The arrival of Teek Paal Kó
Are they mermaids? Are they humans? Are they animals? Many confuse them with magical beings due to their unusual appearance. The Maya themselves believed that if they saw one swimming upstream, floods were on their way.
When Christopher Columbus reached the New World and saw them, he believed he saw mermaids since he had never seen anything like that before.
The manatees, these sea creatures that look like no other, welcomed Christopher Columbus happily as they didn’t know yet the wickedness of men.
This is the legend of Teek Paal Kó, the manatee who first met the conquistadors.
A long time ago, a tribe of quiet, hardworking men and women lived happily on a Mayan island. The tribe was known as Kohunlich and the island was Cuzamil, now known as Cozumel. The tribe’s ruler was the chief Nachán Ca and he had a daughter called Zazil Ha who loved to swim in the ocean.
One day, as she was looking for shells, the princess came across a strange animal which was trapped in a fisherman’s net. Being naturally good hearted, she freed the animal and brought it to Chactemal, the now famous bay of Chetumal in Quintana Roo.
The animal was a baby manatee called Teek Paal Kó.
It looked like a child, was playful and enjoyed the tribe’s company. Sometimes, it would use its chubby face to splash water around. Teek Paal Kó grew so much so that soon, his body became bigger than the fishermen’s boats.
The chief Nachán Ca went to see Teek Paal Kó and was so surprised by the sweetness of the animal that he just screamed “mato, mato, mato” which means *magnificent* in the Mayan language.
This is how this animal got his name: manatee.
Teek Paal Kó was like another child in the village. He would come to the shore, let the other children climb on his back and bring them across the sea. The manatee used a loud shriek to communicate with the children since manatees do not have vocal chords. Everyone was very happy.
However, one day, strange men came on very large ships and fought to subjugate the people and their princess Zazil Ha. They were the conquistadors. The people of Kohuinlich had to flee the guns of the foreign invader.
The manatee was now alone and its shrieks could be heard as far as Zazil Ha’s hideout. It was crying. One evening, as Teek Paal Kó was eating grass on the bank, one conquistador approach him. Teek Paal Kó didn’t move as he was used to people but this one threw a spear at him and that’s the day the manatee learnt that not all men were equally kind.
From that moment on, living in fear of getting hurt, Teek Paal Kó lived underwater, coming back to the surface only to breathe. He left and returned to where he came from.
One day, the sky became very dark and a terrible storm broke out. The river that connected the lagoon to the ocean overflowed and Teek Paal Kó was washed away on land. However, a very familiar figure approached him: a huge manatee, his mother. She was sent by Izt Chel, goddess of fertility and the moon, to rescue him. The big manatee embraced her child and together they disappeared, never to be seen again. It is said that they returned to their home, far from the humans.
Man is considered to be the biggest predator for manatees. These animals are slow and very passive so they end up being the perfect prey for hunters.
Nowadays, there are more deaths than births amongst manatees. They can be natural, accidental or caused by men. The manatee population is currently estimated at only 2,600 individuals and is limited to the Southeast of Mexico, covering the coastal areas of the Gulf, from Veracruz to Chetumal. They also live in rivers, ponds, swamps and Cenotes. The manatees found in this region are the only ones to survive in both freshwaters and marine waters.