LLU students finds the elusive manatees of Honduras
The aerial team includes (from left) Cynthia Taylor, a marine mammal aerial survey specialist from Wildlife Trust based in Florida; Chuck Scroll from LightHawk; Daniel Gonzalez-Socoloske, master’s biology student, School of Science and Technology; and Saul Flores, a local biologist at the National University in Honduras.
I am studying the population of manatees on the north coast of Honduras. Manatees in Honduras are the same species as the ones found in Florida, but they are classified as a separate sub-species known as the Antillean manatee. Very little is known about Antillean manatees and even less is known about them in Honduras. The last and only other time that there have been aerial surveys conducted in search of them in Honduras was in 1979 and 1980 by a team of scientists from Florida.
As a master’s student at Loma Linda University, I had never dreamed of doing aerial surveys because of the high costs. It was simply not an option because we did not have the budget. Instead, I had to settle for boat surveys during my first summer in the field.
I contacted LightHawk, a volunteer-based aviation organization, about conducting aerial surveys for manatees in Honduras, and from the very beginning they were very receptive to the idea. I assembled a team of biologists including Saul Flores, a local biologist at the National University in Honduras, and Cynthia Taylor, a marine mammal aerial survey specialist from Wildlife Trust based in Florida.
In March and April of 2006 after many months of planning, we finally received the permits and permissions to do the aerial surveys.
Little did we know about the adventures that lay ahead of us. For statistical strength and for comparative value with the flights conducted in 1979–1980, I needed to complete six replications of the flight path. The survey covers about 230 kilometers of coast and took us about four hours each day to complete.
To be conservative I scheduled nine days to have the plane and pilot available for flights. When we arrived in Honduras, we had some complications getting the plane into the country because Hondura
Daniel Gonzalez-Socoloske took a picture of a wild manatee swimming in the neighboring country of Belize.
n Civil Aviation had just confiscated a private jet that was suspected to belong to a drug lord that had flown in from Mexico, and they were not allowing private planes into the country. Even though we had all the paperwork submitted months in advance, we were facing a major delay. However, after three days of negotiating with the help of a local contact, Pepe Herrero, at USAID-Honduras, and his aviation lawyer, we were finally allowed to bring the plane from Costa Rica.
I was beginning to get stressed because we had lost our buffer for bad weather. When the plane arrived, I had only six days available and I needed six flights! We headed out in the morning and had our first day of surveying. It was a total success. We sighted manatees and we covered the area that I needed. Our morale was sky high; however, when we got back we received the bad news that there was a local shortage of jet fuel and private planes were being rationed only 30 gallons a day. We were spending between 40 and 50 gallons a day.
The next day, for whatever reason, they gave us 40 gallons of fuel. We had another great day of surveying but not without some more drama. We quickly remedied a small mechanical problem with the help of a seasoned mechanic and resumed flights.
With good weather on both Sunday and Monday, we completed two more successful flights. Finally, Tuesday came. It was the last day that I had access to the plane before it was scheduled to go to Belize. I got very little sleep the previous night. That morning the sky looked clear but we knew that rain was coming. We took off and headed east to our starting point. Just as we arrived, we saw the rain coming from the east toward us. We began our survey heading back west and the rain was right behind us, always a mile or two away. At times we got little drops but never anything to worry about. When we finished, everyone was speechless on our way back to the airport.
The results from the flights revealed some interesting new findings. When we compared our aerial surveys with the ones in 1979–1980, there was a significant drop in the number of manatee sightings per hour. We were able to document that the population has declined in the area over the last 26 years. In addition, we observed a significant number of manatees in an area that had no sightings in 1979–1980. This area currently lacks any form of protection and our findings may help in establishing a protected area there.
Our mission in Honduras was a total success and we could not have done it without LightHawk. Results will go a long way to protect the remaining populations of Antillean manatees in Honduras.
I hope that next year we can do it again, but this time we would survey the eastern end of the coast of Honduras, known as La Mosquitia.
This area is very remote and will be considerably more complicated to survey. Who knows what adventures lay ahead during those surveys!
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By Daniel Gonzalez-Socoloske
Mr. Gonzalez-Socoloske is a biology student in the School of Science and Technology graduate program.