From the deck of Captain Lionel “Chocolate” Heredia’s mahogany boat, you can peer out into the water near Swallow Caye to glimpse one of the Caribbean’s most enchanting creatures.
A large gray body slowly glides along in the sea; a bit shy and on her own relaxed agenda, she is clearly not a spotlight-driven attention-seeker. On the other side of the boat, excited screams of “Look, a dolphin!” call the onlookers away from the husky creature swimming slowly alongside the vessel. But those who remain with the manatee will begin to understand the quiet beauty of this mammal, a creature that was once confused with mermaids from afar by seafarers.
Underrated, but beginning to gain their proper appreciation in recent years, the manatee is one of the most intelligent aquatic species, as well as the most docile. And you can encounter these gentle Antillean manatees in the wild while exploring Belize: a profoundly peaceful, magical brush with wildlife you won’t soon forget.
It’s this experience that Belize’s manatee guru, Captain Lionel “Chocolate” Heredia, provides to his guests on tours out of Swallow Caye.
I recently caught up with Chocolate and his wife Annie Seashore and got to know these Sirenians, also referred to as “sea cows,” a little better.
Amble Resorts: What made you decide to dedicate your life to protecting the manatee?
Lionel “Chocolate” Heredia: I have always been interested in the sea and the animals that live there. When I was young I witnessed a manatee killing and after hearing the cry I vowed to do what I could to help protect these animals.
AR: I’ve heard you’re the best. Are you still giving tours? If so, when?
LCH: I do tours whenever I get 8 people together that want to go. There is no set date — the tours are in the afternoon between 12 and 5 p.m.
AR: In your opinion, are they sea cows or mermaids?
LCH: Mermaids. I think manatees are called sea cows because of the many hours they spend grazing, very similar to land cows. In Belize, they call them “manantee” with an extra “n” thrown into the name.
AR: What is the best thing about manatees?
LCH: Too many things are the best thing. Just take a look at any underwater video or footage of manatees that are not in an area with a lot of human interaction. That’s when you see the real thing. Gentle beautiful animals.
AR: I heard you will be retiring soon, is this true?
LCH: Where did you hear this? Annie Seashore chimes in: “Choco is 82 but is still active; even though he’s slowed down a bit, he still has a lot of energy. Retired? Not really.”
Where to Find Antillean Manatees in Belize
Antillean manatees inhabit the rivers, lagoons, estuaries, and coastal waters of Belize. In their natural habitat of shallow, warm waters, manatees can be found sleeping, eating or traveling… very slowly.
Since manatees are slow-moving, nonaggressive creatures, they are often mistakenly perceived as dumb. Although they do have small brains in relation to their massive bodies, studies have shown manatees to be as adept in experimental tasks as dolphins — they’re just harder to motivate.
So they’re lazy… but hey, with no natural enemies, it seems manatees’ sluggish pace may save them the hassle of dealing with other wildlife.
Manatees’ biggest threats come from humans. Accidents with watercrafts and destruction of the manatee’s natural habitat have put the friendly sea cow on the endangered species list.
While the Antillean manatee is still threatened, Belize has made great strides in protecting its gentle giants.
For Belize travelers who seek adventurous and enlightening wildlife experiences, a trip out to Swallow Caye to explore Belize’s protected manatee wildlife sanctuary with Captain Chocolate as your guide is a must.
A Few Crazy Manatee Facts
Courtesy of Captain Lionel “Chocolate” Heredia of Swallow Caye, Belize
They have what are called marching molars; rarely found in mammals, these front molars drop out and new ones are replaced in the back.
Manatees are distant relatives of elephants (who also have marching molars).
They have a split upper lip so each side can move independently with seven muscles on each side. The upper lip and flippers are used to gather food.
Manatees are vegetarians and graze for about 7 hours every day, eating up to 15% of their body weight in seagrass and other vegetation.