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Meeting The Gentle  Giants

I have been in Caye Caulker for 3 months now and I had the opportunity to encounter numerous amazing creatures already. From the quiet nurse sharks, the curious stingrays, the shy turtles or even playful dolphins, every animal has its own behaviour and reacts differently to human presence. It is always a challenge to approach them without disturbing them and to gain their trust while observing them quietly. Some animals will just leave as soon as they see a human, while others will keep an eye on you and keep a safe distance, ready to leave. The most important rule while approaching them is to respect their behaviour and not try to chase them when they decide to leave.

The tourism industry here in Caye Caulker is particularly aware of these potential problems and most tour guides will keep an eye on their tourists to make sure they respect the animals. This is why some creatures of the reef are now used to human presence and will sometimes almost forget they aren’t alone and come really close to people. This can be the case with turtles who will continue grazing on seagrass or come up to the surface and breath right next to you without any stress or fear. Of course, staying quiet and proceeding slowly is always required to maintain the trust of the animal you are observing.

Last weekend, I finally had the chance to encounter manatees on the reef. This is a very rare opportunity and Belize is one of the only places where manatees don’t mind people being around them. As I was slowly swimming toward one of them, I realised how big they actually are and I understood why they are sometimes called “sea cows”. Of course, when a manatee is spotted on the reef all the boats come and send their tourists in the water to observe it. I was surprised to see that every tourist and tour guide in the water were really respectful and keeping a safe distance with the animal who was just resting quietly on the bottom, sometimes coming up to breath in the middle of the tourists. Each group of tourists only stayed a few minutes observing the animal and then left them in peace, which is the good attitude to have around them. This was also our case as we left the manatees alone to conduct a survey dive on the reef.

As I was staying on the boat waiting on our group of divers to conduct the survey, every tourist boat left the reef and we were left alone on the reef. I was keeping an eye on the manatees and noticed that they were still at the same place coming up to breath every now and then. After a while, I decided to get back in the water alone to check on them and take some pictures. I stayed around them, still, not making any fast movement and I was surprised to notice that they were very curious about my presence, sometimes coming very close with their little eyes to check on me. I even had the chance to see some courting behaviour between two of them, as they were slowly moving around me. One of them was also scratching his back on a lobe coral, apparently unaware of the ‘no touching’ rule on the reef. Those gentle giants really made a big impression on me as they behave so differently to any other marine animals. I am looking forward to seeing them again as manatee season is starting soon and to train new volunteers for the manatee conservation programme in the coming month.

By Doryan Givel - Belize Marine Project Coordinator

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