words + photos by John Lamkin
Dani has a face that only a mother could love, but he doesn’t have a mother – he’s an orphan. Dani is a manatee, sometimes referred to as a sea cow. I guess if he had a mother she would think he was beautiful. The horny seafarers of earlier times thought manatees were beautiful. When seen in the ocean from a distance, they were mistaken for mermaids or sirens.
Dani was found by a couple of boys, four days old with an injured flipper – caught in the mangrove roots. He was left an orphan, unable to leave this annual birthing lagoon with the other manatees. The lagoon lies just off the Caribbean Bay of Chetumal in the south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The villagers took him to Chetumal to have his wounds attended. Once treated, the state wildlife department decided to return Dani to the lagoon and put him in the care of the village until he recuperated. Well enough to swim, he was released to return to his manatee family, but he didn’t want to go.
He lives in a water corral in the fresh-water lagoon. His home has an open door, but he doesn’t leave. He’ll take a cruise around the lagoon, but there’s no place like home. Dani has a human family to care for him, all the food he wants and he has a girlfriend. “An older ‘woman’ swims into the lagoon to visit him,” Baladio, his keeper, relates in Spanish, “but she is only interested in being a friend and not in his adolescent advances.”
This is manatee heaven! Now that the government decided to protect and feed Dani, he has free food – 25 to 30 kilos (about 44 to 66 pounds) of vegetables every day – compliments of the state (some might say: animal welfare). This youngster is a little over six feet “tall” now, but will mature to about nine feet. “A fiesta was held by the village on September fifteenth to celebrate his birthday”, Baladio tells me. “Manatees live to be around sixty years old.” It looks like Dani has a long and cozy life ahead of him.
My friend Judy and I were allowed to climb down to a platform just above the brownish, murky waters of the lagoon to feed Dani. His favorite food was lettuce and he consumed about five heads while hundreds of tiny fish swam around him, vying for the leftovers. He very gently took the lettuce from my hand with his large, rhinoceros-like lips. Dani doesn’t have front teeth, just molars in the back.
Judy decided to jump in and swim with him. Dani liked the attention and swam circles around her. “This is great!” Judy exclaimed, “He really likes me.” Dani swam up to Judy and gave her a flipper embrace. “Whoa!” she yelled, “What's that rubbing against me?" Jumping out of the water, she announced, “He REALLY likes me!”
It seems that Dani is no longer a “youngster.” Maybe now he'll leave his cozy lagoon to find other manatees or will be more interested in his older friend.
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Dani’s home is in Laguna Guerrero, twenty minutes outside of Chetumal, Quintana Roo. You can see, feed and make friends with him from 9AM until 5PM, Tuesday through Sunday.
His keeper will accept donations to help with Dani’s care.
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John Lamkin is a freelance travel journalist and photographer based in Taos, New Mexico. When not in Taos, he can be found roaming mostly in Latin America and writing about it. He has written for many newspapers and magazines, and is a contributor to several online publications. Mr. Lamkin is the editor of Soul of Travel online magazine. He is a board member and Global Membership Chair of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association. His website is: www.TravelWritingAndPhotography.com