"There's a rumour that Manatees have been spotted in the area today" said Levi, our Rastafarian tour guide in a thick Caribbean accent. We were heading out into the crystal clear Caribbean sea off the coast of Belize, on a rickety old white wash catamaran. The warm breeze carried the sound of reggae music playing softly in the distance from the nearby island of Caye Caulker. The sun shone brightly upon us as we stretched out on the deck, soaking up the rays, as our boat sailed gently onwards, the wind playing in the sails as we headed towards Hol Chan marine reserve.
"Anchor down!" shouted Levi to the captain of the boat, as we moored up in the park. "Snorkels and fins on guys, lets go!" he encouraged us enthusiastically, whilst tying his long dreadlocks in a knot above his head.
I jumped into the turquoise blue sea and swam towards the reef ahead of us. I paddled around the reef, watching Angelfish dart in and out of coral, whilst colourful Parrot fish nibbled on algae. A small Stingray glided along the bottom, rising and then falling, its mouth wide, filter feeding on plankton, until it dipped for one last time and buried itself under the sand, settling on the sea bed.
As I perched on the drop off, gazing out into the ocean, a large shadow began to emerge from the deep dark depths of the sea. It was a Manatee, moving slowly and gracefully, its large body seemingly weightless as it swam towards us, approaching us with caution and intrigue. The Manatee was less than a foot away, its intensely dark coal coloured eyes stared right through me, questioning my intent. Its skin was a dusky grey colour, rough and algae encrusted with a number of scars adorning its body. War wounds I wondered? Or maybe it had been caught in fishing nets... I would never find out. I reached out my hand to touch its skin. The Manatee shied away, seeming nervous of my approach. Small and colourful fish plucked and cleaned the algae from the Manatees tough skin, as it glided on through the water, occasionally surfacing for air. It swam softly, silently, peacefully and with the grace of a mermaid. Dipping and diving, constantly seeking out the best sea grass to consume to maintain its enormous stature.
We watched this incredible creature for a full 30 minutes before it disappeared into the depths of the ocean again. As we all clambered aboard the catamaran, we cheerfully chattered about our time spent with the Manatee. We were all overwhelmed with having the opportunity to swim with such a rare and endangered creature in its natural habitat. Levi engaged in our enthusiasm. "It's not often we see Manatees here these days, you were very lucky," he said, pouring us large glasses of rum punch, as we reclined on the deck, drying off in the late afternoon sunshine.