A New One for the Bucket List: Swim With Manatees in Belize

Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America. Hop on a boat over to Caye Caulker and the accent is decidedly Caribbean. The dreadlocks and slow pace of life commonly attributed to the Caribbean islands are also very apparent. Afternoons are whiled away sipping rum cocktails in the sunshine, feasting on freshly caught lobster and swinging in a hammock.

When you eventually motivate yourself to get up and walk further than the nearest barbecued food vendor, there are two activities you simply can’t leave Caye Caulker without doing. One of them is diving the Great Blue Hole. The other is a day’s snorkeling trip to see the West Indian manatee.

Swim With Manatees in Belize - An Inquisitive Manatee, Caye Caulker

What is a Manatee?

Manatees are commonly referred to as sea cows. They’re close relatives of the dugong, which frequents the mangroves of northern Australia. They’re fully aquatic, mainly herbivorous and grow to approximately three metres in length.

They’re generally slow, docile, solitary animals and they spend up to 50% of the day asleep fully submerged. The rest of their time is largely spent grazing in reasonably shallow waters.

In the past, indigenous Caribbean people hunted manatees from dugout canoes, collecting their meat for food. Later, their bones were used in alternative medicine.

Unfortunately, humans are still the biggest threat to the manatee. Although hunting them was banned in the late 1800s, poaching continues in some areas to this day. They’re inquisitive creatures and collisions with boat propellers are not uncommon. Since manatees reside close to the shore, habitat encroachment is another issue.

Where to Book a Snorkeling Tour

Swim With Manatees in Belize - Snorkelling Trip at Caye Caulker

It’s not difficult to find a tour company to take you to see the manatees. On Caye Caulker, every other shack runs snorkeling trips to the reef. Shop around for a good price and remember to ask what measures they take to protect the resident marine life.

We chose to take the tour with Jacob and Shorty – two very experienced and knowledgeable local tour guides. You can book directly from Bella’s Backpackers, which – for the record – is a fantastic hostel that draws in a sociable crowd. As an extra incentive, they supply you with a chicken and rice lunch and copious amounts of rum punch for the return journey.

While it’s a good idea to check the weather forecast for your chosen day (you wouldn’t want to be caught out in a rough storm of hurricane!), don’t be put off by a little light rain. For one, you’ll be out on a small boat all day and you’re less likely to get sunburn. Also, rumour has it that the manatees are more active in wet weather. This might have been a ploy by the islanders to encourage us to book their trade, but if our experience is anything to go by I’m inclined to believe them.

Caye Caulker’s Marine Inhabitants

While the tour is focused towards manatee sightings, they’re by no means the sole attraction. You’d be unlucky not to meet the resident sea turtle ‘Scarface’ and some close encounters in Shark Ray Alley are certain to get your blood pumping. You might even have the chance to try your hand at some spearfishing!

Turtles

Swim With Manatees in Belize - Scarface the Loggerhead Turtle at Caye Caulker

Spend 30 minutes swimming over a bed of abandoned conch shells as you interact with Scarface – a local loggerhead with near celebrity status. He’s friendly and curious, and will swim very close to you. In fact, you might find yourself letting out a high-pitched shriek as he heads straight towards you. It’s good practice, as he’s not the only marine creature that might swim a bit too close for comfort on this trip.

Sting Rays

Swim With Manatees in Belize - Stingray at Caye Caulker

The legendary Steve Irwin did nothing to improve public opinion on sting rays, but they’re really not very dangerous. Their barbed tails are only used in self-defense and, aside from exceptional circumstances, injuries in humans only occur when a tail barb is stepped on accidentally. During your snorkeling trip, you’ll pay a visit to Shark Ray Alley in the popular marine sanctuary Hol Chan, where sting rays and nurse sharks gather in huge numbers to feed. If you’re lucky you might even see a spotted eagle ray.

Nurse Sharks

Nurse sharks are about four metres long and, like their distant sting ray relatives, they are largely harmless. Still, it’s exciting to get in the water with a huge ball of them as they scramble to feed.

They’re commonly found at shallow depths, which means you can swim down to the sea bed to get a closer look.

Swim With Manatees in Belize - Nurse Sharks at Shark Ray Alley near Caye Caulker

Tropical Fish

You’ll have plenty of opportunity to stray further from the boat and explore the reefs. There are tunnel formations you can swim through and huge blocks of coral that attract an array of iridescent fish.

Following a few practice shots into the sand and a briefing on which species are endangered or protected, you may have the chance to try out spear fishing.

Extra points go to anyone who can impale a lionfish. The red lionfish, with its elaborate venomous spiky fin rays, has been described as one of the most aggressively invasive species on the planet. By praying on native species, it threatens reef ecological systems. Its sting can also prove fatal to humans. However, if cooked correctly, it makes a very tasty meal and you can further support the cause by buying some beautiful lionfish jewellery.

Swim With Manatees in Belize - Spearfishing at Caye Caulker

Swim With Manatees in Belize - Manatees Photobombed by a Fish, Caye Caulker

Manatees

This tour would be great even without the presence of manatees, but swimming with them is one of those life experiences you will never forget. Not only are they unlike any other creature, they’re large enough to get a good look at and slow enough to spend time appreciating without the frenzied kicking of fins and associated obtrusive bubbles that usually accompany such a wildlife experience.

If you’re really lucky, you might even see them courting. Manatees typically breed only once every two years and it’s rare to see them in pairs or groups. The double hug below was a phenomenon even Jacob and Shorty were unfamiliar with.

Swim With Manatees in Belize - A Pair of Manatees, Caye Caulker

Swim With Manatees in Belize - Manatee Soft Porn...

Final Verdict

It’s no exaggeration to say that this day was one of the best of my life. Jacob and Shorty went out of their way to make sure we saw everything there was to see. They must have done the same trip hundreds of times and yet their enthusiasm rivaled ours. They were knowledgeable but they didn’t overload us with too many details. We were entertained from start to finish by their humour, a selection of hilariously explicit reggae tunes and Shorty’s tattoos, which were, if anything, more explicit than the music! Manatees are associated with mermaids in folklore, which seems appropriate as this day was simply magical.

Comments

    • says

      They are so weird, but definitely cute at the same time. The ‘double hug’ was really awesome to see – although, because of its resemblance to the ’69’, we did feel like perhaps we should look away!

    • says

      Me too! I would only get in the water with a great white if I was protected – although a lot of those experiences are somewhat unethical. I’ve swum with mantas too. They’re incredible!

    • says

      Thanks Mike! Yes, the animal experiences are often my most treasured memories. I was brought up on wildlife programmes and these days when I watch them with my dad I can often name the place where they filmed a scene. That’s quite exciting!

    • says

      Well, if you do the tour, you see the manatees and sharks separately. I can’t promise a lone shark won’t swim by as you’re watching the manatees, but you definitely wouldn’t see so many!

  1. says

    Hi there!

    Wow, amazing photos! I wish I could do it too! I have tried snorkeling once but unfortunately it’s not for me as I almost had a pnic attack under the water :( and I was really nervous under the water.

    It must have been an amazing feeling… swimming with such big creatures :)

    • says

      Thanks Kris! That’s such a shame that you were uncomfortable with snorkelling. I’ve known a couple of friends who were like that for a while because it’s so unnatural (although one of them had the braids of her hair on the inside of the mask strap, which broke the seal and meant that water flooded in, so that was hardly surprising!). I’d recommend practicing in the bath or a swimming pool where the water is shallow and calm. If you can get over the feeling that it’s totally weird to breathe with your head under water it opens the door to some truly amazing experiences. It was only recently that I learned to dive down with the snorkel in and then clear it. Something else I find works well is just wearing the mask and fins and not using the snorkel. Obviously you have to keep coming up for air but at least you don’t miss out entirely :)

  2. says

    I love your final comment, about it being one of the best days of your life. Reading through and looking at your pictures (which are brilliant!) I was thinking wow, this would be just the best thing ever! I’ve dived a few times and was stoked to see a sea turtle and giant moray eel, but this looks utterly fabulous. I can’t want to do it again now!

    • says

      Diving and snorkelling are two of my favourite activities and Central America has so much to offer in terms of marine life as well as really fascinating aquatic environments. You simply can’t go wrong! :)

    • says

      Thanks Jenny! Yes, I was using a GoPro. I usually film with it and then edit the screen shots. I’m glad I inspired you to head back to Belize. I feel like it won’t be long before I’ll be doing that too!

  3. Peter Arroyo says

    Was Jacob and shorty affiliated to Bellas backpackers or were they tour guides that operated near the Hostel?? I’d like to hook up with them when we go in July. We are staying on Ambergirs Caye but we’ll make the trip for a good and responsible guide to let us snorkel with the manatees.

    • says

      Yes, they virtually lived at Bella’s while I was there, although I think they probably work all over the caye. You will find a lot of tour operators on both cayes, so if you have the time it’s a good idea to shop around/book when you’re there and you have more information like group sizes, weather conditions, etc. Have a brilliant time!

  4. Holly says

    What is the name of their company? I know their names are Jacob and Shorty, but I just didn’t know if they had a company name to book with? Thank you in advance!

    • says

      Hi Holly! I’m pretty sure they were just working freelance at the time. I don’t think they had an office. I booked through Bella’s Hostel. This was over a year ago, so I don’t know if they’re still running the tour. My advice would be to just turn up and ask around. If you ask at Bella’s and they no longer work with Jacob, then try asking at the Ragamuffin Tours office, as he used to work for them and they’ll know him. Failing that, you’re sure to find someone who can take you on a similar trip. Caye Caulker isn’t very big, so even if you have to walk around trying to find Jacob or another suitable company, you won’t have to walk far! Enjoy!

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