The Search for Manatee

March 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Travel Blog

The Search for Manatee
Laurette Veres tracks elusive mammal

The Honduran Rainforests
The primitive park train to Cuero Y Salado Wildlife Refuge trudges through banana plantations and small villages. There is no road, only mountainous rain forest terrain that becomes green, leafy flatland at the end of the line.

I’m looking for manatee in La Ceiba, Honduras with a group of travel writers. The only English speaking person at the refuge’s visitor center is a volunteer from Minnesota who reminds me of Francis McDormand in “Fargo.” She has spent three-weeks with Global Volunteers cleaning beaches and researching manatee. She recommends hiring a local guide who knows the water and can spot a 2000-pound swimming mammal.

After boarding a six-passenger boat, we cruise through the pristine waters of the Salado River. Manatee move slowly and eat floating vegetation, so we spend a lot of time near the river’s highly vegetated shoreline. The scenery is exquisite. Picture perfect views of the mountains reflect off the water as howler monkeys scream from the treetops. A large croc rises to the surface not far from the boat, and bats line the trees, hanging in perfect symmetry.

We enjoy the peace and tranquility of unspoiled nature, but alas, the crafty manatee eludes us.

Paddling to Nowhere
Stories of manatee sightings abound near Florida’s Gulf Coast. Native Floridian and owner of Anna Maria Island Eco Tours, Shawn Dutschayer, makes his living leading kayakers to manatee in the peaceful waters of Florida Bay.

It’s early morning, and the sun is shining as we launch our kayaks and begin the search. Cruising in an ocean kayak provides a unique vantage point. The small craft fits through the smallest openings in the mangrove branches letting us see sights we would miss from a boat. Statuesque pelicans sweep across the water, and intricate mangrove roots curve up toward the Jurassic Park-like trees. But alas, despite much patience and paddling, we never spot a manatee.

Snooty, the Manatee
To actually see a real, live manatee, we have to visit the South Florida Museum in Bradenton. Snooty, the oldest living manatee in captivity, performs a death-defying stunt routine, where he slowly swims around a tank and eats lettuce. He shares his 60,000-gallon aquarium with two younger manatees, who also swim around and eat lettuce. The popular tourist attraction allows visitors to view the creatures from above the water or at eye level through glass walls.

Lake and kayak photos: staff; Photo of Snooty courtesy the south florida museum

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