It was with great excitement that the volunteers headed out to Wildtracks, another NGO that worked to rehabilitate a variety of animals. They worked with all sorts of creatures, pretty much whatever came their way, but most important was their work with manatees.
We went out in two pick up trucks – our usual method of transportation – and tried to balance ourselves on the hot black metal of the boot of the truck. The lack of smooth road surfaces definitely didn’t help but after bumping around for about fifteen minutes we pulled into a clearing. We saw the pens of white-lipped peccaries and white-tailed deer as we drove along Wildtracks’ driveway and could hear the howler monkeys from a long way off. Our arrival also triggered quite a significant disturbance amongst the dogs and the geese that live there as well. There’s quite a mix of species it has to be said.
Once we had disembarked from our truck we were met by Chris, the intern running the manatee rehabilitation team. He was from the UK too and explained that he was staying for six months. He didn’t have any formal training in animal husbandry or marine biology, he was just very keen to get stuck in, which you definitely need to be if you’re doing his job. The first manatee feed is at 5:30am and the last one is at 9pm and that’s only if you’ve got the more mature ones. If you have baby manatees in critical condition they require someone in with them in their tank 24/7 to act as a warm body that they think is their mother. Yes, it is some people’s jobs to literally just hug baby manatees all day.
Chris took us down to the lagoon to show us the manatees getting their lunch. The way that Wildtracks works is that they use a ‘soft release’ technique, which for them has had a 100% success rate. That basically means that the manatees are gradually reintroduced to the wild, with slowly decreasing input from Wildtracks until they are fully re-wilded. They decrease the number of feeds over time, while keeping GPS trackers on the manatees so that they can monitor where they’re going. They’ve released eight manatees since the programme started, which may not sound like very many, but given that the population is estimated at 700 that’s over 1%. Not too shabby if you ask me.
We reached the lagoon where the feeding was taking place and walked down towards the edge of the water. There were, what looked like, big football goals around a small pen in the lagoon. Three volunteers from Wildtracks clambered down into the water with big bottles of milk. We eagerly waited for our first sighting of a manatee and soon enough the big grey, bristly mouths started to poke out from the water and greedily guzzled down the bottles of milk.
“So what is it in the bottles?” I asked.
“We use a mixture of formula milk and banana, blended together. Each manatee gets about a 650ml bottle. And we also feed them sea grass and mangroves leaves after they finish their milk.” Chris replied.
“Sounds pretty tasty,” I said with a laugh.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of the hairy faces poking out of the water. Each Wildtracks volunteer had to hold the manatee under its chin while it fed. Chris explained,
“There is no way of bottle-feeding a manatee without being in the water with it and being in contact with it. A manatee will drink its mother’s milk for usually the first couple of years of its life, so they get pretty big whilst still being reliant on their mothers.”
Once the manatees had finished their bottles two of the volunteers got out of the water while the third entwined mangrove leaves between the mesh of the ‘goals’ for the manatees to eat. There was also a big square of white plastic tubing lined with pieces of seagrass that they placed on the bottom of the lagoon. This was to try to create a slightly more natural way of feeding. The manatees had to ‘pick’ the mangroves from the fence and could ‘graze’ on the sea grass that they put down.
However, it was all over too quickly and soon the manatees were gone again. I had slightly been hoping to see the manatees up a bit closer but I knew I was pretty lucky to see them at all so swallowed my disappointment.
But then Chris said,
“Shall we go and visit the baby now?” Excitement bubbled up inside of me and I had to consciously restrain myself from running up ahead to the concrete pool we were walking towards. The pool was octagonal and in one corner a rather un-excited looking volunteer floated in a giant rubber ring alongside the most fantastically adorable baby manatee.
She was tiny, about the size of a bath tub (which for a manatee is tiny), and because the water was so shallow I could see all of her. Her weird elephant skin and rough hair, encrusted with algae, her paddle (almost mermaid)-like tail and her little nostrils that would occasionally poke out from beneath the surface to release a little puff of air. She was perfect.
Manatees really are the most bizarre looking animals, with a prehensile upper lip that has all the dexterity of a hand and can select individual mangrove leaves. Their backs are covered in thick hairs that are encased in rough looking algae. Then their rounded fins and slightly bulbous body give them the impression of being made from play-dough rather than muscle and bone. And their mermaid tails allow them to move through the water with more grace than you could imagine such a creature being able to possess. I was captivated.
It was with great reluctance that I allowed myself to be torn away from her with the rest of the group to look at the monkeys that Wildtracks had also rescued. Most of their monkeys were taken from the pet trade and will be released into the wild if they can. Sadly this is not always the case. We met one white-faced capuchin who can sadly never be released, as white-faced capuchins are not native to Belize. He must have been brought over internationally and then sold off as a pet. I asked Chris if there was any way that this monkey could be repatriated but he replied sadly,
“We would love to but we just don’t have the funds or the connections to be able to do that successfully. So he will just have to live here with us instead,”
Once we had met the monkeys that was the end of our tour. Our guide walked us back out to the driveway, I longingly took one last glance at my beloved manatee friend before walking on with the group.
“It’s a shame, we thought we might have another young one coming in earlier this week,” Chris told me as we walked, “And in that case she would have had to go into the intensive care pool for 24/7 monitoring. We would have had to ask you guys to help us out with some of the night shifts, because of course she’d need someone in the pool with her constantly. But we couldn’t catch the manatee to bring her here, she was under too much stress.”
I told myself to forget that I’d ever heard that. I didn’t even want to cuddle a baby manatee anyways. That doesn’t sound fun. At all.
We thanked Chris for giving us the tour and he told us to come back as volunteers a different time. Another volunteer at Wildtracks came to say goodbye as well while we waited for the trucks to collect us. She was carrying a baby peccary that had just been brought in and I had never found peccaries to be cute but I also don’t think I have ever seen such a tiny animal in my life.
But once the trucks showed up we did have to leave, so we waved goodbye to the peccaries, geese, monkeys and manatees and headed back to Blue Ventures.