The Antillean Manatee is an endangered species but fortunately here in Belize, our population is considered a stronghold for them. That’s why eco-destinations (serving a conservation purpose) are so important, like the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary located just about four miles east of Belize City and 19 miles southwest of Caye Caulker. The Antillean, a sub-species of West Indian Manatee, thrives here in this sanctuary, which was established in 2002 for their protection from human activity like boat-related injuries. Boating is very strictly regulated here, where wildlife spotting is accessible by private tours only for these gentle giants—a privilege to observe in their natural habitat.
The marine protected area is nearly 9,000 acres and comprises several other uninhabited cayes. Visiting the sanctuary has been described as a place inspiring peace as you can observe these magnificent and gentle creatures feeding on the seagrass beds or swimming around lazily in singles, or in pairs. Sometimes, you may even see a mother with her calf.
How to get there
There are private tours all year round either from Belize City, Caye Caulker, and Ambergris Caye. In Caye Caulker for example there is an information center called Friends of Swallow Caye, where you can find information about the reserve.
After learning all about these creatures, also sometimes referred to as a ‘sea cow,’ feel free to book a tour with the many tour operators in town such as Tsunami Adventures and E-Z Boy Tours. And like most marine tours, the day ahead is dependent on weather.
The Tour’s Dos and Don’ts
As you arrive at the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary, you will notice the pristine seagrass beds ahead. Your anxiety to spot a manatee may accelerate, but if you were thinking of getting in the water and swimming with them, don’t. Touching or feeding manatees is strictly prohibited here, but don’t worry, because just being close to them will still make an unforgettable experience. Do make sure to bring your camera to capture those special moments.
As your boat gets to manatee grounds, your captain will cut the engines and manually pole its way inside the sanctuary. As you may remember, boating is strictly regulated, and having the engines running may injure a manatee. They spend most of their time under the water, but every 15 minutes they surface to breathe, and this is when you can admire their delicate beauty. At times they may come close to the boat, perhaps curious about their visitors, before submerging in the water. In shallower areas of the reserve, you can be lucky enough to see them feeding on the seagrass, which is their favorite food.
The story behind Swallow Caye
Every time you ask about this haven for manatees, you will hear the story about the late Caye Caulker resident Lionel ‘Chocolate’ Heredia. He reportedly started the tour guiding manatees and embarked on a mission in the 1980s to raise awareness to protect these mammals. With the support of a group of friends and environmentalists, the lobbying for the establishment of the sanctuary finally gave fruits and in July 2002, the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary was established.