As Chocolate poles his boat through the water around Swallow Caye, a doughy manatee nose suddenly pokes through the water next to the boat. These are the creatures that sailors once mistook for mermaids? Theyâ€™re cute, but hardly sexy.
Lionel â€śChocolateâ€ť Heredia has been guiding manatee tours since 1968, but his enthusiasm for these animals hasnâ€™t diminished in the least. Belize is the last stronghold of the Antillean manatee in the Caribbean, thanks in part to Chocolate.
The Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary was established in July of 2002 after many years of tireless work by Chocolate and the Friends of Swallow Caye. They are, in fact, cited on Belizeâ€™s Endangered Species Act. But, the sanctuary alone canâ€™t always protect these cuddly (albeit wet) creatures. Chocolate has had to put up his own signs in the water that read â€śGo Slowâ€ť and â€śProtect my homeâ€ť under hand-painted cutouts of the inoffensive beasts.
A manatee tour with Chocolate is a must-do for anyone staying in Caye Caulker. He is mentioned in every guidebook and extolled by everyone who has visited the island. But despite all the hype, the tour is worth it.
From Caye Caulker, Chocolate heads the boat towards Goffâ€™s Caye 37 miles to the south. At Swallow Caye he turns off the engine and pulls out the pole. (Poles are used to maneuver the boats as engines can maim the manatees.) He and his co-captain slowly pole the little motor boat around the coves and mangrove islands in search of manatees. Some of the â€śislandsâ€ť are actually floating pods of red mangroves which can filter the saltwater for nutrients. The manatees swim through the roots of the mangroves to access a lagoon in the middle of the island.
While looking for manatees, dolphins are often spotted, as are cormorants, white ibises and sea gulls. But it is the manatees that Chocolate wants to appear. And suddenly they do, their pudgy faces popping up and bobbing for air on the waterâ€™s surface.
After floating around the manatee habitat for an hour or two, Chocolate heads the boat to Sergeants Caye for snorkeling, but itâ€™s obvious that the best part of the day is over for both Chocolate and the manatees.