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Face to face

If you go, use snorkel gear and wear a wet suit.

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000


For many Floridians, a cold front means it is time to throw a few sheets over the tropicals and hope citrus trees survive till morning.

But for a few fortunate souls, a cold snap signals time to break out the wet suit, mask, fins and snorkel, and head to Crystal River for a close encounter with manatees.

Whenever the north wind blows, these gentle giants flock to the warm water springs for refuge. Some shy away from human contact and stay inside the designated manatee sanctuaries. But others are more curious and venture into open water, where an encounter is almost a sure thing.

Manatees spend about one-third of their day eating, one-third sleeping and one-third socializing with other manatees.

These animals, like people, have distinct personalities. Some like humans; others don't. Be aware of this in the water. 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 because the water is 72 degrees year 'round. 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 vegetation to satisfy their hunger. Don't separate a calf from its mother, or an individual from the herd.

For more information, stop by the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge on Kings Bay Drive or the Manatee Education Center located 7 miles south of Crystal River on U.S. 19.

If you go

These companies specialize in manatee encounters:

American Pro Dive, Crystal River, (352) 563-0041.

Plantation Inn & Golf Resort Marina, (352) 795-5797.

Crystal Lodge Dive Center, (352) 795-6798.

Crystal River Manatee Dive & Tour, (352) 795-3337.

Bird's Underwater, (352) 563-2763.

Port Paradise Dive Center, (352) 795-7234.

For information, call the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, (352) 563-2088.

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