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Boat race a worry for manatee protectors

There will be thousands of people watching today's Tampa Powerboat Challenge in murky Seddon Channel. But one group of spectators won't be watching the boats. They'll be looking for manatees.

"It has to be someone who knows what they're looking for," said Sylvia Espinola, chairman of the Hillsborough River Technical Advisory Council. "You can spot a log and think it's a manatee if you don't know what you're looking for."

That's the problem, and it is an issue that divides race promoters and environmentalists.

Beth Beeler, an environmentalist with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said she's afraid race organizer Sam Winer failed to get properly trained manatee spotters for the two-day race.

It's not easy for untrained people to detect manatees, especially across a one-mile race course.

"They have spotters, they just didn't have qualified spotters," Beeler said.

Spotters, who scan the water surface for bubbles and slight ripples that indicate a manatee is below, can halt a race when they see the mammals. Winer, co-producer of the Tampa Powerboat Challenge, agreed in a written affidavit signed months ago to invite the Maitland-based Save the Manatee Club to look for manatees during the race, Beeler said.

But Patti Thompson, biologist for Save the Manatee, said she was surprised when she first heard about the race Thursday.

"We had never heard of this before. It probably would have gone unnoticed except for the big race at the end of November," Thompson said.

Environmentalists are concerned about the threat to manatees from the Offshore Professional Tour, a 21-mile race that will send powerful offshore boats hitting 100 mph speeds near the warm waters of Big Bend from Nov. 28 through Dec. 1.

Manatees gather near Big Bend and in the warmer waters of Hillsborough River from mid-October through March, Thompson said. Manatee spotters said five were seen Wednesday at the tip of the channel.

That's what worries manatee lovers about today's race. About 30 boats racing at an average speed of 50 mph will follow a rectangular course that clearly cuts across the manatees' access to the river.

Winer welcomed trained spotters Friday to assist his four spotters-one atop a Harbour Island hotel and three in boats in the channel.