It’s hard to know that an animal is endangered when, to you, it’s seemingly everywhere. That was the case for Jamal Galves growing up in Gales Point Manatee, Belize. He grew up watching manatees lounge in the water off his grandmother’s lawn. Belize has the highest known density of manatees in the world after all.
“My life has been surrounded and intertwined with manatees,” Galves says.
It was not until a large research vessel showed up when Galves was eleven years old that he realized how threatened the manatee population was.
The vessel was run by James “Buddy” Powell, the executive director of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute out of Clearwater, Florida, in the United States. Young Galves charmed his way onto the manatee rescue boat that day with his wide-eyed curiosity, and the trip quickly turned into the beginning of his career. It was one thing to see the manatees relaxing in the shallows but quite another to see them sliced up by ship turbines near cruise ports. This experience grew a fierce need in Galves to protect these sweet sea cows.
“I wake up in the morning knowing that I’m doing something to save a species’ life, knowing that I’m going to be contributing to something—saving a species that can’t save itself,” Galves says.
He started doing small jobs around the boat to help the rescue efforts before being officially recruited as a field assistant with Sea to Shore Alliance at the age of sixteen. Being a field assistant allowed him to work closely with the manatee health assessment processes. He eventually worked his way up to becoming their program coordinator. Then, in 2019, he took on the position of program director of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s Belize Manatee Conservation program.
Protecting Manatees Requires Public Education and Outreach
This program conducts “countrywide community-related education and outreach programs” with the Belize Marine Mammal Stranding Network, according to the program’s website. They track and monitor Belize’s manatees and work with government officials and local communities to increase protections for the creatures.
“We pair scientific research with education and awareness because you can collect data for twenty years, but, if you do not put that data out to people to learn and understand what the problems are, you’re wasting time and money while the species is dying away,” Galves says.
While Galves was earning an undergraduate degree in natural resources and conservation from the University of Belize, he decided that furthering his education will make his conservation efforts more effective. Just recently he has started his Master of Science in Conservation Science and Policy at the University of Santa Cruz.
“[I’m going to school] to have the skills to think more scientifically to make sure my arguments and my suggestions regarding safeguarding specific areas are backed up by academia from a reputable institution that would be respected by politicians and lawmakers and the general public as well,” Galves explains.
Manatees: Gentle Giants that Support Their Ecosystems
Manatees are niche creatures, only living in shallow marshy tropical coastlines and rivers where they eat primarily different fresh and saltwater plants, earning them the nickname sea cows.
“They’re one of the largest herbivores in the waterways, and it’s the only marine mammal that is eating seagrass at the magnitude it does, keeping the seagrass in the oceans low and keeping the ecosystem balanced,” Galves explains.
Manatees eat nine to ten percent of their body weight per day, maintaining the marshy ecosystems for other species that live there. Their poop then fertilizes the area and feeds the local small fish and crustacean populations.
Each growing to about 10 feet in length and weighing around 800 to 1,200 pounds, manatees come in three species: Amazonian, West Indian, and West African They locally migrate throughout the year, but they’re very slow, only moving about five miles an hour. They usually come up for air every thirty seconds, but they can stay underwater for twenty minutes.
Manatees are very shy and gentle creatures that can live for up to sixty years. They start birthing calves around five years of age, and usually only have one calf every two to five years, which they nurse for a few years. Despite having the lowest brain-to-body ratio, they’re very smart creatures, rivaling dolphins and their closest relatives, the elephant.
Ships and Tourism Cause the Most Harm To Manatee Populations
Manatees have no natural predators, yet all three manatee species are considered vulnerable due to human activity. The West Indian manatee that Galves grew up around has seen particularly sharp declines in recent years. This species is being pinched from all directions.
In Belize, cruise ships dock in the little natural manatee habitat that remains. Manatees are often injured or killed from getting caught beneath the giant ships and ripped by their turbines. Ships can also scare mother and baby in opposite directions, resulting in babies being stranded. The tourism cruise industry in Belize City represents eighty percent of unnatural manatee deaths in Belize—around fifty per year—which is a hard blow to a population that’s only between 700 and 1,000 individuals.
Tourism represents forty percent of Belize’s GDP as people come to see the world’s second-largest barrier reef and, ironically, the diverse marine life, including the manatees. But, when the pandemic hit, it stalled the nation’s tourism industry, a horrible thing for Belize’s economy, but a great thing for the environment.
The tourism cruise industry in Belize City represents eighty percent of unnatural manatee deaths in Belize.
The Belize manatee population only lost twenty individuals in 2020, a huge drop in deaths from prior years. “We had the lowest numbers [of manatee deaths] that we’ve seen since we started recording,” Galves says.
However, he’s already noticed that the tourism industry is starting to bounce back and the investors are hungry. One new cruise port by Royal Caribbean is already under construction in Belize City, and two more are awaiting government approval only ten to fifteen miles from each other. In addition, the city is proposing to build a causeway through the only manatee habitat left in the area so that tourists can be shuttled across from the island to the mainland. The construction would require dredging the area.
“Those are the pressing problems we’re facing right now. The development, the destruction of the coastal habitats, destroying the environment, digging up the ocean floors. It’s unprecedented. These things are reaching to the point of ridiculousness,” says Galves.
And while the pandemic slowed the manatee death count in Belize, an influx of water pollution and a resulting toxic algal bloom has killed a record number off the coast of Florida. As of September 10, 2021, 942 manatees have died, and that number is expected to rise to 1,100 to 1,200 by the end of the year. That would be about fifteen to twenty percent of the Florida manatee population. This is a huge step backward, especially since Florida was already having the same problems as Belize from ship-related deaths.
New Policy and Programs Address Threats to Manatees
The Clearwater Aquarium announced in September that they will add an exhibit called Manatee Springs that will act as a needed rehabilitation center for sick and injured sea cows. They also announced in July that they were speeding up plans to build a manatee rehab center at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
Back in Belize, manatee protections recently received a facelift. Manatees were being protected by an act from 1981 that was outdated in properly addressing conservation needs. This new comprehensive fisheries reform law enacted in 2020 made it illegal to “feed, harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, kill, annoy, or molest manatees.” Galves says this is a good development.
“I think we have more opportunities to pass more stringent measures and be able to keep up with the change,” Galves says. “As you know, government processes are very slow. The government needs to move along with the world as things change.”
Clearly, with the new development projects, there is more work to be done to get the government, businesses, and communities to prioritize manatee lives. And that is where continued outreach and engagement efforts matter.
Social Media Spreads the Message of Conservation
Galves can’t stop talking about manatees. He is recognized around Belize as the Manatee Man, a title he wears with pride. His Instagram account, which has over 42 thousand followers, is @therealmanateeman. He has been on television, YouTube, published in articles, and been invited to speak everywhere from schools to the Embassy of Belize in the United States. He has earned praise from National Geographic, the World Wildlife Foundation, Oceana, and The Dodo, among others, for his work. Using social media outlets is particularly useful for reaching the next generations.
Galves doesn’t take a break and says he cannot afford burnout. Luckily, he is surrounded by support from members of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, who have become his family over the years.
In fact, he attached his mission statement to his door at home to remind him what he is fighting for every day. “I have to look after [the manatees]. I am my best friend’s keeper. And if I’m going to keep them well, I’m going to have to keep a positive mindset, despite the drawbacks, despite the negativity, despite discouragement. I have to be able to push forward,” Galves says.
“We don’t live in a bubble. Conservation should be the most mutual foundation that we all stand on...” — Jamal Galves
He recognizes that not everyone can devote their whole being to conservation like he has, though, so when he talks to new people, he tries to meet them where they are at. “My goal is to make every single person in the room feel like I’m talking to them individually, directly, because it’s the one thing that will make them change,” Galves explains.
For fishermen, that means talking about how manatees maintain the food chain and ecosystems. For tourism companies, they can’t advertise seeing manatees if there are no manatees. For lawmakers, it means showing them the economic impact of manatee tourism.
“We don’t live in a bubble. Conservation should be the most mutual foundation that we all stand on, the real no man’s land that belongs to every single person on this planet,” Galves says.
One way for a message to go global in this digitized world is by utilizing social media outlets like YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok. It is especially helpful to reach the next generations. Galves tells his origin story a lot, a good reminder that one can start without even having a high school diploma (though education helps, which is why he’s still furthering his).
*Becky Hoag is a science writer with a special interest in climate change communication. You can find her work on her site beckyhoag.com or through her YouTube channel Beckisphere at https://www.youtube.com/c/Beckisphere.