MANATEE

Silently, a great, gray mass swam up to well within arm's reach, and blinked its tiny eyes. I held out a handful of weeds, which its large soft snout mouthed and gulped.

Patterns of light and shadow moved rapidly over the canvas of the hulk as sunlight filtered down through ripples on the surface.

The "sea cow" is a gentle, friendly sea mammal, a distant relative of the ele phant. Adults commonly reach 12 or more feet in length and weigh up to about one ton. They feed on underwater vegetation and rise every few minutes to take in air.

Only about 1,000 of this species remain in Florida, and none in surrounding states where they used to roam.

The manatee's only enemy is man. Their biggest problem is not getting out of the way of fast boats with sharp propellers. Hundreds of signs now help boaters know where they are, lolling below the water's surface.

But the signs have attracted more problems. Man again.

People like to dive down to pet, play with, and photograph them. Though usually only unintentional problems occur, the accumulated result is that the manatee is driven from its habitat into colder areas where it cannot survive.

The Florida Department of Natural Resources and the US Fish and Wildlife Service are coordinating their efforts to help the manatee by protecting wintering areas and educating the public. A maximum of $20,000 in fines and one year in prison, or both, can be levied for harassing the manatee. But, at this point, even radical measures are only slowing the decline in the manatee population.

The manatee can be viewed without disturbing them from places such as the observation platform in this state park. Permission for even the slightest close encounter in their wintering areas, such as the permit needed to obtain these photographs, is rigidly controlled, and is allowed only for research and public education.

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