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A plea to save the manatee

The song on the juke box caught my attention. The artist and most of the words had been forgotten, but the meaning is engraved.

Manatees are beautiful.

Manatees are peaceful.

Manatees are our friends.

Save the manatee.

I count myself extremely fortunate, having seen two manatees in the wild before a vacation to Crystal River earlier this month. Due to man's encroachment on its environment, the manatee is an endangered species and only an estimated 1,000 remain.

I saw one for the first time in 1982 at the mouth of the Miami River, of all places. I had just registered for the Orange Bowl Marathon at a bayfront hotel and was strolling along the river bank. (Yes, it was safe.)

I was startled when a large animal surfaced beside me, snorted, took a deep breath, and dove back underwater.

I had seen manatees in zoos, and immediately realized what a privileged sight this was. The manatee surfaced again at a distance and its large, bell-shaped body rippled through the water.

This certainly portended good luck, I thought, and inspired me to work hard to meet my goal of breaking 4 hours in the marathon. I finished in 3 hours, 57 minutes and dedicated my race to that lone manatee.

So isn't it ironic that the next time I saw a manatee in the wild I was running? I had moved to Bradenton and was jogging around a marina on Palma Sola Bay when I saw the water rustle.

Suddenly, a huge manatee popped its head through the surface and seemed to look right at me. I had planned to run about 10 miles that day but stretched it to 12 or 13 as I ran circles around the marina watching the manatee.

It had decided to linger, or else there was some good seaweed in the water, and I was treated to a rare, half-hour treat of watching the big sea cow at play.

I took my family to Crystal River for vacation a few weeks ago, mainly just to get away and do a little snorkling in the springs at King's Bay. The water is crystal clear, cool and soothing, particularly on a sun-burned back.

The constant spring waters also attract herds of manatee during the fall, winter and spring, but it is rare to spot them in Crystal River during the summer.

I had explained this to my wife and stepdaughters, who share my love of nature, so that they would not be disappointed if we didn't see any manatees. We rented a pontoon boat and were motoring up the river when Jamie, our 8-year-old, shouted, "I saw one! I saw one! It was a manatee, I swear."

No one else saw it and since we had seen otters and numerous mullet jumping, I was sure the sighting was Jamie's imagination. But a short while later, a large animal glided by our boat. I saw it. My wife saw it. And Jamie saw it. The large tail was unmistakable.

I had seen my third manatee in the wild and I wasn't even running. In fact, I was sucking down a cold Bud Light.

Jamie was ecstatic.

"I told you! I told you!" she said with great satisfaction.

We were extremely privileged. We saw three more manatees that day, including two big ones swimming in tandem. And speedboats with their deadly props were buzzing all about, ignoring the no-wake-zone signs.

The woman in the riverfront dive shop at our motel said it was rare to spot manatees in Crystal River this time of year. Perhaps it was a special connection I made with those first two I saw.

We'd like to go back to Crystal River during the season and perhaps experience our own manatee encounter in the water.

That's if there are any manatees left. Let's hope those boaters slow down.

Save the manatee.