Article published Jul 19, 2005
From armchair environmentalist to swimming with the manatees
A local bank worker left his computer behind to spend some time plugged into the plight of manatees in South America.
Geoffrey Usher, a project manager in the information technology department at HSBC Bank of Bermuda recently went to Belize to help scientists study endangered manatees, as part of HSBC’s ongoing partnership with Earthwatch. “I am one of those armchair environmentalists, but, recently, I hadn’t been getting off my backside and getting involved in it,” said Mr. Usher shortly after returning from Belize. “I thought this would be an ideal opportunity and would give me the kick I needed to actually get out and do something for the environment.”
HSBC sends employees from around the world to volunteer with research projects associated with the Earthwatch Institute, the Botanic Gardens Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund. The trip is paid for by HSBC and the employees do not lose vacation time.
Earthwatch volunteer work is rapidly becoming a tradition at the HSBC Bank of Bermuda, as they have already sent a number of employees to remote parts of the world to study everything from frogs to butterflies.
“When you are applying, you give Earthwatch a profile of yourself, your interests and what you have done, and they will match you up to the project they think is suitable to yourself or to them,” said Mr. Usher. “However, the manatee project is one I would have picked. It definitely matched me.”
Until going to Belize, Mr. Usher had never encountered a real manatee, although he’d seen them on nature television programmes.
“I guess a lot of people hadn’t seen manatees before,” Mr. Usher said. “I know people can swim with manatees in Florida, but in Belize you are not allowed to swim with them, only the scientists.”
Although the programme didn’t encourage it, Mr. Usher did get to swim with manatees by accident. “We were just swimming and some came around,” he said. “They are a protected species in Belize. I am not too sure what is happening in Florida.”
Manatees are contemporaries of the dinosaur, and they are closely related to the elephant. They can grow as long as 13 feet and can weigh up to 3,500 pounds.
“They have a puppy dog face,” said Mr. Usher. “That is the way I look at it. It is a strange looking animal. Size wise they are about the length of the table. They are not like a walrus, but the girth of them and shape of the head is more walrus like. They just have one big paddle at the back.”
Manatees are air-breathing marine mammals that are part of the Sirenian family that include dugongs in Australia, and the now extinct Stellar’s sea cow.
There are also subspecies of manatees including the Antillean, the West Indian and the African manatee. The Belize project was primarily focused on the West Indian variety.
“You definitely wouldn’t find manatees in Bermuda waters,” said Mr. Usher. “You find them in South America ranging up to North America. Bermuda’s waters would be too cold. Manatees also need fresh water and salt water.”
Mr. Usher was sent to an area called the Drowned Keys near Belize’s barrier reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world.
“There are rivers there too, and in the keys there is a lot of brackish water,” said Mr. Usher. “The manatees are alright as long as the water isn’t too saline, but they also need access to fresh water. The dugongs in Australia don’t need fresh water, they can exist in salt water.”
Belize is known as the last strong hold of Antillean and West Indian manatees. Manatees can live for up to sixty years, but unfortunately many are threatened by loss of habitat, pollution, and death by boat propeller.
“Typically you would see them one at a time, or a mother and calf,” he said. “Sometimes you would see a male following a female for mating. The most we saw was four at one time. That was an encounter on the reef when we were in the water. They are quite solitary.”
He said people in Belize are not allowed to eat them, but certain indigenous groups in the world are allowed to cull a specified number.
“I believe they are quite tasty,” he said. “That is why the sea cow was hunted to extinction. That is why conservation is so important.”
Mr. Usher’s group was in Belize to study the behaviour and environment of the manatees.
“It is not like the cetaceans where there is a lot of knowledge about dolphins and whales,” said Mr. Usher. “There is not a great deal known about manatees. That is what we were doing.
“We were assessing environmental and human activities that might be affecting them, such as fishing and diving. Now there are a lot of cruise liners coming in to this part of Belize and that means more boats.”
Many of the manatees Mr. Usher saw were identifiable by the terrible propeller scars on their backs.
“They are not very fast creatures, although they can surprise you and put a little burst of speed, but certainly, they are not equipped to get out of the way of a fast moving boat,” he said.
Mr. Usher was working with other volunteers who had varying motivations.
“The project can’t survive without the volunteers that Earthwatch provides,” he said. “There were three teams and you would be split up. Out of the volunteers there were two of us from HSBC, and another from HSBC New York.
“There were people who volunteered who just had a general interest in it. There were four biology students. One was doing her masters, the others were getting their primary degrees and just had a keen interest in manatees.”
The group camped out in cabanas beside the beach which only had electricity for a couple of hours during the day.
Some of his work colleagues back at the Bank of Bermuda may have thought he was on vacation, but he said it was hard work.
They identified places where the manatees were living, and took down data relating to their actions and environment, such as the marine temperature. They also took note of any human activity going on around the manatees.
“It was surprising how much environmental data we were required to record,” he said. “There were tons of different criteria we had to follow. It was quite a busy day. It was nonstop in terms of the data, but it was great and I loved every minute of it.
“I got a million mosquito bites, and sunburn. As well as the normal data recording duties, we also had cooking duties and equipment to sort.
“If you were cooking, you were up at 5 in the morning and your day didn’t end until the equipment cleanup which was basically 8.30 p.m. It was enjoyable but hard work and very tiring. I was flaked out by the end of the day.”
When HSBC employees return to Bermuda, they receive a small amount of money from HSBC to start or contribute to nature programmes on the island.
Mr. Usher said he hadn’t completely decided what he was going to do for the environment in Bermuda, but he will probably focus on similar environmental data recording projects.
“In Bermuda I will be working with other groups in recording environmental anthropogenic activities that effect the reefs,” he said. “The recording of that data filters through to one organisation which provides details for the United Nations.
“This is global. I am just trying to be a Bermuda center for those dives to provide data for Bermuda to fit in with the global presence. The group is called Dive Watch.”
The next HSBC Bank of Bermuda employee to participate in the Earthwatch programme will be going to Brazil to study wolves and jaguars.