Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America. Visit 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, but 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, which FYI is one of the best dive sites in Central America. The other is a day’s snorkeling trip to swim with manatees in Belize.
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.
HOW DO YOU SWIM WITH MANATEES IN BELIZE?
It’s not difficult to find a tour company to take you to swim with manatees in Belize. 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.
WHAT WILL YOU SEE?
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. This double hug was a phenomenon even Jacob and Shorty were unfamiliar with.
OTHER MARINE LIFE ON CAYE CAULKER
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!
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.
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. After you swim with manatees in Belize, 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 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.-
When you swim with manatees in Belize, you’ll have plenty of opportunities 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.
BEST EXPERIENCE EVER?
It’s no exaggeration to say that the day I had the chance to swim with manatees in Belize 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.