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Gentle giants' spirit at Manatee festival

There were no living, breathing sea cows at the Florida Manatee Festival Saturday, but their spirit was everywhere. "Has anybody out there seen manatees?" singer Bill Osborn of Inverness asked from the stage as the festivities were beginning Saturday morning. "They're pretty cool creatures."

Plucking away at his acoustic guitar, he sang songs he had penned in the name of the endangered mammal, including one titled Humanatee.

"Look at the manatees in the water," he trilled. "I see a mother and a father and a son . . . and a daughter."

Artists exhibited their wares in booth after booth at the Plantation Inn on W Kings Bay Drive.

Paintings of pelicans outnumbered those of manatees, but there were still hundreds of images of the gentle giant _ more images, in fact, than the 1,200 manatees alive today.

Darlene Esler of Williston displayed her drawings of endangered animals on T-shirts, stationery and tote bags. She does her work at the "What Next Farm," where she lives.

"I bought the place with the name," she said. I thought it was going to change it but it seemed appropriate. A lot of the animals I draw are endangered and I'm wondering what's going to happen next."

Don Cloutier of Homosassa created a wooden manatee rocker similar to a hobby horse. Instead of putting a saddle on the manatee, he

carved a duck.

"I just got that done last week," he said. "I thought I should come up with a manatee for a manatee festival."

Homosassa artist Jean Audet was trying to sell an all-copper manatee she had sculpted for $2,500.

She said she has donated many manatee sculptures to organizations in an effort to prevent the creature's extinction. "If they're gone, it's one more link missing in the ecosystem chain," she said.

The Florida Manatee Festival continues today. Antique cars will be on display from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. A seafood festival will begin at 10 a.m. and continue to 5 p.m. Musicians will perform from noon to 4:30 p.m. A volleyball tournament is scheduled from 1 to 5 p.m.