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Giving Cuban Manatees a Fighting Chance

Steve Newborn

Most Floridians see manatees as cute, roly-poly animals that hang out in crowded springs and get too close to boats. Travel south a bit - to Cuba - and their plight is very different. There, the animals often end up as somebody's dinner. WUSF recently traveled with a Sarasota-based conservation group  to the island, where their groundbreaking trip tried to find ways to save this iconic creature. You can hear more about the trip on Florida Matters Tuesday, June 9 at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 14 at 7:30 a.m. on WUSF 89.7 FM. 

(Sound of boat starting)  If we sight something, the front of the boat is going to be 12 o'clock, so it'll be Manatee 1, 9 o'clock!!

We're on a diving boat on an uninhabited tributary deep in Punta Frances National Park. It's on Isla de la Juventud - the Island of Youth, a hurricane-shaped landmass in the Caribbean. It's the southernmost part of the Cuban archipelago, about 180 miles south of Key West. Here,  it feels like the end of the earth - we're the only people around for miles.

(Sound of manatee being spotted) Guys, manatee right on this side, port side, about 4-5 o'clock your way. On the port side.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
A pair of manatee snouts surface on the San Pedro River

Spotting manatees here is an exceedingly rare sight, and we're fortunate to be able to see anything in these tea-colored waters. It's just about as rare for American tourists to be in the country - let along in in a national park that's off limits even to most Cubans. That political gulf is being bridged by Sea to Shore Alliance, a conservation group based in Sarasota. It's executive director, James Powell - known to everyone as "Buddy," has developed a relationship with the University of Havana. He's been spotting manatees here for nearly 20 years.

"We're up the San Pedro River, in a small mangrove creek, surrounded by lots of red mangrove trees," says Powell. "This is an area where we think manatees come up to drink fresh water that's coming off the swamp. And we're in a really quiet, still small lagoon. And what we're looking for are little swirls of water, where a manatee comes up to breathe. And they'll very often come up here for a period of time and go down into salt water to feed. And so we're trying to stay very, very quiet, looking for a little nose to pop up or just a slight disturbance on the water."

This is about as different as you can get from the way manatees are seen in Florida.

In Cuba, you round a bend in a river and all you'll see is a splash of a tail fin going straight down at the first sign of humans. There's a good reason for that, says Jorge Angulo, a professor at University of Havana's Center for Marine Research.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
A group hosted by Sea to Shore Alliance gathers on the front of the diving boat

"Let me tell you, the main cause of death of manatees in Cuba is hunting. People kill them to eat," he says. "So seeing that manatees have developed a very shy behavior, so it's very hard to see. And because they have a very good ear, as soon as they hear any human noise, they're just gone. So to be able to see the manatees in the wild takes time and skills, and we have learned some of those skills from Buddy. He's able to spot the manatees in the middle of nowhere."

"We're trying to look at the association - do they come here more in the dry season or the wet season? Is this a nursery area?" asked Powell. "Because the ones that have been caught up here by Jorge... and the team - there's been a disproportionate number of females and calves. So it might be this is a very protected and quiet area, and safe place for them to come and have their calves."


(Sound of Mike Dunn spotting a manatee)

That's Mike Dunn, one of a group of about a dozen people on this first-of-its-kind fact-finding trip. He's used to seeing manatees a little closer than this, skippering a charter boat in Crystal River. Back home, he sees more manatees in one afternoon than he'll see here all week.

"We're where from, manatees come to us," he says. "Here, if they even hear the noise of a person or a boat, they're gone. They know they're endangered."

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Mike Dunn captains a manatee excursion boat at Crystal River

Five centuries ago, Christopher Columbus first wrote the waters around the island were swimming with manatees. Since then, the slow-moving creatures have been easy pickings for fishermen looking for a meal for their family. Now, no one really knows how many are left.  

Anmari Alvarez Aleman of the University of Havana has been researching the mammals for a decade. She says there are maybe 500 to 1,000 manatees - on an island with more than 2,000 miles of coastline.

"That's what I want to happen here in Cuba is that people can understand the value of this species, because now unfortunately they are seen as meat, as a source of protein. And they don't understand how critical their situation is," she says. "So I'm hoping in my project to raise awareness through education, so people can see manatees as special animals that they need to protect."

All that is going to take a lot of education - and money. Which is something the Cuban government doesn't have much of. During the several hours we were on the river, the only sign of law enforcement were four green-uniformed Coast Guardsmen, putting along in a johnboat with an inboard motor.

Before any efforts can begin to save the remaining manatees, researchers like Aleman have to know how many are left. In Florida, manatees gather in cold weather at springs and power plant outfalls - where they can be easily photographed. But that doesn't happen in this hot, tropical island.

"In Florida, of course, what they do is they grab a plane, they just grab a flight, and go one manatee, two manatee... well, that cannot happen here, " says Alvarez Aleman." First, because the water is very dark. Second, because a one-hour flight is around $2,000 U.S. dollars. And we don't have planes."

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
The group in the Zapata swamp, near the Bay of Pigs on the southern side of the main island of Cuba

That's where Sarasota-based Sea to Shore Alliance comes in. They're helping researchers like Alvarez Aleman and Angullo get the resources to do a detailed study of just what lies beneath the water. Angullo says their hope is that by opening up Cuba to well-heeled Americans, eco-tourism could provide an economic incentive for fisherman not to think of manatees and sports fish only as dinner.

"Because pretty soon, we're going to have a lot of American fishermen coming down here to do fly fishing and all that," says Angullo. "I think that's a good thing to do, but if we have the scientific information before, then we're going to be ready to withstand the possible impact of that flood of tourists."

President Obama has been pushing for a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, moving to relax restrictions on tourism. So the hope here is that flood would bring a lot of yanqui dollars - possibly giving these gentle creatures a fighting chance.

Click here to listen to the extended version of this story

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Sunset at the El Colony Hotel on the Isla de Juventud

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