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Feb 24, 1999

News Five searches for manatees

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Last month we brought you the story of William Neal and his underwater encounter with the creatures of San Pedro’s Shark Ray Alley. Tonight’s report, from the village of Gales Point, may not have the drama of “Jaws” but News Five’s Stewart Krohn discovered that the manatees of Southern Lagoon have a charm all their own.

It’s as idyllic a spot as you’re likely to find in the tropics: a serene lagoon nestled at the foot of lush jungle covered mountains, surrounding a picturesque village, stretched out along a mile of palm studded peninsula. And the people of Gales Point Village are not the area’s only fortunate inhabitants. Beneath the surface of Southern Lagoon lies another kind of community, this one inhabited by manatees.

Stewart Krohn

“Belize may be home to the largest population of manatees in the region. But it’s one thing to know you have them and quite another to know exactly where they are.”

Which is why this group of researchers and journalists has descended on Gales Point. Funded by the Wildlife Preservation Trust International, the Manatee Tracking Project, led by Buddy Powell, has for the last 18 months used radio transmitters attached to the manatees’ backs to monitor the mammal’s movements. Today’s exercise involves finding a few new specimens and recapturing some of the regulars in order to change batteries, replace lost equipment and give the creatures a general medical checkup.

Using a sonic locator to home in on a manatee’s electronic beeper, the capture boat has found the first group and encircled them with a net. While that particular manatee has for the moment escaped, another specimen is carefully hauled alongside the boat for transport to a nearby beach. While the exhausted manatee takes a rest, the scientists take his vital statistics.

Buddy Powell, Leader, Manatee Tracking Project

“What we’re doing right now is we are attaching a transmitter that allows us to follow its movements and this transmitter actually has three different types of devices inside: one allows us to track it from satellites so that even if it were to travel to Honduras or Guatemala or Mexico we would still be able to track the long distance movements. It also has a VHF transmitter in it that allows us to be able to track it on the ground. And the reason for that is so that we can follow its local movements. We can see which areas it uses more than other areas. It allows us to follow their behaviors.”

That behavior is not just of interest to academics. Andrea Gill, a project researcher based in Gales Point, who along with two assistants, monitors the manatees by VHF radio, believes that information gathered about the animals’ movements will ultimately have a direct benefit for the community.

Andrea Gill, Field Researcher

“It’s an opportunity for the people of Gales Point to learn more about manatees. I’ve had the kids, you know, they see manatees all the time but they don’t actually know a lot about manatees. It is a perfect opportunity for them to learn, the people of the community just to… The data that we have is for us to share with them.”

That data shows that while one of the four tagged manatees made his way up the Burdon Canal as far away as Belize City, his friends have tended to stay within the neighborhood of Southern Lagoon. This means that the area’s growing tourist industry will have to be careful that the animals’ growing familiarity with tourists does not breed contempt. As for Gill and her team of researchers, the relationship has already moved to a first name basis.

Andrea Gill

“We’ve gotten used to them yes, and I wouldn’t want to use the word pet but they are more than just manatees. We know them, we know how they behave from observing them from over a year. We know okay that’s Maureen and Morgan; that’s the name of two of the manatees. We know she tends to be skittish when the boat gets too close. So they are more than just manatees because we are sort of familiar with their behavior.”

And although this medium size male does not yet have a name, his behavior will now be studied simultaneously in Gales Point, New York City, or, thanks to the Internet, almost anywhere in between.

Stewart Krohn

“The transmitter’s batteries should last anywhere from a year to 18 months. At that time the whole process will be repeated and the world of the West Indian Manatee will be a little less murky. Stewart Krohn, for News Five.”

In addition to Southern Lagoon a high concentration of manatees can also be found near the cayes just off Belize City. Estimates vary widely but a figure often cited by researchers puts the numbers of Belizean manatees around seven hundred.

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Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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