My Iberia Plus Jesús Huarte

Discover Puerto Rico’s fascinating manatees

Oceanographer and aquatic veterinary technician Antonio Mignucci runs the Caribbean Manatee Conservation Center in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Since 2009, it has been dedicated to the survival of this endangered species of tropical aquatic mammals, providing rehabilitation programmes and outreach activities.

In 2013, the manatee was declared the official mammal of Puerto Rico.
As a part of the United States, Puerto Rico is very active in the protection of manatees and serves as a bridge between Latin America and the United States for conservation projects.

What are the characteristics of the West Indian manatee?
They are very charismatic animals. Biologically speaking, they’re extremely interesting because they evolved into the sea 50 million years ago and have adapted to living in this tropical aquatic world. Just as whales moved towards the poles, manatees, also known as sea cows, became confined to tropical areas. The adaptation they have undergone since they were land animals is unbelievable. They belong to the Sirenia order, and are cousins of elephants and hyraxes. The three form the Paenungulata group, which is not very diverse: there are only three species of elephants in the world, six of hyraxes and four of sirenians. You might say that it’s a group that is just starting out in the evolutionary world, unlike other species that are increasing in number and being successful. They are hanging on by a thread, both evolutionarily and now with man-made problems, with human beings exploiting both their flesh and their habitat, so they need a lot of help. They are herbivores, with specialised teeth that wear out and reappear again, so they always have their molars coming in. Their bones are very dense so that they can be underwater.

Centro de Conservación de Manatíes del Caribe trabaja para proteger una especie tan especial como son los manatíes
Caribbean Manatee Conservation Center works to protect a species as special as manatees

Where can manatees be found in Puerto Rico?
They are found all over the island and especially on the southern coast. There are manatees from Florida to the east coast of the United States to Brazil, including the entire Caribbean and as far as the coasts of Guyana and Brazil, except in the Lesser Antilles, which does not have them.

What degree of danger are they in?
Depending on the population, some are critical and others vulnerable, but mostly in other countries the threats are palpable. In Puerto Rico they’re not hunted, but boats and jet skis are their main threat due to collisions. In addition, with the changes and human presence in the environment, we are seeing emerging diseases affecting them, many of which come from interaction with humans. An example is toxoplasmosis, a disease of felines – of cats, in the case of Puerto Rico, as they’re the only felines here. This parasite has caused manatee deaths here, and it comes from overpopulation of cats.

A good part of your work is outreach. How can the population and visitors to Puerto Rico get involved in protecting them?
We’re all responsible for these vulnerable and endangered species, from children to judges, politicians and the common citizen who enjoys the beaches and uses boats. Everyone can do their part to protect manatees. If you’re a boat user in areas where manatees live, navigate responsibly at low speed and use polarised glasses to see if there is an animal in front of you in the water; if you’re a teacher, educate students about manatees and their need to survive and their importance in the environment. Manatees are nice – it’s harder to sell that image of a crocodile, for example – and that charisma helps kids and young people empathise with their survival and learn to love and respect nature.

En la foto, Antonio Mignutti, director del Centro
In the photo, Antonio Mignutti, director of the Center

Which cases do you care for most often at the centre?
Unlike my colleagues in Florida, who have more animals impacted by boats, most of our patients here are orphans, babies who are separated from their mothers. But this sometimes gets mixed up with the other threats. For instance, we have a baby that we rescued last summer when we went to do the autopsy of an adult manatee that had been run over by a jet ski in Jobos Bay, in Salinas. When we arrived and moved the intestines that were floating in the water, there was a live baby underneath. Its name is ‘Taiku’ and it currently weighs 144 pounds. We’ve got to raise it for three years and, just to give you an idea, a manatee in rehab costs about $100,000 a year. That moment of speed by an irresponsible driver costs us more than a quarter of a million dollars.

With a baby that has never lived in the wild, is the challenge at the time of release much greater?
Yes. First we have to wean it off human food and the affection and attachment of the humans who care for it. Once the first year of being in rehabilitation passes, we leave the manatees a little further away and we don’t touch, pet or ‘cuddle’ them. It’s hard. Obviously, they seek their caregiver’s attention, but through these 30 years we have learned how to handle them so they’re less dependent on us.

En este Centro de conservación de Manatíes puedes convertirte en cuidador por un día
At the Manatee Conservation Center you can become a caretaker for a day.

People from all over the world who share this conservation awareness can work with you. What are your volunteerism programmes like?
The centre’s staff includes 16 people and 65 volunteers who work with us throughout the year. But we also have a boarding school for veterinary and marine biology students who, as part of their education, do two-month rotations. They come not only from Puerto Rico and the United States, but also from Europe. We’ve had Spaniards and now we’ve got a woman from Switzerland, for example. It’s very interesting to receive people from all over the world to train in this job, although most will not be dedicated to manatees. A woman from Barcelona who was here for her two months of internship is now in charge of the seal rehabilitation programme in the Netherlands.

What are the tours like?
We offer tours to show the public and tourists to the conservation work we do, so that this serves as encouragement and inspiration and they get involved in conservation and natural life projects even back in their countries. There is a general tour of an hour and a half, a backstage tour in which we show our day-to-day work. It is not like in an aquarium, where you pass through a specific area for visitors; instead, you enter our ‘kitchen’. And we’ve got an activity called Caretaker for a Day, in which people work with us for two hours, for example, preparing and giving food to the manatees.