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Swimming with manatees

By Ben Mirin, Safina Center Fellow

On May 15th, 2017 ten explorers, environmentalists, artists, and scientists embarked on a seven-day voyage to study marine mammals off the coast of Belize. Their collaboration focused on documenting marine mammals living in the deep water between Belize’s coastal atolls. Through a growing data set of photographs, drone footage, and underwater recordings, they hope to learn more about the animals living in these coastal waters in order to create a solid foundation for their protection.

Day 7: Placencia, Belize, 6am

Kristi was overflowing with joy. Moments earlier, she had swam for the first time with a West Antillean Manatee.

“We were so close we had to try not to touch it, but it put its snout right up to our faces,” she gushed. “It was so cool! Oh my god. We were all in a circle and it came up in the middle of all three of us!”

Our team had just spent several days patrolling the Belizean coast in search of marine mammals. Our goal for the week had been to catalogue animals living in this part of the Caribbean through sound and photographs, and we had only managed to film manatees from the air via drone. In a last-ditch effort we tied two hydrophones to the nearby mangroves, set them to record overnight and went to sleep with ambitious plans for additional drone flights and reconnaissance dives in the morning.

Our work began immediately the next day. We awoke on deck to the sounds of two manatees swimming around the boat, surfacing every two or three minutes as they fed on surrounding beds of sea grass. Propelled through the shallows by powerful tails, they would sip air then slip silently beneath the water. One of our scientists, Eric Ramos, sent his drone into the air to track their movements and conducted the rest of the team as we scrambled for photographs.

“Try to photograph a breach if you can,” Eric called out without looking away from his video monitor. “We need photos of the skin on their backs to have any chance of identifying particular individuals.”

As we continued shooting, three more of our researchers got in the water. Visibility was low at first, but then they stopped moving, and a large grey shape emerged suddenly from beneath them. Luckily for the team, Kristi had her GoPro.

Moments later they emerged from the water. Kristi was shaking.

“It was one of the most significant experiences in my life,” Kristi said. “Seeing this huge animal emerge from out of nowhere and feeling it staring at you was truly mesmerizing. I’ll never forget it.”

“I’m jealous!” cried Eric. The enthusiasm was infectious. Moments later the video was on his laptop. We crowded around to watch.

“This will be really valuable for a number of reasons,” Eric continued. “Number one, by pairing this underwater footage with aerial footage we can determine whether it’s possible to identify individual animals non-invasively at a distance based on patterns of scarring on their skin. Second, it’s valuable because we can now add these manatees to our working database of manatees living in this entire region. Since there are only about 600 of these animals living in all of Belize, these two individuals represent a significant portion of that population. Hopefully if we can identify them later with these metrics, we can track their movements.”

While Eric was talking a pair of speedboats ripped through the shallows along the mangrove edges. The sight made us all uneasy.

“Manatees’ lungs are on their backs,” Eric said, “so even a minor collision with a boat can be fatal. Seeing boats moving at that speed, there’s just no chance a manatee could get out of the way.”

We started to pack. It was our last day on the water and we had to make it to Belize City by nightfall. Most of us packed out the next day, but Eric and another one of our teammates, Alton Jeffords, stayed in the city together one more night. They would need each other desperately the next day.

This vignette is part of a series by Ben Mirin about his latest expedition to Belize with Hello Ocean, a non-profit that sends teams of scientists and artists on voyages to study and explore marine life at sea. Read his previous vignette here

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