Huge, Friendly, and Curious

They may live in Florida, but manatees like to be warm in winter, too. So they head for warmer inland waterways, like those in Blue Springs State Park near Orange City. That's where Monitor photographer Norman Matheny found this sea cow and her calf swimming in water warmed by a hot spring.

Matheny took this picture using an underwater camera after receiving special permission from park authorities to snorkel in an area the manatees frequent. No scuba diving is permitted.

As he swam in the river channel, this huge friendly mother and calf came to check him out. Manatees are very curious, but don't see well at long distances. These two swam right up to the photographer and stared him in the face from a foot away. ''The real problem was to get them far enough away to take a picture,'' he says.

Conservationists say that less than 2,000 manatees remain in Florida's waterways. They're so big that they don't have a natural predator. What has them in trouble is Florida's skyrocketing population, which wants to live near manatee habitat, and boat propellers. The sea cows live in shallow water and tend to lounge near the surface. They can move quickly when they have to, but some researchers believe the animals often don't hear the boats coming.

The marks of a boat propeller are clearly visible on the mother manatee in this photo. So many do not survive such encounters that authorities have placed speed limits on boats to protect the lumbering sea mammals.

People who love wildlife always get a special thrill from close encounters with it. ''It was a wonderful thing to be so close to those mammoth animals,'' Matheny says.

Another Monitor staffer, who is a Florida native, had a somewhat different encounter with sea cows. He was in a small boat on a saltwater creek in St. Augustine when he sighted a group of about 20 manatees.

He steered his boat slowly over to them and shut off the motor so he could watch the animals. Suddenly, a manatee came up from underneath, lifting the boat out of the water.

No harm was done to man or beast. But ''it was one of my more memorable experiences,'' he says.

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