Aerial View of Turneffe Atoll, Belize
Recent aerial surveys of Turneffe Atoll and the Belizean coastline have documented a record number of Antillean manatees: 507. To put that in context, the global adult population of this endangered subspecies is estimated to be less than 2,500 and declining. The region is teeming with other marine life as well.
“Several marine mammal species occur in Belizean waters, including small cetaceans, like bottlenose dolphins, and whales, like humpbacks,” Birgit Winning, president of the Oceanic Society, told Discovery News. She explained that this area is the focus of her organization’s long-term marine research and conservation efforts. Turneffe is the largest and most biologically diverse coral atoll in the Western Hemisphere.
Manatee Among the Mangroves
The waters off Belize are a marine life paradise for a few different reasons. “Many of the marine ecosystems in Belize remain relatively undisturbed,” Bryan Wallace, chief scientist for the Oceanic Society, told Discovery News. “Some of the most important manatee habitats are protected and have some sort of active management.”
The relaxed manatee resting among pristine mangroves, seen in this photo, is evidence of the conservation programs’ success.
Mother Manatee and Calf
These three manatees, including a mother and a calf, were spotted during the aerial survey. “Belize does a pretty good job of managing many human pressures on its ecosystems, which are diverse and plentiful,” Wallace said. Such pressures and threats include pollution, habitat degradation, boat strikes, incidental capture in fishing gear, and hunting for human consumption.
“Specific to manatees, Belize has an active manatee standing network that rehabilitates injured manatees, and they have set up manatee sanctuaries in areas of high manatee use,” Wallace added. “However, it’s important to remember that while Belize hosts more Antillean manatees than any other country in the region, the numbers are still quite low, so there is still much work to be done.”
Dolphins in Paradise
Numerous dolphins were also spotted during the survey. Although dolphins and manatees may be found in the same areas, they are not very closely related.
Manatees are actually distant relatives of elephants. Both manatees and elephants have tough skin, “toe” nails on each forelimb, bristle-like hair, and teeth that are continuously being replaced.
Sharks abound in the study region. “In Belize there are, among other species, bull sharks, Caribbean reef sharks and nurse sharks,” Winning said. This photo shows a nurse shark.
“Shark predation on manatees does not seem to be a population threat,” she continued. “Human activities are the main threats.”
Whale sharks are yet another type of shark that frequents waters off of Belize. Healthy marine ecosystems often include predator sharks, which can feed down the food chain.
Sponge on a Deep Reef
Marine life near Belize extends to the sea floor. The sponge in this photo is attached to a deep reef.
“Turneffe Atoll, in particular, harbors spectacular marine biodiversity because of its diversity of habitats,” Wallace said. “These include coral reefs, seagrass beds, lagoonal areas, and mangroves. And the full expanse of the area encompasses a wide range of water depths, which also means lots of different types of habitats. Where there are diverse habitats that are relatively healthy, there should be lots of species.”
Belize’s Great Blue Hole
Here, the aerial survey team flies over Belize’s Great Blue Hole.
This stunning submarine sinkhole was formed during several episodes of glaciation when sea levels were much lower. As the ocean rose, the caves were flooded.
The site was made famous by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who declared it one of the top ten scuba diving sites in the world.
Searching for Mammals
Scientists regularly monitor the region, hoping to better document and understand the species there. Aerial surveys form only part of the process, particularly in terms of the recent manatee count.
“We need to ground-truth the aerial survey data to get a better idea of population numbers in Belizean waters, and we need to understand better how and why manatees are using different areas in Belize,” Wallace said. “Regardless, it’s encouraging that so many were spotted in these surveys because it gives us something more to work with for future research and management.”