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Artist's manatees grace city hall

At his dusty workshop on NE 11th Street, Jesse Dobson works to bring onto land the rarely seen beauty that stirs beneath the ocean.

There's a 12-foot mako shark he crafted from fiberglass and colored in metallic blue and white that adorns the walls outside the workshop. Nearby, there's a 14-foot iced tea-colored hammerhead. Next to that is a 17-foot great white.

Then, there's the blue and purple, 16-foot thresher shark, with its characteristic long knife-like tail. For those who have never heard of a thresher, Dobson offers a layman's explanation: It uses its tail _ which accounts for about half its total length _ to whip and paralyze prey.

"Makes you want to jump out of the water, doesn't it?" he asks.

Dobson's creations at Dobson Fiberglas are not solely undersea killers. While he can craft just about anything, from life-sized whales to birds, Dobson is perhaps best known in Citrus County for his replicas of the gentle West Indian manatee.

The endangered manatees flock to the waters off Citrus to escape the chilling Gulf. The manatees swim, eat and rest near Citrus' warm waters, including parts of Kings Bay in Crystal River and the Blue Waters portion of the Homosassa River.

"You'd be surprised how many kids on the Homosassa River have never seen a manatee," Dobson said recently.

The red, white and blue manatee that stands outside Crystal River City Hall is his creation, placed there for the city's 100th anniversary celebration in 2003. The mother will soon be joined by a calf, also a Dobson creation. The mother will be repainted the color of a natural manatee, complete with whiskers, to match the baby, Dobson said.

In honor of his work, Helen Spivey of the Save the Manatee Club said the calf will be named "Jesse."

Mom and pup are not the only manatees destined for Crystal River, the city with the motto "Where Man and Manatee Play."

Dobson currently is putting the finishing touches on two 8-foot-long adult manatee statues and two 4-foot manatee calfs that he donated to the city. One mother and a calf will be placed at the north and south entrances to the city on U.S. 19.

He also has donated two porpoises _ one measuring 3 feet long, the other 4 feet _ to be placed at the city's entrance on State Road 44.

"I'm trying to educate people" with his life-sized and life-like sculptures, he said.

Dobson grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and his eventual interest in fashioning sculptures of animals from fiberglass began as a dalliance with taxidermy as a Boy Scout. He soon found the art lacking, mainly because the specimens did not look lifelike.

"They weren't realistic," he said.

After marrying his wife, Shirley, the couple moved to Citrus nearly two decades ago. Dobson learned his craft from a local taxidermist, with whom he worked until going off on his own in the early 1990s.

He donated a 9-foot-long manatee to Rock Crusher Elementary School where his son, Christopher, now 15 and in the 10th grade at Crystal River High school, attended. The children at the time nicknamed the manatee Whiskers.

Dobson uses fiberglass or silicon rubber to make molds. In his workshop one recent morning, the molds were arranged on the dusty floor as one of his employees airbrushed a fish. Another room in his building contains numerous molds, including one of an elephant ear, that hang from the ceiling like tobacco leaves drying in a tobacco barn.

To make the molds, Dobson said, he will use an animal that has been preserved using conventional taxidermy or from bones, both submitted to him from a collector or museum. When it is time to bring his casts to life, Dobson uses car paints that are $140 a gallon. Of all his creations, Dobson said, he loves to create sailfish and bull dolphins because of their "iridescent colors."

Up next for Dobson, who lives in Homosassa with his family, are creatures that are of a more scary nature than the manatee. He said he has been contracted to produce a 150-foot alligator and a 350-alligator for a client in Canada.

"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "Anyone can make it. But the challenge is to make it look lifelike."