Manatees in the Dominican Republic

manatees in the Dominican republic

Manatees, sometimes adorably called sea cows, are marine mammals that like to hang out in slow moving tropical waters. And you can see manatees in the Dominican Republic. Rumor has it that even one lives at Kitebach!

These gentle giants are about the size of a small car. They can grow to 4 metres (13ft) long and weigh up to 600kg (1,300 pounds). A manatee’s lifespan is just a little shorter than a human’s, they live 60-70 years.

In the coastal waters and river mouths of the Dominican Republic, manatees can be spotted, playing in the warm water. A century ago, there would have been far more regular sightings than today.

The best place to see them in the DR is the Marine Mammal Sanctuary (Santuario de los mamiferos marinos) in Estero Hondo, on the North Coast. Estero Hondo lies west of Cabarete, passed Puerto Plata, but is very much reachable for a day trip.

There are a couple of trails you can hike that will take you to the protected lagoon, where you can climb a tower and look out for manatees.

The sanctuary is also a protected space for many species of tropical birds, so there is plenty of wildlife to observe.

According to Dominican legend, there was a 16th-century chief who befriended a manatee, and it would carry him around on its back wherever he wanted to go!

Manatee Behaviour

Manatees are friendly creatures that move in slow motion and rarely fight. Herbivores, they survive on plants they find in the water.

They have powerful tails that they move up and down to propel themselves through the water. Their fins act as rudders to steer them around. Manatees can sort of walk on land by flopping one fin forward, then the other, though it’s a pretty slow way to get from A to B.

Manatees live in the water, but they still breathe air. When they’re moving, they have to come up for air quite frequently, every three or four minutes. When they’re still, they can hold their breath for around fifteen minutes.

You might wonder how they sleep, if they need to come up for air. Manatees have adapted to slow their heart rate and breathing rate down a lot, so they use less oxygen. Like David Blaine when he does his breath-holding stunts. This allows them to sleep for around 20 minutes at a time.

Manatees have gained Internet popularity because of how sweet they look when they sleep, which is for around 12 hours a day. Their sleeping positions vary: sometimes they will lie on their backs on the sea floor, or bury their nose in the sand.

A she-manatee’s pregnancy lasts for 13 months. Once birthed, the mother will carry her calf around in her arms and breastfeed it for two years. Can manatees get any more adorable?

Manatee Conservation

Despite the introduction of laws that ban manatee hunting, illegal poaching and hunting remains a problem. Manatees are sought after for their meat, which is said to have seven different flavours, and bones which are used to make medicine and crafts.

Today, the West Indian manatee is sadly a vulnerable species. The three surviving species of manatee (West Indian, African and Amazonian) are all struggling with decreasing populations.

Thanks to conservation efforts to protect the West Indian manatee and its habitats, the species was downgraded from ‘endangered’ to just ‘threatened’ in 2017. This sounds like good news, and it is. However, now the manatee will not receive the high level of protection of an endangered species.

The manatee is a peaceful creature that has been part of Caribbean culture for a long, long time. It will take a big effort to look after the manatee into the future, so be sure to report any sightings to FUNDEMAR, the Dominican foundation of Marine Studies.

In Cabarete, there was a rumoured manatee sighting a couple of years ago on Kite Beach, though unconfirmed.

So, kiters, keep an eye out for manatees and turtles: you never know what wonders you might see in the water!