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The Antillean Manatee or “marine cow” (Trichechus manatus) has always had deep ties with Caribbean culture. They are a peaceful and friendly species that enjoy resting in warm shallow coastal waters and slow moving rivers, where they eat undersea vegetation, accompanied by dolphins and sea turtles. They are solitary, calm animals (Domínguez, 2007). And until about a century ago, it was quite common to see groups of them swimming in packs across the Antillean coasts.
Here in the La Romana – Bayahibe area sightings still happen, but they are extremely rare. For example, in March of 2013 an adult manatee was spotted in the Marina Casa de Campo (click here to read about it), and they are still occasionally spotted along the Bayahibe-Dominicus coast and in the waters surrounding the National Park of the East (Parque Nacional del Este), including Saona Island.
This species is the only one in the Caribbean, and therefore a very unique species, unfortunately they are one of the most endangered aquatic mammals in the entire Caribbean (Ottenwalder, 1995). They are protected by Dominican law since 1938, and the fishing and selling of these creatures was made illegal in the 5914th Fishing Law, and Decree 233-96 expanded the areas of protection for them. The Dominican Republic is also a signatory in various international pacts that protect the Antillean Manatees. Given the delicate state these populations find themselves in, the Antillean Manatee was included in Appendix I of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and Annex II of the Cartagena Convention.
In the past few decades, manatee populations have dropped critically, due to the intense hunting practices they have been subjected to, their slow reproductive cycles, their various collisions with boats, the contamination of rivers and the shrinking of their habitats, which also has harmed their grazing zones. All this makes for a very vulnerable manatee population.
In the Dominican Republic, some of the places where we can observe cases like these are in Cano Estero Hando, the province of Puerto Plata and the National Park of the East (Parque Nacional del Este). There was a tragic incident in 2012 where a fisherman gravely mistreated a baby manatee, but thanks to the combined efforts of FUNDEMAR, Dressel Divers, the park rangers, the National Aquarium, and the La Romana – Bayahibe Hotel Association, the poor thing was rescued, now finding itself in the care of professionals that ensured its care at the National Aquarium.
As part of our patrimony and our natural landscape, the responsibility to care for them also falls upon the Dominican people so that they might survive to live to continue within Caribbean culture and in the Earth’s biodiversity for generations to come. So what can you do? If you see a manatee, please report the sighting to FUNDEMAR (The Dominican Foundation for Marine Research) on (829) 714-0616 or [email protected]
We would like to thank Rita Sellares, Director of FUNDEMAR, for her cooperation in compiling this information. The active participation of the citizens in the La Romana-Bayahibe area plays an extremely important role in the care for these endangered animals.