic, and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. "Cousteau was a 'must see' family event every Sunday evening," said David. "It was primarily through his influence that I set my heart on achieving my open water scuba certification. I really wanted to do what he and his crew were doing."

David Schrichte manatee photo
Click the image above or the following link to see a slideshow of manatee photos taken by David Schrichte during the 2013 - 2014 season.
When in the water, I consider myself a visitor to the world of the manatee. It's their home, and I must respect that at all times. I have the freedom to come and go as I please. In contrast, the manatees do not -- especially during the cold winter months when leaving the comfort and warmth of the spring waters can mean life or death for them. With that respect comes the desire to be as quiet as humanly possible. Manatees are very sensitive to loud and unfamiliar noises and spook easily, which is certainly inconsiderate toward them and counterproductive from a photographic perspective. After all, who really likes noisy neighbors? Most of my time in the water is spent floating motionlessly, in a near Zen-like state, taking deliberate deep breaths, waiting for the manatees to approach me. My patience often pays great rewards as a curious manatee, possibly two, approach me as I wait quietly off to the side. I'm always delighted to share those photographic rewards.
--David Schrichte

At age 15, David traveled to Crystal River, Florida, to attend a week-long marine science course. "I was awestruck by the clarity of the river's water and nearly ecstatic viewing the diversity of marine life in King Spring," he said. "I knew someday I'd have to return to this natural gem along Florida's Gulf Coast." But it wasn't until he joined the U.S. Navy at age 20 that David was able to explore his interest in underwater photography. He tried out and was accepted for the Navy's elite Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Team training in San Diego, California, but suffered a severe case of heat exhaustion after three weeks of training. An avid drummer in junior and senior high school, he then auditioned for the Navy Band, passed the audition, and was soon off to the Naval School of Music in Little Creek, Virginia. His duty stations included the Great Lakes, San Diego, and Orlando Naval Training Centers as well as two tours with the Navy Band at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was in Hawaii that David honed his underwater photography skills, working with naturalist and writer Susan Scott to produce the book Exploring Hanauma Bay and contributing images to stock photo agencies SeaPics and Photo Resource Hawaii.

It was while he was stationed at the Orlando Naval Training Center in 1991 that David focused his camera's eye on manatees. Walker Stanberry, a friend and fellow underwater photographer, invited him on a kayak trip to Crystal River, and it was there that David saw manatees for the first time. "Walker gave me the lowdown on the proper approach toward manatees, to which I obliged," said David. "We gently and quietly slipped into the water to commune with the gentle animals. Some slept, a few played, and others advanced, seemingly as curious about me as I was about them. Enthralled would be an understatement! It was then I felt the strong pull to get as much on film as I could of this unique animal's behavior and habitat."

For the last 23 years, David has spent time photographing manatees at every opportunity in various locations around Central Florida. "For such a large and seemingly intimidating animal, I find the gentleness of these aquatic giants to be of greatest appeal," he said. "When I'm in their environment, I often remind myself the manatees are really in control here, not me. If they were determined to do me harm, I'd be at their mercy. And yet, the complete opposite is the case. Though mainly a solitary animal, I believe a natural curiosity and social playfulness is more to the core of their being, at least while amassed in the springs. When you witness the serene scene of a mother manatee quietly nursing her newborn calf in the quiet recesses of the springs, how could you not be moved by the nurturing grace of such a wonderful creation? I know I am."


David Schrichte manatee photo
This photo of a mother manatee nursing two youngsters is one of David's "all-time favorites." (© David Schrichte.)



David's only disappointment has been in seeing the noticeable degradation in water quality that had occurred in the time between his first trip to Crystal River in 1974 and his second visit in 1991. "The clear waters of the river itself, and in particular King Spring, had diminished significantly during my short time away," he said. "I was truly saddened. With my growing fondness for manatees and for that matter, all marine life, it now felt important to document some of the changes I'd seen and could possibly foresee. That's when, in 1992, I decided it was time to start giving back by donating what manatee images I had to Save the Manatee Club. It was my way of contributing, in some small measure, toward the goals of a dedicated organization that emulates the steadfast and dogged determination to protect the endangered manatee and its habitat."

Save the Manatee Club has been very pleased to be the recipient of David's generosity. "We are deeply grateful to David for the extraordinary manatee images he donates each year to Save the Manatee Club," says Patrick Rose, the Club's Executive Director. "People are drawn to the manatees and the beauty of their aquatic habitat in his images, and they instinctively want to help in some way. His photos are both lovely and poignant, capturing the grace and gentleness of the manatee's nature and often heartbreaking in the scars that are portrayed or the harassment they must endure."

David views the donation of his manatee images as a way of paying it forward. "It's important for me to know that, through my photographic eye, I can lend a helping hand by continuing to contribute my images toward the objective of preserving one of Mother Nature's most valued treasures: the manatee," he said. "That, I pledge, will continue until the day my finger can no longer depress the camera's shutter release."

If you would like to see more of David Schrichte's work, visit his web site at ManateePics.com and his Facebook page. Questions? Contact him through Facebook or by email at dschrichte@live.com.

David Schrichte manatee photo.
One of David Schrichte's iconic manatee photos. (© David Schrichte.)

As a marine life photographer, there's an internal driving force that makes me want to capture those extraordinary moments in a manatee's behavior and share them with others of similar interest. Currently, with the advent of digital cameras, it's not too difficult to obtain good images of manatees. But getting good shots of manatees engaged in unique behaviors is quite another matter altogether. That takes time. A lot of time. And with that comes the commitment to return, over and over again, to the places where manatees live. For me, it's truly a labor of love. I can only hope it shows in my images.
--David Schrichte


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