Who You Calling a Sea Cow?! Swimming With The Manatees of Mexico

(Photo: Lena N. Katz)

It’s a beautiful morning in Isla Mujeres, Mexico (isn’t it always?) and my fiancé just told me he’s going to leave me — for an 800-pound manatee named Sabina. I can’t really blame him. I’ve been fascinated by these creatures since seeing pictures of them in elementary school. They may get up over a ton but are as timid as rabbits, and their shape resembles a cozy overstuffed sofa. So if sailors did in fact once mistake them for nubile mermaids as popular lore goes, it was surely due to personality. Whiskered, snuffly and curious, these aquatic mammals seem ready to be your BFF.

We caught a morning ferry from Cancun to Isla Mujeres’s Dolphin Discovery center to swim with Sabina, and I’m happy that the other people in our small-group encounter didn’t show. Now we’ve got her all to ourselves. I stand chest-deep in chilly ocean water, watching a manatee play patty-cake with a human, and I feel like an eight-year-old again. The Mammal Books have come to life.

(Photo: Lena N. Katz)

Watch Lena Get Up Close and Personal With These Adorable Creatures:

“Manatees have a lot of curiosity,” says manatee specialist Silvia Becerra. Silvia oversees most of the Dolphin Discovery’s human-manatee encounters on Isla Mujeres. After 12 years working with the giant lugs, she characterizes them as “tender.”

“They like interacting with people,” she adds.

Manatees are endangered in the wild, and in the US, the place to encounter them is the Crystal River area of Florida where river swimming trips are hugely popular. Three facilities in the Cancun/Cozumel region involve rescued and rehabilitated manatees in educational programs, allowing supervised manatee-human interactions in the water.

(Photo: Lena N. Katz)

Interacting with manatees basically means you’re helping to feed them. They crunch and snuffle lettuce from your hand. They’ll flip over and hug a head of lettuce sea-otter-style. They’ll high-five you or even kiss you for a banana. Being patient and gentle creatures, they let the resident specialists point out their physical features (belly button, tiny ears) between munching. They also gratefully accept belly rubs.

(Photo: Lena N. Katz)

“Sometimes people think [their minds] are as slow as their bodies, but no — they can learn many things, like dolphins,” says Silvia.

Sadly, because of their curiosity, their complete lack of aggression, and the fact that they need to graze constantly in order to survive, manatees and their sister species, the dugong, are endangered in the wild. In rivers, they are at risk of tangling with propeller boats — and in all waters, they’re vulnerable to floating trash like plastic (which they can accidentally eat) and industrial fishing.

Dolphin Discovery got its two adult manatees, Cesar and Sabina, in 2007 from a facility in Veracruz which had rescued the two manatees when they were found as babies drifting in the open sea without their mother.

“They were really very young… and very thin,” remembers Silvia. She and fellow manatee caretaker Ana Lira spend the better part of eight hours a day feeding the manatees. They each eat 40 pounds of lettuce a day, plus as much apples, bananas, sweet potatoes, and other treats as they can get.

(Photo: Lena N. Katz)

Dolphin Discovery staffers believe that by getting to know manatees in person, humans will be more inclined to save the species. And they’re probably correct. Once you’ve met a manatee, it makes perfect sense to institute boat safety laws, off-limits zones, stricter littering fines, and anything else necessary to ensure these animals stay safe to spread their whiskery love throughout the world’s waters.


Dolphin Discovery (Isla Mujeres) lets guests interact in the water with rescued manatees as part of the Sea Life Discovery Program for $189 ($129 age 6-12). At Dolphin Discovery (Cozumel), the Manatee Encounter on its own is $59, available for ages 6+. No special training is required; you just have to know about it — and book in advance. This fact isn’t particularly well advertised, and as a result, most manatee fans are stuck on land, snapping pictures from afar.

Lena Katz is a writer, sometime book author and development producer for unscripted TV. She goes cuckoo for big characters and stories that seem too wild to be true. She’s never where you think she is.