Have you ever seen that segment from the Ellen Show, where Kristen Bell shares footage Dax took of her freaking the freak out over seeing a sloth in real life? Like, crying, hyperventilating, the whole bit? Okay, so I wasn’t that bad, but there’s a good chance that once I saw those manatee toenails up close, I may have teared up pretty hard, to the point where Luke may have looked at me like I was a wee bit crazy. Even now, I’ve already been through several drafts of this writeup. Several. Because this experience was such a dream come true that all I want to do is ramble on and on about manatees and how they’re cute little (big!) potatoes and how they’re the pugs of the sea. You know, the stuff that would have anyone who’s actually interested in the experience rolling their eyes HARD. But I will say, as a self-proclaimed manatee groupie, caring for injured manatees at an ethical, non-profit facility that doesn’t participate in typical “animal tourism” sits pretty much at the top of my best life experiences list.
Boyfriend Perspective: Yeah, most girls want to be mermaids, but I think Meagan might actually want to be a manatee. So, I’m giving this whooole piece to her. Tell them about our amazing day with the pugs of the sea, honey.
First, some manatee facts and information
What even is a manatee?
Being the Floridian half of us and a self-proclaimed manatee groupie, I feel a bit offended right now. Manatees are a few things: giant floating gray potato creatures with smushy noses and a big appetite for greens. Early European sailors also confused these cuties for some really ugly-ass mermaids. And finally, manatees are most closely related to elephants, which kind of makes sense when you look at them.
Where do manatees live?
In the Americas, you can find manatees in salty bodies of open water. They also gravitate towards things like mangroves and river estuaries. Florida has a pretty famous manatee population, as do many of the islands near the equator.
What is a manatee’s diet?
These potatoes LOVE fruit, even though they typically don’t find things like fresh beets in their natural environment. Otherwise, they mainly nosh on a large volume of seagrass and other water plants, and they slowly graze near the surface of the water, much like other large mammals of the world.
Why do places like this exist?
Because people suck, honestly. Manatees rank as one of the most vulnerable species to human stupidity, because they’re social, docile, and never in a rush. That means they get curious about humans, want to meander to where the action is – and end up caught under boat propellers that dramatically injure them. In fact, when you spot manatees in the wild, it should come as no surprise that many of them bear ugly propeller scars across their backs. That doesn’t even count all the issues manatees can run up against with pollution, algae blooms, and other man-made or human-influenced environmental impacts. Enter conservation centers and rescue groups, who snatch up orphans and injured creatures to help rehab them or (as a last resort) house them so they can continue to enrich our world.
Are manatees endangered?
They were, but USFW downgraded them to threatened status in 2016. That said, every species of manatee across every ocean is still at risk of species-wide destruction thanks to man-made threats.
Where to see manatees responsibly: the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center
If you look up “where to swim with manatees” or something similar, you’ll find a host of experiences, from AirBNB to TripAdvisor. But here’s the thing – animal tourism is pretty ethically crappy, right? Touching wild animals, invading their space, and baiting them into interaction are all big no-nos when it comes to experiencing animals in their habitats. Worse even are experiences that charge you crazy amounts to get into a tank with sea creatures of questionable origin and health so you can “really” experience them. Knowing all this, you can imagine we had a healthy dose of skepticism when we saw the Manatee Conservation Center’s experience listed on AirBNB. After all, at least one of us might be an insane manatee groupie, but neither of us considers ourselves naive. So, we switched into research mode.
It turns out that the Manatee Conservation Center is a part of the Universidad Inter Americana de Puerto Rico (The Inter American University of Puerto Rico), and is a registered 401(3)c non-profit with the US Government. They work with other organizations in the Caribbean and Florida to track, rescue, and care for injured and indigenous sea life or, when necessary, necropsy marine wildlife that has died without obvious explanation.
Other hallmarks that this institution isn’t your typical “here, hold this baby tiger” stand? Visitors can never touch the animals. The vast majority are in recovery for re-release, so they can’t start getting accustomed to pets and loves. Visitors also can’t whip out a phone to start taking selfies with the animals, either. In fact, representatives from the organization take photos for you and provide them – complete with their permit number – as a part of the experience.
How to be a manatee caretaker for a day (or “how to experience Meagan’s MOST PERFECT DAY EVER”)
We found the Manatee Conservation Center through AirBNB experiences, as it ranks as one of the platform’s highest-rated experiences in San Juan. You can also easily book your experience with them through their website. Prior to the experience, the organization reached out and asked for our t-shirt sizes because – spoiler for all the swag hunters out there! – you get a pretty nifty “caretaker for a day” t-shirt as a part of your experience.
Our trip had us based in Old San Juan, so late in the morning on the day of our experience, we Ubered out to Panadería España for some strong coffee and the best mallorca de jamon y queso sandwich in the city. Then, we called another Uber for the 30 or so minute drive to the research facility near Bayamon. To get there, you drive through several barrios and outlying parts of San Juan, sprinkled with aging strip malls and other indications that life isn’t as affluent here as it is in Old San Juan. As travelers, we found this very interesting, if only because Puerto Rico often has you feeling like you’re in an entirely different world from the mainland US, but we’ve seen plenty of economically-depressed places in the American South that don’t look dissimilar from many of the areas around San Juan and heading to Bayamon.
We passed through the university’s security gate, and hopped out of the Uber at the conservation center. The door on the far right is the one you want (we found out the hard way), and when you walk inside, you transition from the humid, quiet campus to a bright, bustling, highly climate-controlled space. Staff or volunteers walk you through the check-in process at the front desk and make sure you get matched up with you proper t-shirt size. Then, once your whole group checks in, you get locker keys and head to the staff lockers and restroom area to get changed and ready for your day.
From there, we headed out to the pools to see the residents: in the first, Chely (“SHELL-ee”), a green turtle with a large epoxy patch over a deep crack on her shell. Paola told us that the patch will remain on her shell for at least the next 10 years of her life, as shells heal extremely slowly. She’s one of the lucky patients who will be released back into the wild after her rehab. In the next tank, we met Anki (“AHN-kee”), a loggerhead sea turtle, former zoo resident, and permanent patient whose buoyancy had been negatively impacted by having been kept for many years in freshwater.
Then… then! It was time for the moment my entire life had led to: meeting manatees in real, technicolor life.
Yep, Meagan almost cried while taking care of manatees.
* please note that the kid on the left is holding a thermometer, NOT anything that will harm the manatee. Promise!! 🙂
Our first two sea cows were Mabó (“mah-BO”) and Tureygua (“ter-AY-gwah”), youngsters who had been separated from their mothers and rescued about a year apart. Paola told us that law requires manatee calves to be released by the time they turn 3 years old, as that’s when they reach reproductive maturity. The center hopes to release both calves in late 2019.
And in the final and largest tank, we got to meet Guacara (“gwah-CAR-ah”), a manatee from Florida who was rescued in 2008 after a boating accident and subsequent injuries. The techs explained that the crash had caused his lungs to collapse, and had made him essentially unable to float. And for a marine mammal that requires oxygen, that’s… not good. So, he’s now the center’s main permanent resident, and they built a special tank for him that includes several submerged platforms that he can pull himself up on to sleep or rest without drowning.
Perhaps the coolest thing about Guacara is that, while the humans at the center keep their distance from the patients who’ll need to return to the wild, the biologists and techs need to be able to check his health and make sure he’s doing well. So, they’ve used positive reinforcement training to teach him how to come when called, open his mouth when asked, and even pull himself up on the sides of his tank for photo ops, treats, and other health checks.
We also got to meet a very moody pelican in recovery, a clutch of chicks that had been abandoned, and an injured booby who enjoyed sitting on the edge of the center’s shady hydroponic tanks looking photogenic.
From there, we went back inside to prep the patients’ lunch. This involved reading off the lead biologist’s menu board for each patient – based off of their specific nutritional and environmental needs – locating each ingredient in the center’s industrial refrigerators and walk-in cooler, and weighing them all to make a perfectly nutritious sea salad for our new friends. Once we’d assembled everything, we lugged the crates outdoors, and began gently unloading them into each of the tanks while our guide and some of the other staff facilitated pictures that wouldn’t disrupt each tank’s residents.
But here’s the thing: none of these adorable goobers wanted greens, because I have yet another thing in common with them – a major sweet tooth! In fact, manatees LOVE fruit to the point where Guacara’s favorite treat is beets, followed closely by mangoes and bananas. Who knew, right?!
The last part of the day had us gather around Guaraca’s tank for a quick photo op. Being that he’s a bit of a ham who loves attention, Guaraca will come to the side of the tank when signalled by his caretakers and will pull himself up on the edge to peek over and give a big ol’ manatee smile for guests. This is pretty much the point where I almost cried and then had to get it together so I didn’t look completely psycho in our pictures.
A few weeks after our experience, we received a file share of our photos from the day, watermarked with the center’s government permit for taking and distributing photos of protected species, and I got to relive my time with the pugs of the sea 🙂
Practical information on how to be a manatee caretaker for a day in Puerto Rico
- Where to book: https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/173531
- Cost to participate: $89/person USD
- Where to find the Manatee Conservation Center: 500 Highway Dr. John Will Harris, Bayamón, 00957, Puerto Rico
- How to get to the center: It’s about a 30 minute drive from the center of Old San Juan, in an outlying area called Bayamon. You can fairly easily Uber or drive a rental car. There’s also parking on site.
- How to get in touch with the Manatee Conservation Center: call +1 787-400-2782 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
One last thing: how to support the Manatee Conservation Center’s mission, even if you can’t make it out to the facility
The best thing about nonprofits is that you don’t have to visit in person to empower them to make an impact. You can find donation links on the Center’s Facebook page, and can also donate directly on the Center’s website (the link is on the left-hand sidebar).