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Spotting Wildlife and Flying Belize

Biologists spot manatees, whales and dolphins over Belize. Tony Rath Photography

Rick Durden learned two things quickly about flying LightHawk missions in Belize. Most of the runways are short, narrow and unforgiving, and fuel is everything. In addition to being expensive, aviation fuel was usually only available in one place.

But he returned year after year. I became fascinated and enamored with the country and the flying, says Rick. I loved the challenge of making my fuel stop at a 1700' strip with water on three sides. And the pristine nature of much of the rainforest, cays and mangrove coast grabbed me. I couldn't get enough of it.

In 2012, Rick helped scientists count the endangered Antillean manatees (Trichechus manatus) their first national survey in five years. The Oceanic Society and Belize's Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute had a list of more than 100 destinations to survey. But Rick knew there would be a problem, we'd spend so much time flying level, going between the waypoints, we'd have to return for fuel before seeing what we came to see.

Rather than reduce their survey map, Rick pulled out his charts and plotted highly efficient routes to cover as much area as possible between fuel stops. In the end, he was able to fly nearly all the requested points and find 507 manatees, a record number for Belize. The researchers were also able to conduct the first-ever aerial survey of cetaceans in Belizean waters finding pods of dolphins and whales along with turtles and crocodiles.

The information from the survey flights increases understanding about the manatees' travel patterns and habitat use in Belize. As a result, protection efforts can be focused on where they live and raise their young.