25 YEARS AGO ON AMBERGRIS CAYE BY ANGEL NUÑEZ
Tunting for manatees in the 1960ís was an adventure. It was a special expedition to get meat for the family and for the village. You were almost a hero when you announced that you had caught a manatee and had processed over 500 pounds of meat for the village.
Preparations began two days in advance after you announced it so that the villagers knew that there would be a fresh supply of meat for the table. Trust me, in a fishing village where one ate fish three times a day, a change to meat was like Christmas. Manatee meat sold, as far as I can remember, for ten cents a pound fresh or salted. Most families purchased ten or fifteen pounds and preserved it with salt so that it could last for a few days. To go hunting one needed a fairly large boat with an outboard motor as some chasing had to be done after the manatee was spotted. Then you needed a harpoon with a fairly long and strong rope. You also needed a fairly large and heavy wooden club. Yes, a large sharp knife was necessary to rip open the half inch thick skin of the animal and then to fillet and process the meat.
Once you got to the manatee area, which is west of the island of Ambergris Caye, you circled the grassy area hoping to see a muddy trail. If you followed the mud trail and it got denser, you knew you were following the animal. If the trail got weaker, you knew you were moving farther away from the manatee. The manatee was first spotted when it surfaced to breathe, as it is a mammal that can stay underwater for some 5 minutes. When you got your boat close enough, you flung the harpoon hoping to strike it at its head or back. Once injured, the manatee will put on a good fight. It would fling its large tail and pull out all the rope from your harpoon line. It would then start dragging your boat for several minutes until it got tired. Once it got tired, it would rise to the surface and remain floating. Once you got it near your boat you proceeded to kill the animal with the large club.
If the manatee was small, three men could pull it on board. If very large, you then dragged it to some shallow area to begin processing for the meat. First you cut a straight line along the back from the head to its tail. Then the skin was peeled and large chunks of meat was obtained from the back, the belly and even the tail The meat would be cut into fillet strips and sold for ten cents a pound.
People said that manatee meat resembled the beef meat as there was the dark meat from the back of the animal. There was also a clear meat that looked like pork. On the belly side of the animal there was a fat on the meat that resembles much like the pork. Now for some delicious cooking! Just a little salt and black pepper and you could fry it. Then you could cook it in vinegar and lots of onions to make a delicious steak. A whole chunk could be seasoned and smoked barbecue style. Or a chunk could also be baked to give you a superb meat loaf. It can be diced and cooked into a delicious stew. Have you enjoyed beef pepper steaks at the Chinese restaurants? Well, you can do the same with manatee meat. Manatee meat was a delicacy because it was the only source of meat on the island at a time when fish was eaten three times a day. So you can imagine what a treat manatee meat was. Also it is delicious because it is simply delicious, as good as beef and pork; some would say even better.
When the villagers knew that a certain fisherman had hunted a manatee, they would go to his house in a hurry for the stock of meat did not last very long. Five hundred pounds would be sold in a day. That was a net profit of $50 - a lot of money by standards of those days. Some people never used to eat the manatee because they said it had human flesh. Others said it took out white spots on the skin. Others said the animal was very ugly. I tell you the truth, I really enjoyed manatee for all my life until it was banned. I agree that the animal should be protected and its killing to be prohibited. But I surely miss a delicious manatee steak. I also agree that killing of cows and pigs should be prohibited, but there again I would miss the T-bone steaks and the pork chops. But there again animals must live on too. Long live the manatee and as for the good taste, well let that be a fond memory of twenty five years ago.