Belize

Exploring Belize’s Wild Side by Boat, Snorkel, Canoe, & Inner Tube

Manatee!

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.

EnviroTrip Winners from the US & Canada

EnviroTrip Winners from the US & Canada

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.

Manuel from Nature's Path watching over Hope as her transmitter is attached

Manuel from Nature's Path watching over Hope as her transmitter is attached

 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.

Linda & John Searle of EcoMar with the new speed limit signs that will reduce manatee injuries

Linda & John Searle of EcoMar with the new speed limit signs that will reduce manatee injuries

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.

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Wild Blue Belize

As the EcoMar boat approached the dock on St. George’s Caye (an historic and beautiful island 30 min. from Belize City), a persistent buzzing sound hung in the air like a horde of angry bees. Fortunately for us, the sound came from a drone, used by Oceanic Society’s Eric Ramos to study the abundant manatees and dolphins found in these waters. Eric was looking for George, a resident manatee who spends most of his (we think it’s a “he”) time feeding on the seagrass around the island.

Footage by Eric Ramos of the City University of New York of George the manatee and historic St. George's Caye in Belize. 

The drone is just one way that ocean wildlife is studied by EcoMar and Oceanic Society in the Belize Barrier Reef and surrounding waters. For a week, our group was there snorkel looking for sea turtles, observe and record manatees and dolphins by boat, and study conchs by hand. The ocean is the lifeblood of Belize’s economy, generating hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tourism and fishing income, and protecting its waters is a priority for many residents.

Our group of travelers participating in our Belize Ocean Wildlife Research Expedition mostly from the Portland Oregon area, started off the week with a snorkel, exploring a reef known as Gallow’s Point (named for a person, not the infamous device). Near the end of the swim, we were greeted by a loggerhead turtle who we watched swim from a distance.

The following day (Monday), our group split up in two to participate in manatee observation and a conch survey. The manatee group headed to the mouth of the Belize River, in Belize City, a popular hangout spot for the large marine mammals. To the delight of the group, one curious manatee surfaced near the boat as the group recorded the high pitch squeals of the more than dozen feeding in the area.

The area is a popular spot for local tour operators to bring people from cruise ships and then head upriver. Unfortunately many of the boat drivers don’t respect the “no wake zone”, driving their boats quickly through the area, which puts the manatees at risk. An estimated 30-40 manatees here die per year due to boat strikes according to Eric, something that EcoMar is hoping to address with an outreach campaign.

The conch survey was a favorite for many in the group. A weighted measuring tape was laid down in an area of seagrass and participants would search for conchs on either side within a meter of the line. Once found, the conchs were measured and recorded and returned to the ocean floor. This research is an important way to study where the conchs are most densely populated and what impact the conch fishery has on the population.

On Tuesday, the group’s stronger swimmers spent the day looking for sea turtles, snorkeling in a line keeping an eye out for the turtles. We spotted several green and hawksbill turtles though were unable to catch one to study. But the sightings will be documented as part of a database of turtle sightings around the country. The rest of the group participated in a dolphin survey, recording the behavior of bottlenose dolphins that inhabit the waters between the island and Belize City.

The highlight of the trip for many was the visit to Hol Chan, the country’s first marine protected area and a popular spot for snorkelers. After a 45 min ride, our boat pulled up to join a dozen or so other boats in the area near a well-preserved coral reef. We swam out to the edge of the reef, seeing a number of rays (stingrays and spotted eagle rays) and many reef fish and then came across what had to be the most patient green turtle I’ve ever witnessed, feeding on seagrass with a horde of people around it.

Next stop was an area where fishermen discard their conch shells and lobster heads. Two large loggerhead turtles found their way to this smorgasbord and were tearing into the lobsters with crunches that were clearly audible underwater. Unfortunately for the turtles, many fish and several rays also found the spot and proceeded to hound the turtles’ every attempt to get meat out of the shells. Their flippers acted both as hands to hold down the lobsters to crunch as well as to wave away the annoying freeloaders and the turtles resembled dogs with their beloved bones in their mouths as they tried to swim away from the fish.  

Our last stop was an area full of nurse sharks, which aren’t aggressive to people (but do aggressively beg for food from the tourist boats that feed them). A horde of sharks approached our boat but only for a short time until they realized that we wouldn’t be feeding them (it’s not generally a good thing for sharks to be fed by humans). But we did get a chance to watch these graceful sharks underwater once they dispersed. 

Our final day was nearly rained out, though with a group from Oregon, that wasn’t a deterrent. We did one more search for dolphins and then split in groups to do an additional conch survey and one final snorkel, where a couple of swimmers had the extraordinary luck to witness a spotted eagle ray launch itself into the air from underwater.

On Friday morning, our group reluctantly gathered before breakfast for a group photo, knowing it was time to leave this incredible ocean paradise. We gave our thanks to Linda & John who run EcoMar, as well as their great cooks and staff, and Eric with many promising to return again as soon as possible. We returned home knowing that our visit supported a bunch of important research and conservation efforts and dedicated people working to protect the extraordinary waters of Belize.