Protecting Manatees in Belize

Artie Wong and Monica Ross
Students at the Gales Point Government School in Belize enjoy their "I Love Manatees" stickers from Save the Manatee Club. (Photo by Artie Wong, Save the Manatee Club)

By Artie Wong, SMC Staff Biologist

As I walk out of the airport in Belize, I hear a familiar, “Hey Artie!” I turn to see U.S. Geological Survey, Sirenia Project Biologists Bob Bonde, Cathy Beck, and other researchers waiting, as usual, for me. I’m such a tag along!

We’re in Belize to study Antillean manatees. Antillean manatees, like Florida manatees, are a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, but Antillean manatees are found in the coastal and inland waterways of eastern Mexico, Central America, the Greater Antilles, and along the northern and eastern coasts of South America. Both Florida manatees and Antillean manatees can be found in salt, fresh or brackish waters and feed on marine, estuarine, and freshwater vegetation.

(Top) Kevin Adrewin looks on as SMC Biologist Artie Wong (at right) keeps a daily journal while on his trip to Belize. (Bottom) Nicole Auil, Belize Program Manager for Wildlife Trust, works out the details for the manatee research project. (Photos by Artie Wong, Save the Manatee Club)

The manatee research project in Belize was started 12 years ago by Dr. Buddy Powell and Bob Bonde. The goal of the program is to radio tag manatees and opportunistically gather health-related data. Buddy and Bob's pioneering efforts have lead to a great deal of knowledge about the manatee population in Belize.

We load my few small bags of clothes and supplies into the rental car and take off through Belize City to the home of Nicole Auil, Belize Program Manager for Wildlife Trust. Bob navigates through the busy streets filled with pedestrians and vehicles like a seasoned New York City taxi cab driver.

We arrive at Nicole’s house to find her on the phone busily coordinating the local logistics for the project. Bob and the other research participants head to Placencia after dropping me off. I stay in Belize City to help with trailering the capture boat and getting supplies from Gales Point to Placencia in the morning. I accompany Nicole on a variety of tasks during my stay. Her phone rings constantly! In addition to her manatee and habitat conservation work, Nicole also helps to build positive support in the local community.

Dr. Buddy Powell (at right) explains the process of capturing manatees to the group through a variety of hand gestures and drawings of diagrams in the dirt. (Photo by Artie Wong, Save the Manatee Club)

Placencia, Here We Come
A flat tire, a missing boat key, and seven hours later, I arrive in Placencia with Kevin Adrewin and Trenton Samuels. Kevin and Trenton grew up helping Buddy and Bob with their manatee research work. Kevin is now a Gales Point Village Councilman, and Trenton is the groundskeeper for the manatee field station at Tiger Point, which is across the lagoon from Gales Point. I am excited to visit the village later in the week, but for now I stay busy absorbing the quaint tourist oceanside surroundings of Placencia.

Placencia is approximately 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) wide at its widest area and approximately 20 kilometers (12 miles) long. It is an ecologically diverse estuarine habitat, with increasing coastal development from tourism and aquaculture projects. Buddy and Bob study the manatees in Placencia to better understand their distribution, habitat use, and population health.

That evening, I greet Buddy and briefly meet with some of the visiting students and researchers from the USGS Sirenia Project, University of Florida, and Wildlife Trust. I have dinner with Kevin and Trenton and then prepare my research equipment for the first day of manatee captures and radio tagging.

(Top to bottom) Keeping the manatee's head out of the water so it can breathe, Jamal Galves, Artie Wong, and Trenton Samuels carefully walk it to the boat, where it is lifted out of the water and placed on the boat deck. (Top photo: Cathy Beck, USGS Sirenia Project; Additional photos by Artie Wong, Save the Manatee Club)

On the first morning of manatee research captures, Buddy gathers the approximately 25+ participants, including his wife, Maureen, 11-year-old daughter Morgan, a Wildlife Trust board member and her family, U.S. volunteers, University of Florida students and veterinarians, local high school interns from Belize, and various researchers. Buddy explains the process of capturing manatees to the group through a variety of hand gestures and drawings of diagrams in the dirt. This is field research at its best!

At last, it’s time to get out on the water. We drive the capture boat and several support boats carrying equipment through the lagoon. Buddy skillfully locates and tracks manatees while driving from the capture boat tower. We are challenged by areas of water that are deep with poor visibility. However, Buddy spots disturbances on the surface of the water called “footprints,” which are created by manatees when they swim.

A big seine net is let loose, and it’s not long before we enclose a manatee in it. Support boats distribute people around the outside of the net to maintain the net’s position and to ensure the safety of the enclosed manatee. We set the net in depths a little over 5 feet to allow us to safely stand in the water. Bob leads a group of experienced manatee handlers into the enclosed big net. They have a smaller net to capture the manatee. We effectively corral the manatee to one end, and it swims into the smaller net. The manatee struggles a bit, but we lift its head out of the water so it can breathe and carefully walk it to the boat for examination. As with the manatee health assessments in United States, a variety of data is collected from the manatees in Belize. I field-test new medical equipment: a hand-held electrocardiogram machine (model #ELI-10 from Mortara Instrument) and an end-tidal carbon dioxide monitor (Surgivet Capnocheck from Smiths Medical) . The medical companies have loaned this equipment to assist with monitoring the manatees' heart rates and quality of respirations. Buddy prepares a radio tag for the manatee and within an hour, the manatee is released back into the water.

Working quickly, researchers collect data on the captured manatee. (Top) Artie prepares to use the ECG machine to monitor the manatee's heart rate and function. At left, researchers take a length measurement. At right, Roshel Godfrey, a local high school intern, helps to label blood samples. (Top photo: Cathy Beck, USGS Sirenia Project; Additional photos by Artie Wong, Save the Manatee Club)

One capture down, and we are all feeling optimistic. However, the sun is blazing hot, and finding manatees becomes a challenge as the day rolls on. Over the next several days, while we are in Placencia, we realize that the manatees are breaking through the big net, and they are effectively escaping before we can catch them in the small net. The seine net is very old and will likely need to be replaced for the next capture trip. Until then, the crew must repair the holes in the big net by tying in new seine line. In all, we manage to capture three manatees in Placencia.

On to Gales Point
In the middle of the week, we decide to head to Gales Point. While trailering the boat, I ride in the back of a pick up truck with Kevin, Trenton, and Jamal Galves, a staff member with Wildlife Trust. Jamal also grew up helping Buddy and Bob with manatee captures. He is a field technician and is attending college in Belize so he can become a manatee biologist. The guys are excited to head back to Gales Point to see friends and family.

Gales Point is a rural community of a few hundred people situated in the ecologically rich waterway of Southern Lagoon. The lagoon stretches over 12 kilometers (7 miles) in length and is part of a wildlife sanctuary. Tourism helps to support the community, but the families living in town rely on fishing, hunting of wild game, and some farming for their food. Manatees are not hunted here, but they are instead very much appreciated – much as they are in the United States. This is largely due to the efforts of Nicole Auil and the Wildlife Trust staff and volunteers. Within the lagoon, approximately 150 manatees are considered regular residents. It is very apparent that the protection of manatees in Southern Lagoon is uniquely tied to the lifestyle of this special community. Kevin, Trenton, and Jamal know this area very well, and they are at ease capturing manatees here. We are able to capture three more manatees in the Southern Lagoon during our stay.

All in the family: Top left, Morgan Powell pours water on the manatee to keep it cool. At right, USGS Biologist Bob Bonde preps the manatee's fluke for a genetic sample. At bottom, USGS Biologist Cathy Beck (left), who is married to Bonde, and Maureen Powell (right) examine aquatic plants that were collected. (Photos by Artie Wong, Save the Manatee Club)

I forgo the last day of research captures to visit the Gales Point Government School with Kevin. At the school, I meet with Justice of the Peace Ioni Samuels and the school principal, Carol Aranda. The school consists of approximately 80 students from pre-school to 6th grade.

We discuss some of the challenges faced by the school including a recent theft of the school phone, lack of classroom space, and inadequate funding for supplies. Save the Manatee Club has donated a collection of books to the school library, and I also hand out “I Love Manatees” stickers to the children. The children are ecstatic to receive the books, and they are even happier to receive manatee stickers! I am happy that the kids had such a good time, but I leave the school concerned about the students and their future. I find some solace in knowing that there is a small, dedicated group of local and U.S. volunteer teachers at the school.

On the last night of my stay in Belize, a drum circle is formed in the village, and we all dance. Thousands of stars shine clearly overhead. I am grateful to have been a part of such a special trip to participate in manatee research and education efforts in Belize. I have met such wonderful people, and I am impressed with their dedication and the manatee and habitat conservation work that is taking place in this area. I look forward to working with them in the future.

SMC Biologist Artie Wong vists the Gales Point Government School to talk to the students about manatees. (Photo by Sarah Connor)
Principal Carol Aranda (at left) and the Gales Point students and teachers with the manatee books and education materials donated by Save the Manatee Club. Top row (l-r) SMC Biologist Artie Wong, Justice of the Peace Ioni Samuels (in blue), and Councilman Kevin Adrewin. (Photo by Sarah Connor)


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