I have been lucky enough to visit some of the most beautiful tropical places in the world, and go snorkelling and diving in some pretty cool places. Every time I travel somewhere new, I fall in love with the ocean just a little bit more, and add many new marine species to my life list. I am always amazed just at how many fascinating and unique things you can discover just by spending a couple of hours with a snorkel and mask on in the water.
Every now and then in my travels I’ll meet a person who loves wildlife and conservation as much as I do – and there is one person in particular who made a lasting impression on me during one of these vacations – and that man’s name was Lionel “Chocolate” Heredia.
I met Chocolate in 2008 when I traveled to the island of Caye Caulker, Belize. I was told that when visiting Caye Caulker, I couldn’t possibly go there without meeting the infamous islander affectionately known as Chocolate. Chocolate had been ferrying tourists out to visit the manatees that live around the island since 1968, as part of his lifelong mission to protect these species. Chocolate noticed that manatees were suffering due habitat loss and frequent boat collisions, and dedicated his entire life to educating people on the issues surrounding manatees and other marine species, by bringing people out to see the manatees as part of an ecotourism venture.
I joined Chocolate on a snorkeling expedition out to Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary – an area that was formally protected in July 2002 thanks to his efforts. On this trip we saw many remarkable species, including of course, Chocolate’s beloved manatees.
I recently learned that Chocolate passed away in April, 2013. He will forever hold a special place in my heart, and I am truly thankful for all of the things he did for conservation, and especially for the manatees. Thank you, Chocolate!