No sooner had our boat pulled up to the coral reef for our planned marine life survey, than someone had spotted the long rounded shape of the marine mammal passing by our anchored boat. This being my first opportunity to swim with these extraordinary creatures, I quickly slipped into the water while our group was getting geared up with snorkels and fins.
Manatees are often wary, so I tried to not to scare this one off before everyone was able to see it. But after a few minutes, it was clear that this one not only didn’t mind our presence, it seemed quite curious about us. Several times the female manatee (who we nicknamed “Manuela”) would swim directly toward people in our group, passing just a few feet below them before surfacing for air. Manuela stayed with us for around 45 minutes, eventually deciding she had enough and swimming on.
This manatee encounter was just one of the first activities of our weeklong adventure to Belize with Nature’s Path, the largest independent organic breakfast company in the world. SEE Turtles has partnered with their EnviroKidz line of kids cereals since 2008, and this was our second trip with them to explore wildlife conservation programs with winners of their “EnviroTrip” sweepstakes. We had along with us families from the US and Canada who won out of more than 7,000 entries to the contest.
Our group first met up at Sea Sports, a dive shop in Belize City run by Linda and John Searle, who also run EcoMar, a research and conservation organization focused on marine wildlife. After a short boat ride to their research station on St. George’s Caye, our group met up for an orientation and delicious dinner and to sleep after the long flights from North America.
Our first activity was dolphin watching and we were lucky to be joined by marine mammal research Eric Ramos, who has spent years observing bottlenose dolphins and manatees living in the Belize Barrier Reef. The sea was calm as we headed south towards Gallows Point to look for bottlenose dolphins, though we didn’t spot any for a while. Eventually we saw a single dolphin nearby and stopped to watch him as he swam around our boat. Eric put his drone up into the sky to keep track of him and record video while we watched from the boat. On our way back to St. George’s, we came across a group of 4 more dolphins, including one calf, and watched as they fed.
Our special manatee moment came that afternoon, derailing our plans to snorkel the reef until another day. While we hung out with Manuela, a fisherman working with EcoMar caught a loggerhead turtle that was feeding on discarded catch from a fishing boat, so that we could attach a satellite transmitter on her shell to follow where she goes and learn more about the life cycle of these turtles.
We brought the female loggerhead, who we named “Hope” after some our participants, back to the research station. The process of attaching a satellite tag is quite time consuming, with multiple applications of epoxy, each taking an hour or more to dry. The shell was cleaned, barnacles were removed (to allow space for the transmitter), and then the shell sanded to make it level. While that was done, we measured and weighed Hope, who weighed it at about 130 lbs. That evening, we put Hope in the water and waited eagerly for her tracker to start sending signals. That was just day one!
For day two, we headed back to Gallows Point to snorkel the coral reef, where we saw many fish, species of coral, sea fans, sponges, and other ocean life. The afternoon was dedicated to the queen conch, the beautiful mollusks that are one of the country’s biggest fish exports (after lobster). With so many of the conchs being taken by fishermen, Ecomar has been running surveys to determine their key spawning grounds. Our group split into two and did three transects, where we put down a line and looked for conchs on each side. When we found them, we measured them to determine their age and then returned them to the water. In less than an hour, we found roughly 100 conchs, almost all of them juveniles.
The morning of day three was dedicated to giving back to this special place. First up was a beach clean-up, where we filled 10 large trash bags in a short time. Even small islands like this one are not immune to the tons of plastic that end up in the ocean every year, threatening sea turtles and other ocean life. After that, we helped to install speed limit signs around the shallow areas behind the island, which were made with funds from EnviroKidz. This area is an important feeding area for the West Indian manatee and they are very susceptible to boat strikes, which is one of their biggest threats. Boats regularly speed quickly through this area, so by establishing an area where boats need to go slowly, these manatees will be less likely to be struck.
In the afternoon, we headed out for another snorkel and we were again in luck. We anchored near another fishing boat, which had two loggerheads, two spotted eagle rays, and a whole bunch of stingrays hanging out to get a free lunch. We watched as they hovered around the seagrass floor looking for scraps of lobster, lionfish, and other discarded catch. Then heading off to the nearby reef, we came upon two more manatees, who were less curious than us about Manuela.
Day four, we packed up our things and headed back to Belize City to meet our transport to Crystal Paradise, two hours inland. We settled in to the rooms and then headed out for a fun canoe ride floating down the Macal River as cormorants flew overhead and iguanas sunned on trees.
To complete our exploration of the waters of Belize, our final adventure was cave tubing on the Caves Branch River (with some ziplines thrown in for the kids.) Our guide Erick connected our (lucky) 13 inner tubes together and we slowly floated into the first cave, which we had all to ourselves. He explained how the Mayans had used these caves for thousands of years as part of their ceremonies and pointed out interesting and beautiful stalagtites and stalagmites along the way. Our last day wrapped up with a fun dinner, thanking the great folks at Nature’s Path for helping these families to experience such a special week of wildlife and adventures.