There’s a certain magic that comes with encountering what sailors once thought to be mermaids: the manatee. Their graceful swimming and maybe not-so-graceful bodies are a wonder to behold when spotting them beneath the surface. If it is your lifelong dream to swim alongside these gentle sea cows that resemble dugongs, there’s no better place than Belize to cross it off your bucket list.
As the last stronghold for these creatures, Belize is said to have the largest population density of Antillean Manatees in the entire region, meaning you have a great chance of seeing one in the wild. While there are other species you will perhaps come across in a zoo or an enclosed man-made pool in other destinations, there’s no better experience than seeing an endangered manatee in its natural habitat.
One of the more popular spots to see a manatee in the flesh is at Swallow Caye, an island a few miles off the coast of Belize City. At this wildlife sanctuary, with a little patience you’re almost guaranteed to spot families of manatees as they feed on the seagrass beds and hang out near the mangroves. The boat ride is just about 20 minutes away from the mainland as it makes its way into the river, since manatees require freshwater. Once your boat captain slows down, anchors the boat and kills the engine, a manatee is bound to pop up and say “hi” since they’re naturally curious creatures. They often come close enough to touch the boat before diving back in to continue feeding. The entire tour lasts about an hour and your captain often provides snacks during the expedition.
Remember, manatees are endangered animals that are often killed by human activity so before diving in to accompany them for a swim, here are some best practices to make the tour enjoyable for you and the gentle critters.
- Touch the manatee. This is considered harassment and if caught, you can be fined or imprisoned.
- Feed or give water to the manatees.
- Speed up once nearing the river.
- Chase after a manatee with the boat.
- Corner a manatee or separate it from its calf.
- Obeying the signs to slow down when nearing the river waterways.
- Anchor the boat.
- Kill the engine.
- Be patient. It’ll be worth it.
Once you follow these manatee manners, you’re bound to have a wonderful experience while also protecting Belize’s wildlife. With only about 1,000 of these Antilleans manatees left, it’s crucial to leave their habitat exactly how we found it: human-free.
Fun-Fact: If you’d like to contribute to the conservation of manatees, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute hosts an Adopt-a-Manatee program, like we did in adopting Curious the manatee! When adopting a manatee, your contribution goes toward ensuring the safety of that specific manatee. This is a proactive measure and can include awareness, patrol, signage and other efforts. If you’d like to adopt a manatee and ensure its safety, feel free to contact Belizean Marine Conservationist and National Geographic Fellow Jamal Galves at [email protected].
*If you would like to report any of the “don’ts” listed above while experiencing a manatee tour, feel free to contact the BTB or Jamal Galves immediately. Your voice could save the lives of Belize manatees.