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Swim with the manatees in Crystal River

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2000


photo
[Times art: Earl Towery]

When the winter wind blows, manatees seek shelter in warm-water sanctuaries like King's Bay. These slow-moving marine mammals look huge, but don't worry, they are among the gentlest members of the animal kingdom. After decades of human contact, the harmless vegetarians have grown accustomed to people.

But before you swim with the sirenians, learn a few things about their behavior. Manatees spend most of their time eating, sleeping and moving from one patch of weeds to the next. Like people, they have personalities. Some like humans, others don't. Be aware of this. If a manatee swims away, don't chase it.

Use snorkel gear. Leave your scuba tanks at home, because air bubbles frighten manatees. If possible, wear a wet suit. You'll be more comfortable, hence more patient. You are more likely to have a pleasant encounter with a manatee if you don't rush it.

Give the manatee some space. If one does approach and you feel the urge to pet it, do so with an open hand. Don't grab it or hold it. Don't feed the manatees. There is plenty of hydrilla and other vegetation to satisfy their hunger. Don't separate a calf from its mother, or an individual from the herd.

Several dive shops in the Crystal River area offer organized manatee viewing trips. You can swim with the manatees on your own, but a guide is helpful if you are new to the area or uncomfortable in the water.

Avoid harassing manatees. Harassment is defined as any behavior that disrupts their "normal behavioral patterns" -- including feeding, sleeping and mating.

To avoid the risk of a $20,000 fine and a year in prison, learn a little bit about these creatures before you climb into the water with them.

For more information, contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Crystal River National Wildlife refuge, at (352) 563-2088.

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