SWALLOW CAYE, BELIZE — "No engines - Manatees," reads the sign sticking out of the muddy water off the shores of this mangrove island. The driver of a visiting boat complies, pushing his skiff toward the island with a long wooden pole.
Slowly several manatees approach the silent boat with curiosity, poking their cow-like snouts out of the water for breaths of air. Then, just under the bow, a plumply rounded manatee appears just below the surface, staring up at the people in the boat before taking a final breath and sinking down to graze on the sea grass meadows below.
Sadly, most encounters between boats and manatees aren't so pleasant.
Despite strict conservation measures and an international ban on hunting, manatees remain endangered.
In Florida alone, 268 manatees were found dead last year out of a total population of only 2,300. At least a third were killed by speeding powerboats that strike the slow moving manatees as they rest or breathe at the surface.
"Since the 1970s, the average manatee population has been increasing, but we're very concerned that this upward trend may be changing," says James Powell of the Florida Marine Resources Institute in St. Petersburg.
"There are more people in Florida, more boats, and less habitat," he says. "Boaters simply need to slow down a bit ... to give these animals a chance to get out of the way."
Belize has one of the highest-density manatee populations in the hemisphere, because of its largely undisturbed coastline and islands. But as it becomes an increasingly popular tourist destination, speedboat traffic and coastal development are rapidly increasing.
As in Florida, about a third of manatee deaths are attributable to collisions with boats. But here the manatees also face poachers. Recently, authorities found the remains of 75 slaughtered manatees on a remote stretch of coastline in the southern part of the country.
But Belize has implemented a manatee recovery plan that aims to protect habitat, educate boaters, and restrict boating in certain areas. "We're hoping to learn from Florida's mistakes and successes," says Nicole Auril, manatee researcher at the Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute in Belize City.
While there's good monitoring in Florida, in Belize, and much of Central and South America, it's unclear whether manatee populations are growing or shrinking.
"Our near coastal waters are naturally muddy, so you can't see them in aerial surveys," says Ms. Auril, whose office counted 318 in a recent nationwide survey. "We hope there are many more out there."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society