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Wildlife conservationists reel each other in

Jason Semeyn must be a pretty cool guy if a decomposing manatee didn't scare him off, thought marine biologist Deidre Grant. He was thinking "Dee" was pretty cool herself. He watched her back up to the ramp and unhitch and launch her boat to go find the carcass. "This one's a keeper," he thought.

• • •

Dee jumped at the chance to work for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, moving to Port Charlotte in July 2004.

The Bostonian was prepared for culture shock because she had been a summer intern there before graduating from Boston University.

"Marine biologist jobs are hard to come by,'' Dee said. "It's especially rare to find an opportunity to work with marine mammals, not to mention endangered species."

Jason noticed Dee right away when he joined the Charlotte County agency as a wildlife officer in November 2004. Several months passed before they worked together.

"It was my day off, but I volunteered to take her to do a field necropsy," he said. He was waiting at the ramp when she drove up, boat in tow, and launched by herself.

Duly impressed, Jason hopped aboard and steered to a remote mangrove island to collect samples from the manatee he called Carl. The Plant High and University of Florida graduate, now 27, grew up in Sunset Park and spent every free minute on the water. But this was no picnic at the beach.

"It was really gross. There were vultures everywhere. I was disgusted," he said.

"She jumped in the water and waded up to the island, and I acted as cool as I could. I think she rushed because I couldn't stand it anymore."

"He hung tough while I got what I needed to determine cause of death,'' Dee said, remembering it was an otherwise beautiful day. She enjoyed his navigation tips and advice on avoiding sandbars.

"'We ended up spending the whole day out there and I knew right away we would be friends," she said. "It felt like I knew him forever.''

It wasn't all necropsies for the duo. They participated in manatee rescues, too, feeling privileged to live near one of the world's largest protected marine estuaries. In his spare time, Jason shares his passion for wildlife conservation as a charter fishing guide.

"I make sure they notice the ospreys,'' he said. "I teach them about fishing regulations and why the laws are in place.''

Soon the couple were more than fishing buddies, said Dee, now 26 and a researcher and aerial manatee survey coordinator at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

On her 25th birthday, Aug. 1, 2007, Jason invited a boatload of Tampa friends to come down to their home near Boca Grande for a fishing weekend.

"We did that often," Dee said, "so I didn't think anything of it." She admits she missed two huge clues that day, "and I'm usually pretty sharp."

First, Jason assigned seven people to one boat and made her come with him to get bait.

"He had this whole story about it would be faster if just I went with him, that we're a good team, that he heard there was good bait at Carl's beach," she recalled.

Second: no fishing rods. Turns out, she was the bait.

"I always said if she could ever throw the cast net perfectly, I would marry her on the spot,'' Jason said. "So we got there and she threw the net and I reminded her this is where we met."

Dee didn't realize he was proposing until he pulled the ring out of his pocket.

"Then we went around the corner and the other boat was waiting with cameras and cigars. Everyone was yelling and screaming."

They boated onto Cabbage Key and celebrated with cheeseburgers and Cabbage Creepers, pina coladas mixed with rum and topped with a layer of Kahlua. Another dozen friends were cheering on their dock, ready for a cookout, when they got home.

Jason's best friend, lawyer and notary Mark Heilig, married Mr. and Mrs. Semeyn on April 5 at Keel & Curley Winery in Plant City. The band Brassworks rocked. The newlyweds haven't booked a grand getaway.

"Who needs a honeymoon when you live in Boca Grande?'' Dee said.

Said Jason: "It's hard to plan a trip when you live in paradise.''

Amy Scherzer can be reached at scherzer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3332.

Wildlife conservationists reel each other in 08/14/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 9:53pm]
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