The kids in the coastal Belize village had never seen a boat like that, with a tower and an engine in the front. It carried researchers from Clearwater, who came to study the manatees.
The kids weren’t impressed by the manatees. In Gales Point Manatee, seeing one was like seeing a bird or a dog. They swarmed the brackish waters of the tiny farming and fishing village, home to the world’s highest-known density of Antillean manatees.
Jamal Galves and his cousins played manatee rescue on his grandma’s lawn, fighting to be the boat’s captain or doctor. At 11, Galves didn’t know what “endangered” meant. He had never seen a manatee out of the water, the gashes on their backs.
He just wanted to get on that boat. One day, he marched down the dock and asked.
“No, kid,” said James “Buddy” Powell. “You’re too small.”
Then came the sad face. Powell, executive director of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, remembered being 14, growing up in Crystal River. That’s when he got the courage to approach a research biologist who had come to study manatees. That meeting changed Powell’s life.
“Ah, kid, let’s go.”
Galves woke every day at 4 a.m. to get to the boat by 5, though the crew didn’t arrive until 6. He lugged equipment and emptied trash. He memorized every process, stethoscope and measuring cup. He came back each year to help the crew, getting closer to the animals as he grew bigger.
In school, other students said they wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, a politician. He wanted to rescue manatees. The teacher told him to pick something else.
“I have a visual memory,” Galves said. “I can stage things in my mind, how they happened.” He couldn’t erase the image of boats slicing through manatee skin, the noise, the pain. He became so obsessed with helping, he stayed away from the drugs and violence absorbing some peers in the village.
When Galves turned 16, Powell hired him as a field assistant. Now 34, Galves is coordinator of the aquarium’s Belize Manatee Conservation project. As @therealmanateeman, he has 36,000 Instagram followers. He was the youngest person to receive Belize’s Meritorious Service Award. He has helped create stronger no-wake zones near Belize City, hung posters, gone into schools and generally made manatees popular in Belize.
“He’s a rock star,” said Powell. “In Belize, you go down the street and it’s like, ‘Hey, Jamal!’ And he’s really great with kids. He’s been kind of a one-man show there, and the government has fallen in line with it and let him be that person.”
Manatees are easy to love, but Galves has latched onto something beyond the cute factor.
“I don’t want to preach to the converted,” he said. “I want to preach to those who don’t understand.”
When he meets anglers, he asks, do you want to keep fishing? Manatees eat about 10 percent of their body weight a day, he tells them, which means a lot of excrement, which means food for fish and crustaceans.
When he meets tour boat drivers, he asks, do you want to keep working? “Why go fast and kill a species you’re making a 100-percent profit from? It’s like you’re cutting down a tree that grows money.”
When he meets politicians, he asks, do you want to protect tourism? You better protect manatees.
Manatees in Belize don’t get cold or suffer red tide. But acutely Floridian issues have emerged there. Poaching has been replaced by boat collisions, development and pollution. Each year, more babies get separated from their mothers, who get spooked by boats.
In Florida, manatees are a bellwether for our ecosystem. Federal regulators moved them off the endangered species list in 2017. But Florida manatees are currently experiencing a dramatic starvation die-off, boat injuries surpassed by so-called “natural mortality.” The reasons are still human — algal booms, desecrated seagrass habitats, climate change.
“Manatees are that big, gray canary in the coal mine,” Powell said. “If manatees are dying like they have been as a consequence of ecological issues and environmental changes, just think what else is going down the tubes.”
Wildlife can manage itself, Powell said. People need to manage people. Awareness is key. Environmental protections are key. Action is key. That looks different for everyone.
Galves knows the moment it clicked for him. He was still a kid, helping the crew separate manatees Hercules and Woody for assessment. Galves stood in the water as Woody swam to him. He froze in fear. He’d never been around something so big.
Woody wrapped his flippers around Galves’ waist. He doesn’t know if it was a hug, but it felt like one.
He wondered, “How can you still find kindness in your heart to love humans?”
The work he does now? It’s just repaying a favor.
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