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Manatee Watch protects sea animals from humans

Dot and Tom Lehman sit in their motorboat and sip hot coffee to take the edge off the slight chill on this Sunday morning. The nearly clear topaz sky is broken only by the wisps of high-altitude cirrus clouds.

The Lehmans watch serene patterns of sunlight sprinkle across the water like shards of broken glass.

There certainly are worse places to be and more tedious jobs to do.

Gleeful laughter and delightful squeals from children and grownups alike ride the breeze across Kings Bay in Crystal River. Such sounds are common when swimmers cavort with dozens of Florida manatees wintering here.

The Lehmans, who live in Homosassa Springs, and about 20 other Citrus volunteers are part of a weekend Manatee Watch program sponsored by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

On weekends from November through March, months when the manatee population is heaviest in Citrus County, volunteers in motorboats and canoes spend four-hour shifts near protected manatee sanctuaries.

Their task: to make certain the animals are unmolested by humans.

Manatee Watch volunteers such as the Lehmans aren't hard to spot.

First, they often are the only people out of the water when manatees swim outside the sanctuaries to frolic for wildlife paparazzi. Second, they wear official-looking beige vests and blue baseball caps. Third, they have a big sign clamped to the side of their boat that reads: MANATEE WATCH.

"People are really very good with the manatees for the most part," said Mrs. Lehman, a retired victim counselor who says this weekend occupation is much less nerve-wracking and emotionally exhausting. "But sometimes they become excited about swimming with them, lose track and wander into the sanctuaries."

Two sanctuaries are near King's Spring, where the Lehmans often spend their shifts _ areas along Banana Island and Sunset Shore that are marked with orange and white buoys stating CLOSED AREA in large black letters.

The federal government doesn't take sanctuaries lightly; violators face maximum penalties of a $20,000 fine, a year in prison, or both. Lehman said most swimmers are cooperative when volunteers warn them they have entered the manatees' protected habitat.

The volunteers also are in the bay to protect the animals from people who get too rowdy for the manatees. Lehman said he has seen some swimmers jump into the water, right on top of the manatees, and make all kinds of noise, but "I've only seen a few people get really obnoxious."

On one Sunday, at least 20 manatees swam near the main spring, not far from Port Paradise. The animals are outnumbered by dozens of humans, some in wet suits and snorkels, while others tough enough to tolerate the constantly cool water wore shorts.

Several manatees chowed on a float of hyacinths, which they gradually pushed into the southern sanctuary along Sunset Shore. Other manatees rose to the surface of the shallow bay and then dropped back into green water made murky by movements of the animals and swimmers.

A boat from Plantation Inn carried 12 men and women in wet suits into the bay for a chance to swim with the animals. Another bore a family of five and a dog.

Two children rushed the massive manatees like miniature defensive linemen, splashing emphatically. Upon reaching an animal, which let them scratch its broad, coarse gray-brown back, one child shouted to her parents, "Look at it! It's HUGE! It's the biggest one out here!"