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? They’re cute, but hardly sexy.
Lionel ”Chocolate” Heredia has been guiding manatee tours since 1968, but his enthusiasm for these animals hasn’t diminished in the least. Belize is the last stronghold for 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. But, just because there is a declared sanctuary doesn’t mean the manatees are necessarily protected. Chocolate has had to put up his own signs in the water that read ”Go Slow and Protect My Home” under hand-painted cutouts of the cuddly beasts.
A manatee tour with Chocolate is a must-do for anyone staying in Caye Caulker. We decided his tour was one of the best things to do 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 Goffs 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 cut the shallow swimming manatees.) He and his co-captain slowly pole the little motor boat around the coves and mangrove islands looking for manatees.
Some of the islands are actually groves of red mangroves which can filter the saltwater and make it usable for themselves. The manatees swim through the roots of the mangroves to get into 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. When the water is clear these sea mammals can be seen from a distance, but when the water is murky after a storm they are invisible until they stick their noses out of the water to breathe.
After floating around the manatee habitat for an hour or two, Chocolate heads the boat to Sergeants Caye for snorkeling, but it’s obvious that the best part of the day is over for Chocolate.
EDIT: Chocolate passed away on April 12, 2013. See his memorial for more about this amazing man and friend to manatees.