Manatees are, if not a common sight, at least a familiar one off Southeastern coasts of the United States. Found most often in the warm Gulf waters of Florida and Louisiana, but also as far north as Georgia and the Carolinas, these slow, peaceful herbivores have been called everything from sea cows to sirenians, after their tendency to be mistaken for mermaids by sailors. Yet these lumbering marine mammals- which can weigh in at anywhere from 440 lbs to over 1,000- are not just endemic to the coastal waterways and salty streams of the American south. Under the genus Trichechus that all Manatees are a part of are three separate species: Trichechus inungus, found within the Amazonian river basin in South America; Trichechus manutus, or the “West Indian Manatee”, native to the southern United States and the Gulf of Mexico; and Trichechus senegalensis, which can be found in West Africa.
Trichechus manutus, the West Indian Manatee, is the largest of all manatee species- usually weighing between 800 and 12,000 lbs- and has two subspecies, the Florida Manatee and the Antillean Manatee. Unlike the Amazonian Manatee, which exists only in the fresh waters of South America’s rivers, West Indian Manatees can live in fresh, salty, and brackish waters alike, and in fact often transition between the two as they move between coastal rivers and the sea. Manatees in Belize belong to the Antillean subset of the West Indian species, whose range covers the Central American and Northern South American coasts.
Manatees in Belize
While like all manatees the Antillean manatees of Belize have no natural predators, they are nevertheless a threatened species due to human activity. Historically, manatees have suffered from overhunting for their hides and bones, a practice that, while illegal, still continues in many Central and South American countries. This, together with deaths caused by collisions with motorboats and entanglement in fishing nets, have reduced the populations of the West Indian Manatee to the point that it has become listed as vulnerable to extinction under the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ (IUCN) red list. Belize, by nature of its as-yet limited human impact of its coastal shores, has so far remained a relatively safe haven for Manatees, though this may change as increased development encroaches on the Manatee’s natural habitat
In addition to overhunting and casualties caused by fishing and boating, Manatees are at risk from a natural phenomenon known as a “red bloom” or “red tide”. These are massive blooms of algae that in small quantities are otherwise harmless, but in high concentrations can paralyze the nervous system of fish, manatees, and other sea-dwelling organisms. Red tides, while naturally occurring, have been attributed to increased nutrient discharge caused by human activity and increases in seawater temperature linked to Climate Change, although their exact cause is still up to debate.
For all of the threats to their survival, Belize remains a sanctuary for Manatees, with between 800 and 1,000 members of the species found along its 240-mile coastline. Wildlife conservation has also become a major focus in Belize, with several organizations seeking to combine eco-tourism and the ability to swim with and witness manatees in their natural habitat with traditional preservation and rehabilitation programs. While manatees still remain vulnerable as a species, but for those wishing to see and learn about these unique and peaceful marine mammals, Belize is becoming one of the best places in the world to do so.
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Devin Windelspecht is a sophomore at Northeastern University in Boston MA where he majors in international relations. Devin is responsible for background work on many of the articles on the site, as well as some science writing.
- All photos are courtesy of VivaBelize.com and are posted here by permission.