Green Pages

An Unexpected Visitor

gp-grand-turk-manateeBy Brian Riggs, Curator, National Environmental Centre

When Lisa Wandres, who lives in Grand Turk, took her dog Scooter down to South Creek for a walk on Saturday morning, April 23, she expected to see the usual things you can see there: birds, bonefish, crabs and mosquitoes. It’s a quiet spot, the South Creek, and quite a few Grand Turk folks regularly make the short trip there to walk the small beach, watch the herons and egrets that live there and generally just get away from the hustle and bustle of the nation’s capitol.

What Lisa saw in the water, though, was definitely not a bonefish. There, in a shallow ditch left over from an abandoned dredging project, was a big, gray lump of a creature that she had to look at a few times to recognize as a manatee. After watching him for awhile, she realized that he was actually trapped in the ditch, for the tide was out and the little body of water was completely surrounded by exposed sand. The big marine mammal didn’t have much room to move around and the water in the pond was getting very warm.

Soon Lisa was joined by a few more Grand Turk residents out for a walk, Roger and Michelle Bellers (and their dog Spot), who were also quite surprised at the sight of the rare creature. After some phone calls they were joined by Captain Everette Freites and “Bockum” Simmons from the Oasis Dive Shop, Caleb (“Grumps”) Simmons and Joanna Perez from SeaEye Diving, Fernando Perez of the DECR, and Kel Talbot and Sage Dalton from the new Bohio Dive Resort on Guanahani Beach.

After watching the manatee in the shallows for a while, they determined that with a little effort, they could free the 500 to 600 pound animal from the little ditch and lift him over the sandy bank into South Creek itself. They recovered a section of abandoned cargo net from Governor’s Beach and managed to lift the weighty Sirenian. In just a few minutes, they had carried him into the deeper South Creek Channel and from there, the manatee swam into the Sound, the large, mangrove-bordered pond that is the terminus of the channel.

The next day, several of the crew visited the Sound in kayaks to see the manatee closer, but after several hours of searching, he was not to be found. A few days later, though, he was spotted by several visitors and Grand Turk folks slowly making his way from the new South Dock dredging area all the way up the western coast to the area of the Oasis Dive Shop on Duke Street. Over the next few days the manatee was spotted in a number of locations: North Creek entrance channel, South Point and back at the South Dock. For several days in a row, Andrew Marshall, who was working on the barge at the cruise ship terminal project, was able to monitor the manatee as he lazed near South Dock munching on the green algae that grows on the concrete walls there. Andrew was able to get several very good photos, which he shared with other folks on Grand Turk.

But then, after a stay of almost three weeks, the manatee was gone. For several days, everybody scanned the shorelines and the shallow waters around Grand Turk, but the slow-moving creature was not seen again.

This was not the first time that Grand Turk had been visited by manatees. About ten years ago, two were seen over a three-day period at Governor’s Beach and inside the North Creek. But nobody took any pictures and no official notification was made to the Department of Environment or any of the international marine mammal organizations.

Manatees are creatures of calm, shallow waters. They live in tidal estuaries and sheltered bays that usually don’t have much of a current or wave action. Though there are reports of manatees being spotted near reefs occasionally, they generally don’t go into water that’s more than about 20 feet deep. Their main food sources — manatee grass and turtle grass — don’t grow in water any deeper than that. In their sheltered lagoons they have also been seen to reach out of the water and nibble the leaves from low hanging mangroves. Manatees eat between 6 and 9% of their body weight every day, so the Grand Turk manatee would probably have needed about 30 to 40 pounds of fodder daily. Turtle grass is abundant on the Turks Bank, though, and the areas where he had been seen abounded in it, so we weren’t too worried about food.

gp-manatee-by-boatBut it is thought that manatees also need access to fresh water. In river mouths in Florida and the Greater Antilles they can drink from the river’s outflow or run-off from the land during rainfall. None of our Islands have any freshwater rivers or streams, and that was kind of worrying. There was concern that our manatee might be suffering from the lack of water. But after three weeks, he seemed to be doing well. It’s possible that he was able to find the thin flow of fresh water that seeps out of the beach at the tide line after a heavy rain, and there had been a few strong showers.

Most of us have seen manatees on the Discovery Channel or at Sea World in Florida and we also know that manatees don’t normally live in the Turks & Caicos Islands. But historical records and archeological work indicate that manatees (and the likely extinct Caribbean Monk Seals) were resident throughout the Bahamian archipelago 500 to 1,000 years ago. Unfortunately, these slow-moving sea mammals were hunted almost to the point of extinction by the earliest colonial settlers. Today, there are still small, remnant populations of Antillean manatees in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Belize. All manatees are listed as endangered species and protected in their home countries, but habitat loss, boat collisions and entanglements with fishing gear take a heavy toll every year.

Grand Turk’s manatee appeared after several days of strong southerly winds, and it’s quite possible that he was originally part of the Dominican group. The Antillean manatees are a distinct subspecies of the better known Florida manatees. They are typically a little smaller and a little slimmer than their North American cousins. And where there are somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 Florida manatees left in the wild, where Antillean manatees are found their local populations are smaller. A 1994 aerial survey in Puerto Rico could only find 86, though their total population could be twice that. It’s not likely that numbers for Hispaniola are much more than that. Belize, with its extensive mangrove habitats, probably has the largest population, though no definitive census has been made.

After the Grand Turk manatee’s disappearance, there was a lot of speculation about what had happened to him. Many thought that he might have tried to swim home, but in truth, manatees are not particularly fast swimmers. They average about 3 to 5 miles per hour, walking speed. Chances of getting back to Hispaniola against both wind and current would have been pretty slim. And then, as we have seen, manatees are not particularly fond of deep water. Imagining our slow-moving, gentle visitor drifting out into the deep Turks Island Passage (where all the big tooth critters are) was not a very appealing thought.

But then, just when Grand Turk folks were resigned to not seeing the big critter again, he turned up in South Caicos, 22 miles away across the Turks Island Passage, and of all times, on Regatta Day the 28th of May. Scores of folks saw him hanging around one of the East Harbour docks. But apparently, with all the excitement of the boat races and the partying, nobody took any pictures.

gp-rescuing-manateeWe were happy to hear that our manatee had made it to the shelter of the Caicos Bank, for from South Caicos he had easy access to the hundreds of square miles of mangrove creeks and shallow lagoons that make up the North, Middle and East Caicos Nature Reserve, our international Ramsar site.* In those protected waters he would be as safe as he could possibly be. The only drawback was that he might be the only manatee on the Caicos Bank, though there was always the outside chance that another manatee or two might also have made the long trip from the south.

So keep your eyes peeled on that short flight from Providenciales to South Caicos or Grand Turk. If the pilot flies close enough to the coastal shallows or tidal creeks that make up the vast Ramsar site on the south side of the Caicos Islands, you just may spot a big grey hulk with white spots (those are the barnacles that cover his back) lolling in the calm, warm waters.

Many thanks to James Reid and his colleagues from the Sirenia Project/USGS for their invaluable advice and help.

*Named after the city in Iran where the treaty document was signed, Ramsar sites are considered “wetland sites of international importance” and 146 countries have agreed to protect and conserve designated sites. For more information on wetlands around the world, see www.ramsar.org.



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German photographer Georg Roske took this interesting image as part of a series of photos for the new South Bank development on Providenciales. And although he takes his pictures intuitionally and spontaneously, he realizes the “perfect moment” must be well calculated. For more of his work, visit www.georgroske.de

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