Of all the wildlife we’ve been fortunate enough to encounter during our travels, swimming with a West Indian Manatee remains one of our most treasured memories.
The West Indian Manatee is one of three living species of the Trichechidae family (the others being the Amazonian and African manatee). Their name comes from the Taíno (the indigenous people of the pre-Columbian Caribbean) word manatí, which means “breast.”
Scientists believe that Manatees originally evolved from four-legged land mammals over 60 million years ago. The strangest Manatee fact may be that their closest living relatives are elephants and hyrax (a furry, rotund herbivore that’s often mistaken for a rodent). They’re also known as sea cows, which seems apt given their slow movement and the deliberate way they chew their food.
They’ve historically been associated with the mythology of mermaids: Christopher Columbus and other sailors most likely saw Manatees rather the mermaids reportedly sighted during their explorations of the Caribbean. Some West African cultures consider them sacred, believing that Manatees were once human.
Today these gentle herbivores are a beloved tourist attraction in several parts of the world. Whether you see them while swimming, kayaking or just fishing from a pier, coming face to face with a Manatee is a magical experience you’ll never forget.
West Indian Manatee Facts
There’s something mystical about these massive creatures (which can measure 9-13 feet long and weigh up to 1,300 pounds). And they’re endlessly curious, often swimming up to boats and kayaks and poking their stubby snouts out of the water to investigate.
There are two West Indian Manatee subspecies– the Florida Manatee and the Antillean Manatee– but recent genetic research suggests there are actually three groups divided by geographical region. One population is found in Georgia, Florida and the Caribbean; another spreads from Mexico to Central America and northern South America; the third is found in northeastern South America.
When they’re not swimming (surprisingly gracefully for their size) at speeds ranging from 5 to 15 miles per hour in short bursts, you’ll typically find Manatees resting or feeding on ocean floors or riverbeds.
Using large, prehensile upper lips and cheek teeth that are constantly replaced, they eat for seven hours a day, consuming 10-15% of their total body weight. They’re the ultimate vegetarians, feeding on over 60 different freshwater (such as floating hyacinth, water lettuce, hydrilla, musk grass and mangrove leaves) and saltwater plants (including sea grasses, shoal grass, manatee grass, sea clover and marine algae).
Preferring warm temperatures and often congregating in shallow waters, West Indian Manatees are relatively easy to see in brackish water estuaries and freshwater springs.
Manatee Conservation in Belize
Unfortunately, threats ranging from disease and “red tide” algae blooms to ship strikes and cold temperatures have caused a population decline over the past few decades. Manatees are now listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as vulnerable to extinction.
The diverse, relatively pristine ecosystems of Belize make it a perfect sanctuary for West Indian Manatees. The nation is home to an estimated 800 to 1000 West Indian Manatees– easily the Caribbean’s largest population– most of which are found in Port Honduras Marine Reserve and the lagoons and rivers of Payne’s Creek National Park.
With support from the Nature Conservancy, a group of Belizean environmentalists formed the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) in 1997 to help protect the fragile ecosystems of Belize’s Toledo district, which stretches from Placencia down to the nation’s souther border.
At the time, the local West Indian Manatee population was reeling from intense hunting and gill net usage along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica snd Belize. TIDE rallied the local community’s support and petitioned the Belize government to establish the Port Honduras Marine Reserve. This brought 100,000 acres of marine habitat under legal protection, preserving pristine portions of the Mesoamerican Reef, important fish nursery grounds, sea turtle nesting beaches and, of course, the West Indian Manatees.
In recent years, the non-profit and its volunteers have been supporting a baseline Manatee population study conducted by Masters student Tránsito González Medina. The study examined the potential impacts oil exploration would have on the marine species of Belize, hoping to improve understanding of the distribution and movement of West Indian Manatees in southern Belize so that management practices can be put in place to protect them.
Volunteering with Manatees in Belize
Working in conjunction with TIDE, Discover Corps recently launched our Research & Conservation Experience. Our latest volunteer vacation offers travelers a rare opportunity to visit the Toledo district and work hand-in-hand with local conservationists to help study and preserve the ample West Indian Manatee population in the Port Port Honduras Marine Reserve.
Volunteers will immerse themselves in the natural beauty of Belize, exploring and working in three different ecosystems– jungle rivers rich with wildlife, tranquil lagoons and the beautiful turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. For the first half of the trip, they’ll stay amongst mangroves bustling with bird life, while the latter half will find them in the quaint seaside town of Punta Gorda.
Along the way, they’ll get a chance to help researchers measure the salinity of the water and currents; collect the size, weight and number of West Indian Manatees; and observe the overall health of the population.
In the end, not only will travelers have a chance to explore Belize, one of our favorite ecotourism destinations in the Americas, but they’ll also enjoy the benefit of knowing that their trip will help to conserve the beloved West Indian Manatee for many generations to come.
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.