Solider Caye, Turneffe Atoll, Belize. Imagine snorkeling through the gin clear waters of a remote coral atoll and suddenly a manatee appears out of nowhere. And, rather than taking immediate flight, it decides to stick around to check you out. This very thing happened to me last week in Belize. I was visiting the Oceanic Society’s Blackbird Caye Field Station on Turneffe Atoll and had joined the station crew for an afternoon snorkel. We had taken a boat to a patch reef complex off a small island called Solider Caye. The reef here is spectacular, thriving with life and bathed in waters clearer than most swimming pools. Early on there were signs that this spot was special for big charismatic animals, and I found myself in pursuit of abundant sea turtles, stingrays and nurse sharks. But what I didn’t expect to see was a manatee swimming around on a coral reef. And judging from the inquisitive reaction of the animal, he seemed equally surprised at my presence there. I had been cutting through a channel between two patch reefs when the animal and I ended up face to face. He took some time to check me out and then, as if he suddenly remembered he was supposed to be scared me, took off into the turquoise abyss.
The West Indian manatees in Belize are the same species as the ones found in Florida, but are a different subspecies. The ones here are called Antillean manatees Trichechus manatus manatus and are considered endangered. Manatees are common in Belize’s coastal waters, although less so on remote reefs like Turneffe Atoll. They depend on the freshwater found in Belize’s coastal rivers, but will roam far and wide away from those rivers to feed on seagrass, sometimes for 8 days or more. The Oceanic Society is studying the movements of these animals and working with the Belizean government to protect them as part of the their Turneffe Atoll Biodiversity Initiative. You can support this important work by making a tax-deductible donation.