Week One in Belize: The city, stingrays, and tarpon.
by Emma Kelley -- May 30th, 2014
I’ve been in Belize for a bit over a week now and have already jumped into a few marvelous adventures. From finding the local grocery store to snorkeling with sharks and hand-feeding wild tarpon, this post is all about my first week in Belize.
My research partner, Sylvia, and I arrived in Belize City last Tuesday afternoon. After a tiny bit of trouble finding our apartment (secured at the very last moment) we arrived at a beautiful apartment complex in a relaxed part of the city. The tower is tall enough to be seen from almost anywhere in the Belize City (calm down, that’s not saying very much) and is only a ten minute walk from the office where we’ll be based all summer. After setting down our luggage and gawking at the balcony, we decided to venture out on our first mission: finding a grocery store.
We asked for directions from our building’s receptionist. We hadn’t set up our phones and the stores don’t have websites anyways, so turn-by-turn GPS directions aren’t an option. The receptionist was kind enough to draw us a paper map. After a few questionable turns and many looks from locals noticing the two foreign girls, we found a shop that will be our grocery store for the next 12 weeks. This was my first real reminder of life in a developing country- the store was a far cry from Kroger, although we were able to find almost everything we needed. I had a brief moment of despair over the very limited fruit options: imported apples or grapes. We’ve since discovered that fresh fruit and vegetables are bought from stands along the streets. The pineapple here is the sweetest I’ve ever tasted!
The next day was spent exploring Belize City. A quick web search will tell you that Belize City has a ….questionable reputation. Travelers regard it as a necessary stop between the Mayan ruins of inland Belize and the gorgeous islands (cayes) off the coast. Per the instructions of multiple websites and guidebooks, I removed all my jewelry and left my phone in the safety of our guarded apartment before venturing out. The city does have a museum, a few parks to walk through, restaurants, a few bars, and many food stands where you can buy a lunch of rice and beans with some meat for about $7-$9 BZD ($3.50-$4.50 USD).
After settling into our surroundings, we spent a day making sure we were prepared for our first week in the office. Our goals for this first week include obtaining the most updated maps of the mangrove forests in Belize. We’ll use these maps and other data to estimate the total amount of ‘blue carbon’ stored in these mangrove forests.
‘Blue carbon’ refers to carbon stored in the biomass and sediments of vegetated coastal ecosystems: seagrass beds, salt marshes, and mangrove forests. Evidence has mounted that the land-conversion of these ecosystems releases this ‘blue carbon’ into the atmosphere, contributing to the negative impacts of climate change. This study will evaluate mangroves specifically: how much carbon they sequester, what factors influence how much carbon they hold, and the economic value of these ecosystems based on their ability to sequester carbon.
After prepping for the week ahead of us, we decided to use our weekend to go exploring. First stop: Caye Caulker! Water taxis depart every few hours from Belize City to both Caye Caulker and San Pedro (Ambergris Caye). We chose Caye Caulker for our first adventure and were glad we did.
After a relaxing boat ride from Belize City, we arrived on the small caye. Instant paradise. The sun was shining and the sand was warm. The pier where the water taxis docked was on Front Street, one of the three main roads running down the caye. The rest of Front St. was lined with cafes, restaurants, tour operators, and hotels.
We quickly found the hotel where we would be staying: Barefoot Beach Belize, a few small buildings painted vibrant shades of pink, blue, green and yellow. After changing into our bathingsuits, we rushed back down Front St. to board a boat taking us out to Hol Chan Marine Reserve to snorkel. I was anxious to get my first look at the Great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef!
We boarded the Ragga Queen, a blue sailboat operated by Raggamuffin Tours, with a group of other eager snorkelers and departed out to the reef.
At our first stop, in a shallow seagrass bed, we saw many friendly southern stingrays. Stingrays are one of my favorite animals. They found a place in my heart while I was interning at the New England Aquarium as a SCUBA diver. I fed and took care of two large southern stingrays. Wild stingrays are usually shy and keep their distance from humans; however, the rays here were very interested in the snorkelers. I was stunned when they even allowed me to lightly pet them.
Then, I realized that a nearby boat was feeding them. Feeding wild animals attracts them to humans, and in this case, desensitizes them to human presence. I have mixed feelings on feeding wild animals. Feeding gives snorkelers and divers an up close interaction with sea creatures that will no doubt increase their willingness to conserve these animals; however, feeding also changes a wild animal’s behavior. It may no longer hunt wild fish, which can damage ecosystems. Predators tend to seek out weak and injured animals for prey, which in turn keeps populations healthy. Populations suffer when apex predators are eliminated from the ecosystem. One of the largest issues with feeding wild animals, especially predators, it that it teaches animals to associate humans with food, which in the case of most sharks, is bad news. It leads to more human-shark interactions, which can often be negative.
Our second stop was another seagrass bed not too far away: Shark and Ray Alley. Our guides would also be feeding the animals here. We watched as nurse sharks immediately began circling our boat as soon as we came to a stop. Our guides started throwing bits of fish to a large crowd of at least 15 sharks, while the snorkelers entered the water on the other side of the boat. Now, don’t panic: nurse sharks are not aggressive and have little interest in humans. Even if they’re being fed, they won’t bother you…unless you’re a sardine.
Nurse sharks are another favorite of mine due to my time as an aquarium diver. Our beautiful nurse shark, Bimini, allowed divers to gently hug her and even kiss her on the top of her head. I need no reminding that these sharks are not Bimini- they are hungry and focused on mealtime. The guides place a fish inside an empty conch shell, and then throw it into the frenzy. The messy ball of hungry sharks follow the shell to the sea floor as they each tried to suck the morsel out. When the nurse sharks realized that mealtime was over, they quickly dissipated from the area, although a few lingered, hoping for seconds. My GoPro camera decided to corrupt most of my video for the day and I was only left with a few awkward photos of the event, but I think you’ll get the idea.
The last spot of the day was the reef zone the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, established in 1987 to protect against highly destructive fishing and diving practices. We followed our guide as he led us around the reef. We spied a green moray eel, hesitant to come out of hiding because of a small nurse shark hanging around looking for a snack. As we started heading back towards the boat from the furthest point into the reserve, we were lucky enough to encounter animals our guides had not seen in Hol Chan in about five years: Manatees! Two manatees glided calmly by our group, headed out to the Caribbean Sea, but they picked up their pace when all the snorkelers in the area wildly chased after them for a closer look.
After that last swim, we smoothly sailed back to Caye Caulker, drinking rum punch and eating ceviche with tortilla chips. Why can’t graduate school always be like this?
Our second day on Caye Caulker was spent meandering along the caye, seeing what we could find. Friends made on the snorkeling tour directed us to the backyard of a few local Belizeans, where large tarpon gather. The owners let tourists on their dock to look at the stunning silver fish. They even sell small bags of sardines to folks wanting a closer look.
After wandering around for a while, we finally found a backyard we hoped was the right spot. Not wanting to trespass into someone’s home, we hesitantly looked around before a voice called for us to come on over to the dock. A few folks were lounging in hammocks and let us know we were in the right spot to feed tarpon. Their story goes that years ago, someone started feeding some small fish that came around the dock. Years later these small fish grew into large tarpon. The tarpon have stayed by the dock, knowing they’ll get free meals.
Attempting to ignore my previously-mentioned feelings about feeding wild animals, I bought a bag of fish. Tarpon are very large and know how to jump. Again, my time at the New England Aquarium has made me familiar with these fish. One decided to jump over me last summer. He missed his mark and I ended up getting slapped mid-air and a bit squished.
These tarpon were a bit less rowdy and chased quickly after each fish thrown into the water. After emptying my bag, I decided to wade in with the fish. With the snacks gone, the tarpon were much less interested and kept their distance, but I was just happy just to be in the water with so many of these impressive animals.
After exploring Caye Caulker a bit more, drinking fresh fruit juice, and trying grilled conch, we reluctantly caught the last water taxi back to Belize City.
Monday was a holiday, so we had our first day in the office on Tuesday. We’re set up at the Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute Offices in Belize City. We’re meeting coastal managers, coastal data managers, and other folks working to manage and conserve Belize’s coastal resources. A few days into interning and we’re hitting the ground running!
Stay tuned for my next post. I’ll write more about blue carbon and why it is so important for climate change mitigation. Sylvia and I are also planning to hike our first Mayan ruin this weekend and maybe visit another caye if we’re lucky!