A naturalist guide at the Lodge at Chaa Creek cited a recent article in the Charleston Virginia Post and Courier as highlighting a growing interest in one of Belize’s favourite animals, the manatee, and raises concerns that this iconic Belizean marine mammal may be relocating.
Brion Young, who is also assistant manager of Chaa Creek’s Belize Natural History Centre, said the Post and Courier article confirms his own observations about the manatee’s growing popularity.
“It seems that the manatee is attracting more attention in our northern neighbours and appears to be growing in numbers when making its annual passage up and down the Atlantic Coast.
“That’s good news for us, as public awareness is important for any endangered species.
“But the article also raises issues about whether or not the manatees are relocating, and if so, why? That’s something environmentalists will want to start monitoring.”
The Post Courier article quotes James “Buddy” Powell of the “Sea to Shore Alliance”, a marine ecology advocacy that tracks manatees, as saying;
“There’s even some suspicion that manatees might be gradually relocating. They have been spotted as far north as Massachusetts and now are seen more commonly up and down the East Coast, Powell said.”
Mr Powell explained that the manatees might be expanding their range due to population growth or because of warming waters and such threats of increased recreational boat traffic forcing the animals to move to less-crowded waters and making them more reluctant to return.
Mr Young said that manatees are something the average Belizean is well aware of and most locals take precautions to avoid hitting the docile, slow moving creatures.
And while there are many things that draw people to Belize, from the stunning scenery to the many ancient Maya archaeological sites scattered through the tiny country’s vast rainforests and protected jungle habitats,naturalist guides at the Lodge at Chaa Creek confirm that an increasing number of visitors say they are also drawn to Belize’s less dramatic but no less loveable manatee.
Mr Young, said that there has been a rise in interest in the gentle mammals, which are known in Belize as “sea cows” and in other parts of the world as dugongs.
“I’m not surprised by their appeal. There is something loveable and gentle about them, but the increase in attention has taken our guides a bit by surprise,” he said, “Manatees have been around forever, but aren’t exactly what you’d call the rock stars of the Belizean marine life,” Mr Young said.
And given the huge diversity of exotic wildlife teeming both inland in in Belize’s waters, that’s not surprising. Inland, the country supports healthy populations of various monkeys, big cats such as jaguars and ocelots, tapirs and other tropical forest denizens, as well a riot of colourful birds such as parrots, macaws, hummingbirds and hundreds of other species.
And with the Caribbean sea teeming with rays, turtles, an assortment of fish to put any aquarium to shame and individuals such as the whale shark, the world’s largest fish, the unassuming manatee would seem to need to struggle to get attention.
Hoverer, more and more people are said to be travelling to Belize just to see the gentle, grazing marine mammal, which is considered by many people to have inspired the myth of the mermaid.
Especially while calving, the manatee’s breasts can appear quite prominent and, combined with the imagination of lonely mariners may have led to speculation of sea going damsels beckoning from the horizon.
Today’s manatee watchers seem to find appeal in the animals’ serene motion and gentle beauty as they graze along the bottom, hence the local Belizean name of sea cow.
Once prized as a source of food, the manatee is no longer hunted, Mr Young said, and this had led to a resurgence in their numbers, and possibly greater familiarity and interest in them.
“Now that they have less reason to fear people we’re more likely to see them, and with their cute puppy-dog faces people find them irresistible,” Mr Young said, “I never expected that the manatee would be a big draw but they really are these days, especially among the children. In fact, we’re hoping to find some cuddly plush manatee toys for our gift shop,” “Mr Young said, “I’d probably be ordering a few myself. They’re that adorable.”
The Lodge at Chaa Creek is an award winning eco resort set within a 365 acre private nature reserve in Belize.