From the Magnum Belize Newsletter:
http://www.magnumbelize.com/news/newsletter_page2.html

Protecting the Manatees

Efforts led by a man named “Chocolate” Lionel “Chocolate” Heredia has spent most of his life in and around the western Caribbean, and his legacy will be efforts to protect the gentle giants beneath these waters, the manatees of Belize.

Chocolate was born in San Pedro in 1929. As a young boy, it seems he couldn’t get enough of the sweet taste of chocolate - hence, the nickname. Growing up, he never cared much for the classroom - life on these clear turquoise waters was far more appealing to him than schoolwork. His love of the water prompted him to become a fisherman, then to start one of the first water taxis in Belize, with transportation between San Pedro and Belize City.

He came to Caye Caulker in 1970, largely undeveloped back then. Then as the tourism industry developed, he became a tour guide, and started a gift shop on Front Street, a few blocks north of the Caye Caulker pier.

Chocolate isn’t much for politics, and doesn’t fit the mold of an environmental activist. It was simply a love of nature that prompted the soft-spoken, caring man with a gentle demeanor to try to do something to protect manatees, after seeing them maimed and killed by the propellers of increasing boat traffic.

It is prophetic that Chocolate would meet and marry Annie, a Minnesota native whose real last name is Seashore. It is Chocolate Heredia and Annie Seashore who have been instrumental in establishing manatee protection efforts in place today, including the organization Friends of Swallow Caye, and the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary.

They helped organize Friends of Swallow Caye in 1996, focused on safeguarding the future of manatees by reducing threats to their health and their habitat. The grassroots, non-profit group began with a handful of members in Caye Caulker, Belize City, and Ambergris Caye, and now includes members from around the world who are passionate about protecting manatees.

The group sought to establish protection measures in the Swallow Caye area, since this is a key habitat with an abundance of turtle grass beds, a primary food source for the manatee. Manatee also use deeper areas near Swallow Caye as resting sites. The area comprises one of the last remaining population “strongholds” of Antillean manatees, considered endangered and vulnerable to extinction.

Success came in July, 2002, when the Belizean government declared the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary as a manatee protection and preservation area. The area is co-managed by Friends of Swallow Caye and the Belize Ministry of Natural Resources.

A 10-minute boat ride from Belize City, Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary spans nearly 9,000 acres, and includes Swallow Caye as well as some northern areas of the Drowned Cayes. The area is important not only in sustaining manatee, but also other marine life, including bottlenose dolphins, the American crocodile, and the upside-down jellyfish.

The Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary is an excellent example of how tourism and environmental protection can co-exist. Tourists are still able to see and enjoy the marine life here, while simple, common-sense rules help protect the marine life and maintain the biological integrity of these waters for years and generations to come. The rules limit boat size and the number of boats in the Sanctuary. Littering is prohibited in the Sanctuary. And perhaps most importantly of all is the regulation for boat operators to turn off their boat engines at designated points and pole their way into the main area. This prevents the boat and propeller collisions that so often maim and kill manatee.

Others have taken notice of Chocolate and Annie’s manatee protection efforts. The United Nations and other environmental groups have joined and are supporting the efforts with funding. In 2002, he was honored with the Belize Audubon Society’s James Waight Conservation Award, an award named in honor of the group’s first president. In 2003, he became the first tour guide in Belize to be recognized with the Minister’s Award by the Belize Tourism Board. Recently, his efforts were profiled by the Discovery Channel.

Despite the attention, Chocolate remains as humble and as caring as ever. It remains as clear as these Caribbean waters that Chocolate has a deep love for his wife Annie and six grown children. And of course, the manatee. “Every time I see these animals, it seems like there are more, and it makes my heart feel good,” he says.

Chocolate has battled prostrate cancer, now in remission. He continues to guide tours, and continues to defy age. He is proud of his legacy, and what he has accomplished. And he will always be one with these waters. “When I die, I want to be buried at sea,” he says. “All of my life is there.”

See updates and information about supporting Friends of Swallow Caye online: www.swallowcayemanatees.org

Manatee Facts • Manatee is the common name for each of three species of this large water mammal, sometimes called a sea cow because it grazes on marine grasses and other water plants. The Antillean Manatee is more numerous in Belize than anywhere else in the world. • An adult manatee has a rounded body, usually colored light to dark gray or black, that tapers to a horizontally flattened, rounded tail. The average adult manatee reaches a length of 10 feet and a weight of 1,000-1,500 pounds. • Manatees are herbivores and consume about 10% of their body weight daily, grazing for six to eight hours a day. • Manatees surface for air every 3-5 minutes, but can remain submerged for up to 20 minutes. • Manatees live in small family groups, although they occasionally travel in herds of 15 to 20. They feed in both freshwater and salt water. • Manatees are harmless, slow-moving mammals with no natural enemies. However, their population has been reduced significantly over the years by hunting and collisions with boats.