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. . . and below the sea: 'His eyes. So small. So cute. So scared.'

All that was left was to spit into my facemask. I'd squirmed into my wet suit, and stood at the edge of the boat

comfortable with the fact that I had been properly briefed on the legalities of swimming with manatees - what you can and cannot do: Don't go too close with a boat.

Don't throw the anchor into the water.

Don't throw yourself into the water.

Don't separate a calf from its mother.

Don't chase, encircle, poke, prod, pinch or bearhug a manatee.

What's legal is simple. You can swim around, wait for a manatee to swim by and then touch it with the open palm of one hand. (The part about letting the manatee come to you is the rule most often broken. I broke it.) Pit-uu-ee. (Hey, it keeps the mask from fogging up.) After 30 minutes of flippering in the unusually murky waters of Kings Bay, I still had not seen a manatee. Scads of web-finned snorkelers like myself were itching for the chance to pet a gentle animal the size of a Frigidaire, but no manatees.

The quest grew desperate. I sliced through the water whenever anyone within paddling distance acted as though he might have seen a manatee.

Manatee? Anyone seen a manatee?

I wanted to touch one. I'd seen them at Epcot Center. I'd seen them in the Fish Bowl at the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. I'd seen them from boats, even from planes. But I'd never touched one.

Until one touched me.

Nudge, bump.

Silly thing just ran right into the back of me while I was out in the middle of Kings Bay - plenty of people within sight, none close enough to save me from an imminent manatee mashing.

We looked at one another, startled, both wondering the same thing: "You're not going to hurt me, are you?"

He looked so vulnerable. Just floating there, his little flippers tucked feebly against his chest, probably wishing he'd paid closer attention to where he was going. "Oh, why did I have to run into a human?"

His eyes. So small. So cute. So scared.

We struck a silent pact. He turned and swam for his sanctuary, I for mine.

"One just bumped into me from behind," I blurted out once I'd reached the relative safety of the boat. "Scared me to


I know, I know. Vegetarians, you're saying. No teeth, for goodness' sake. But, hey, you try it. Everything underwater is magnified, and they're just so big. I was supposed to sneak up on him.

I did get back in the water. I played with a more than friendly little show-off who had a certain fondness for having his belly rubbed. Even touched his flipper with my hand.

My short-lived romp with this mischievous merry-maker (Human?

Anyone seen a human?) is the most exciting tale from my manatee excursion. It's the one people like to hear about. The one that makes them want to don flippers and snorkel and swim with the sea cows.

But once they get there, I hope some timid little manatee bumps them from behind.

"You're not going to hurt me, are you?"

No, I wouldn't think of it.