Darling it’s better down where it’s wetter…

2 08 2010

I saw a manatee! I saw a manatee! I saw a manatee!

[insert dorky dance complete with lots of flailing limbs and ill-timed hip thrusts].

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I can divulge the backstory.

So my wonderful friend, and travelling companion through Australia, Merr came to visit.  Upon reuniting, we immediately beelined for Caye Caulker, arriving just in time to catch happy hour and sunset at the Split, followed by a delicious dinner of grilled shrimp kebabs and barracuda steaks prepared by Chef Maurice in the ramshackle yard that is his restaurant, Wish Willy’s.  Undeterred by the fact that we had made arrangements to go for a full day snorkeling adventure the next morning, we were downing Belikins like they were going outta style.

As a quick aside, Belikin is the national beer of Belize.  It is terrible.  And you pretty much go directly from being sober to hungover without the drunken middle part.  And oh the headaches it bestows…An investigation into the dysfunctional & sadistic reasons I continue to drink it, despite these major shortcomings, may be the subject in a future aside in a future blog, but I doubt it.

Anyway, early the next morning, we eagerly boarded our sailboat, the Ragga Gal, and headed out to sea for the day. Ahoy matey!  We were headed north towards Ambergris Caye and the crown jewel of the northern cayes: Hol Chan marine reserve.

Bear with me here, another aside.  Established in 1987, Hol Chan is Belize’s first marine reserve, and is now arguably the most popular snorkeling and diving site in the country.  The reserve was named for a 30-foot-deep cut in the barrier reef, “Hol Chan” means “little channel” in the Mayan language, but actually covers an area of about 7.8km2.  Over 160 species of fish have been identified in the reserve, along with nearly 40 species of corals, 5 sponges, 8 algaes, 2 seagrasses, 3 marine mammals and 3 species of sea turtle. Woot woot.

Our first snorkeling stop, a channel between Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye, proved to be the absolute highlight of my day and possibly of my time in Belize thus far.  Merr and I quickly ditched the rest of our lollygagging group and snorkel-sprinted out to the channel in hopes of spotting a manatee.  It wasn’t pretty but it was lightning fast. After what seemed like an eternity of scanning, I could faintly make out a dark shadow emerging in the distance.   Sure enough, a manatee was slowly and lazily loping its way straight towards us!  It came right up, looked us in the eye and slowly meandered off. I’m sure its departure had absolutely nothing to do with me screaming into my snorkel and doing an awkward underwater manatee celebration dance.  What a magical moment!


Since I am apparently all over asides in this blog, here is a little blurb on manatees, just because they are oh so cool.  Manatees are bulky and awkward looking, and are commonly referred to as the “gentle giants of the sea”.  They belong to the taxonomic order Sirenia, a group of 4 species representing the only herbivorous marine mammals living today.  Belize boasts the greatest density of Antillean manatees in the Caribbean region, likely because of the extensive seagrass, mangrove, coastal and estuarine habitats available within the Belize Barrier Reef Lagoon System.  Also, when it comes to manatees, Belizeans have exhibited a strong conservation ethic, designating several wildlife sanctuaries and becoming one of the first Caribbean countries to establish a National Manatee Working Group and to adopt a Manatee Recovery Plan.  Despite these efforts, manatees are considered endangered and in continuing decline, threatened by an onslaught of anthropogenic activities ranging from boat strikes to poaching to habitat degradation.   Here’s hoping we get our S@#t together enough to ensured the continued survival of these elusive creatures before it’s too late.

Ok next stop on our snorkel tour was Shark Ray Alley, about a mile south of the Hol Chan cut but still within the marine reserve.  Shark Ray Alley sure does not leave much to the imagination:  as the name suggests, this area is stocked with nurse sharks and southern sting rays galore. The area apparently used to be used by local fishermen to clean their daily catches, and the remnants, thrown overboard, attracted loads of these opportunistic elasmobranchs.  Now, tour guides chum in these wonderful beasts by the dozens, creating a full-scale feeding frenzy, much to the delight of their squealing customers. This is a practice I am not particularly fond of and do not condone, but it certainly registers better than shark finning on the scale of “shitty things humans do to nature”.  Thank gawd nurse sharks are docile!

Nurse Sharks @ Shark Ray Alley, Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Last stop was Hol Chan Cut, a very cool spot even considering the eleventy billion tour boats all competing for a glance of the area’s abundant marine life.  As soon as I slipped overboard and looked around, a huge black grouper cruised by, looking grumpy as ever.  Good sign. As we swam along the cut, huge schools of snapper and grunts were swaying back and forth in the current, Green moray eels were poking their sinister looking faces out of their hiding spots, while barracuda swam up, a little too close for comfort, to give us the evil eye. The reef flats were covered with seagrass beds, and we spotted numerous green sea turtles happily munching away, seemingly oblivious to the crowds of snorkelers.

Green Sea Turtle @ Hol Chan Marine Reserve

That night, Merr and I went for an incredible mixed-grill dinner at Habaneros, washing it down with several refreshing mojitos.  A perfect end to a perfect day.




One response

3 08 2010


[…] something about marinainbelize[…]…

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