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Not just a job, an adventure

Published Mar. 25, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

The grins should have tipped me off. Certainly, the ear patch was a giveaway. "Ever been up in a small plane before?" wildlife biologist Joyce Kleen asked, with the just a hint of a smile.

Funny, I thought, she's the third or fourth person today to ask me that question. I answered no to each, and wondered what the big deal was.

I've flown on plenty of airliners and even an Air Force transport to Germany, and enjoyed the view. This time, I was going to fly with Kleen on the weekly aerial count of manatees in the Citrus County waterways.

Kleen, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency at its Chassahowitzka office, turned back to her pre-flight paperwork. That was when I noticed the patch behind her right ear.

Resembling a round Band-aid, the patch contains prescription medicine to ward off air sickness. When a veteran of these flights needs this kind of help maintaining her aerial equilibrium, I should have sensed trouble.

But it was early in the morning and I hadn't had a second cup of coffee yet.

A little while later, pilot Craig Delegato arrived from Gainesville. Kleen introduced us, adding, "He's never been up in a small plane before." Delegato smiled and said nothing.

Soon, we were buckled into the Cessna 172, which has as much room as the trunk of a Toyota. At 9:29 a.m., we lifted off from Crystal River Airport.

Kleen said the first stop was Kings Bay. Then we would buzz over the Crystal River, the discharge canal leading from the Florida Power energy complex, the Salt River, and the Homosassa River.

Sounded great. I had seen all of those waterways from ground level, and I was anxious to see them from above. Perhaps I would check out some fishing spots, I mused.

Just then, Delegato and Kleen went to work, and things started getting ugly. Why, I wondered, was the horizon now vertical?

The answer was that in order for Kleen to count the manatees, the plane must execute tight circles over the water at low altitudes. This means flying sideways in a corkscrew pattern from 700 to 500 feet, all the while bobbing and weaving like a leaf caught in gusting winds.

From above, the manatees stand out clearly, their distinctive shape making them easily distinguishable from boats. Like hunting for Easter eggs, I started picking out and counting manatees, forgetting for the moment that my breakfast was beckoning to be set free.

If those on land and the water somehow could have looked into the Cessna, they would have seen a pilot scanning his instruments, a wildlife officer peering intently at the underwater vegetation and her maps and a passenger turning an ever-lovelier shade of green.

Kleen counted 28 manatees in the bay that morning, not bad, but far fewer than in peak times during the October-March manatee season. One of the manatees appeared to have just given birth that morning, she said later.

The bay's manatee sanctuaries, topics of great debate lately on how they should be expanded, can be seen nicely from the air. So can the need for more of them, as boatload after boatload of snorkelers and swimmers headed out to spend some time with the gentle giants.

As the twisting corkscrew grew tighter and tighter, it was decision time. I could swallow my pride, about the only thing I could have forced down at the moment, and asked to be set back on solid ground. Or I could have redecorated Delegato's nice plane in a manner he would not have appreciated.

Casually, I leaned forward and suggested: "You know, since we're so close to the airport and all, maybe I can just get out here and let you guys go about your business."

Kleen motioned to Delegato that I was in some distress, and he leveled off and graciously headed toward the airport.

I've often wondered about those people you see on TV kissing the ground after leaving an airplane. Let me tell you, asphalt can be tasty, especially with a side order of humble pie.

Kleen returned to the sky and counted 76 manatees that day.

Four days later, wildlife officers and others flew over those same rivers and bays counting manatees. This time, they were aboard a huge blimp, SeaWorld's Shamu, which allowed them a nice, leisurely _ and level _ flight.


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