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New video puts local needs first

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires dive shops to show a government video depicting how swimmers and snorkelers should interact with manatees.

But for years, the video the wildlife service provided dive shop owners was 20 minutes long, and nearly half of it had nothing to do with Crystal River manatees.

"It had a story about Chessie, the manatee that was migrating to Chesapeake Bay," said Paul Cross, assistant manager of the Plantation Inn Dive Shop. "It had nothing to do with us, so we were spending a little more time showing a video that was educational, but not to our applications."

This year the wildlife service created a new video _ a streamlined, Crystal River-specific presentation that discusses how visitors should interact with manatees in the wild, leaving out Chessie and greatly reducing the attention to the effects of pollution on manatees.

"Everything that's in it now is directed right to what we're dealing with," Cross said. "It's more oriented to what we do."

The video presentation, which must be shown to anyone riding a commercial vessel into the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, is required for the dive shops to keep the special use permits that allow them to operate within the refuge.

The new video focuses exclusively on the Crystal River refuge, encouraging snorkelers and swimmers to follow the basic rules of swimming with manatees: let the mammals come to you; don't feed them or give them water; don't chase them; and never separate two manatees, especially not a mother and baby.

"We don't interfere with manatee behavior," refuge manager Jim Kraus states in the video. "If the manatee is resting on the bottom, you leave it alone."

The video also includes interviews with Steve Rees, a refuge officer, and Mark Lowe, a Citrus County veterinarian who deals with manatees.

Dive shop owners and managers have responded favorably to the new video, mostly because it is more germane to the Crystal River refuge.

"This one here is a little more people friendly, but the info is pretty much the same," said Darren Wilkes, manager of the Crystal Lodge Dive Center. "Keep passive interaction. It has always been if a manatee doesn't come to you, you don't touch them."

Dive shop owners also appreciate that Kraus acknowledges in the video that divers' interaction with manatees, if handled appropriately, can serve a positive educational purpose.

"If everyone complies with that, I think we'll have a situation that will benefit manatees and people for a long time to come," Kraus said.

Amy Wimmer Schwarb can be reached at 860-7305 or wimmersptimes.com.

WHERE TO SEE A MANATEE

The best way to see a manatee is by visiting Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. It has a captive herd of manatees in a natural spring setting, and the manatees are visible year-round.

In order to see manatees at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, you must access the area by boat. The refuge does not provide boat access, but you may obtain boat access through one of the many dive shops in the city of Crystal River. You may rent a boat, canoe, or kayak, go on a sightseeing trip, or take a guided snorkeling or dive trip.

_ Source: Joyce Kleen, biologist with Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

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