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Getting up close and personal

Ever get intimate with a 3,000-pound animal?

If the answer is no, you don't know what you've been missing.

Well, don't fret. Now that winter is upon us, here's your chance.

Each year, when the Gulf of Mexico turns chilly, hundreds of manatees seek shelter in this warm-water sanctuary. Most congregate in Kings Bay, where the water stays 72 degrees year round.

Despite their mammoth appearance, these slow-moving marine mammals are the gentlest citizens of the animal kingdom. And after decades of human contact, the harmless vegetarians have grown quite accustomed to people.

But before you swim with the sirenians, you should learn a few things about their behavior.

These herbivores _ plant eaters _ spend most of their time eating, sleeping and moving from one patch of weeds to the next.

They share a common ancestry with the elephant and consume 10 to 15 percent of their body weight a day. So where there are aquatic plants, there are manatees.

Depending on the extent of their activity, manatees surface every few minutes to breathe. It is then that they are most vulnerable to their only natural enemy, man.

Dozens of manatees are maimed and killed each year by the propellers of careless boaters. These prop scars are so distinctive that biologists use them to reidentify more than 150 manatees annually.

Despite such unpleasant encounters, some manatees remain intrigued by humans. These gentle giants will allow you to join them for a swim.

For starters, be quiet. Humans, by nature, are loud and clumsy in the water. Manatees scare easily and will run for cover when frightened.

If you swim after a manatee and force it back into cooler water, you've endangered its life, breaking several state and federal laws.

It is illegal to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, annoy or molest a manatee. Any action that disrupts the "normal behavioral patterns" of a manatee could be construed as a violation of the Federal Endangered Species Act.

So to avoid a $20,000 fine and a year in prison, keep that in mind when you swim with sirenians.

Manatees, like humans, have their own personalities. Some like to swim with people, others do not.

Wait until the manatee approaches you. If you are lucky, it may nuzzle your mask or roll over to have its belly rubbed.

Use snorkel gear. This will allow you to float along the surface and watch the manatees as they feed on the bottom.

Leave your scuba tanks at home. The air bubbles will frighten the animals. Besides, scuba gives you too much freedom. With tanks on your back, you'll be more inclined to follow a manatee, thus breaking the law.

Wear a wet suit. It is not essential, but 72-degree water gets cold quickly. The wet suit will increase your buoyancy, which will keep you from getting tired.

You'll be more comfortable, which will allow you to be more patient. You're more likely to have a pleasant visit if you don't rush it. If you don't own a wet suit, rentals are available from most local dive shops.

Give the manatees some space. If one does approach and you feel the urge to pet it, do so with an open hand. Don't grab it or hold on to it.

Don't feed the manatees. There is plenty of hydrilla and other vegetation to satisfy their hunger.

Don't separate a calf from its mother, or an individual form the herd.

Several dive shops in the Crystal River area offer organized manatee viewing trips. You can swim with the manatees on your own, but a guide is helpful if you are new to the area or uncomfortable in the water.

For more information on how to swim with the manatees, stop by the United States Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service at 1502 SE Kings Bay Drive in Crystal River. They are open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.