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Some travelers may assume that swimming with dolphins in Mexico is similar to a manatee encounter in the Mexico Caribbean. For example: Both experiences place you in the water with huge mammals. You stand in saltwater tanks with fish swimming around your feet. Life jackets and sunblock are required. But, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
Manatees are slow-moving, whiskery creatures that need to graze almost constantly — hence their nickname of “sea cow.” A manatee encounter mainly consists of feeding them lettuce and petting them while they munch and snuffle in your general direction. Guests also get a quick anatomy lesson on the animal’s belly button, molar-like teeth located only in the back of the jaw, flat tail and relatively tiny flippers. There are no quick rides or splashy acrobatics, nor are there any fast movements: No matter how accustomed to humans certain manatees might be, the creatures still get spooked easily.
There are three species of manatee, and all are endangered in the wild. Mexico’s Antillean manatees are found in southeastern coastal regions, from Veracruz to Quintana Roo. Quintana Roo has one of the highest populations of wild manatees, and the proliferation of quality marine parks made it an obvious choice for fledgling manatee rescue/education programs. Dolphin Discovery incorporated manatee encounters into three of its Riviera Maya/Cancun locations in recent years, while Xel-Ha offers encounters with two manatees it rescued in 2008.
At Dolphin Discovery Isla Mujeres, guests can interact with these gentle creatures during its Sea Life Discovery Plus program. The company rescued its two adult manatees, Cesar and Sabina, from the ocean near Veracruz while they were still babies. Trainer Silvia Becerra, who spends about eight hours in the water every day with them, says that Cesar and Sabina are naturally curious but also timid. If humans try to rush an encounter, the manatee will make a surprisingly quick getaway.
For those who have wondered whether animals in these programs actually enjoy interacting, the manatee encounter is ideal — because clearly, manatees can’t be talked into anything. They move to their own beat and interact as much or as little as they want to. During our one-hour encounter, male manatee Cesar felt tired of an exercise in which a trainer was encouraging him to float on his back and grasp lettuce with his flippers like a sea otter. With no warning, he sank to the bottom of the pool for a 10-minute nap.
The whole experience is more free-flowing and organic than other aquatic encounters. It’s a little bit meditative, a little bit silly and more like a play date than a performance.