Environmental explorer Klaus Thymann and local cave diving instructor Luis Leal discovered a new manatee habitat on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. A discovery that is at once a cause for celebration and a call to action.
From above, the manatee habitat looks like a lake. In reality, it's a coastal lagoon. Connected through a complex web of underground passageways, access to this lagoon from the ocean is an easy feat for the manatees, and a more arduous task for Thymann and Leal, involving a boat ride and diving through the cave system. What keeps this ecosystem healthy is a steady flow of water between the ocean and inland waterways like the cenotes, caves, and rivers.
Aerial views show a jungle being cleared for development. © 2022 Klaus Thymann
The problem? This web of flowing water is under threat. Developments like marinas, highways, and tourist areas threaten the structural integrity of these precious inland waterways, their water flow, and the animals who inhabit these areas. And, unlike the marine protected Caribbean Sea, this vast network and inland lagoon isn't officially protected by the government, nor acknowledged as one part of the whole. In areas where flow has been obstructed the water becomes stagnant and deprived of oxygen, creating an environment where only bacteria and jellyfish can survive.
"To show the comparison, Leal and Thymann dived not only to a healthy lagoon but also to a cenote where the flow has been cut, which is now a toxic-looking jellyfish swamp." © 2022 Klaus Thymann
"On the Yucatán Peninsula the water systems are interconnected; the freshwater flows inland through underground aquifer and ends up in the sea and on the reefs. The porous rock hosts the world’s largest submerged cave system, where all the fresh water runs through. The underground rivers and caves are the only freshwater resources on the Yucatán, and have served as the critical source of drinking water from the time of the Mayans until the present day," notes Thymann.
"Manatees live for around 60 years and the calf stays with the mother for about two years. It is likely the manatees have been [in the lagoon habitat] for generations. Manatees share part of their genome with elephants and use memory for navigating the complex cave system." © 2022 Klaus Thymann
Klaus Thymann and his team have created a short 12-minute documentary about their discovery and the importance of protecting such vital waterways. While it is a message of dire need, it is also a message of hope. "After 20 years of diving the caves and cenotes . . . finding still such a pristine, beautiful place gives me hope. I think that we can learn how to live around these magnificent places without destroying them," says Leal.
Klaus Thymann is an award-winning Danish photographer and conservationist who combines a multitude of skills, including journalism, image making, mapping and exploration to document contemporary issues and act in the ongoing climate emergency. Read more about Klaus and his work at his website.
5 Media is an impact media foundation co-creating a sustainable future. "We aim to inspire and unite behind great ideas, through storytelling, partnerships and building an engaged community." Learn more on their website.
The Lighthouse Foundation is a German charitable foundation focussing on the implementation of local sustainable development projects and the role of the marine environment for the future of humanity. The foundation works globally and always in close collaboration with local partners.
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