Wild Side: There’s lots to see in the sea in Belize
Carol and I have been going to Belize on vacations nearly every year since 1990. Belize is a small English-speaking country in Central America on the Caribbean Sea, bordered on the north by Mexico and on the west and south by Guatemala. This year, we are again part of the winter cheesehead invasion of the country along with Bill and Sue Smith and Jeff Cudd of River Falls. Like many others from the snowy parts of the U.S. and Canada, we have found that a winter break in Belize is just what the doctor ordered.
Belize is a naturalist’s delight. It’s a physically beautiful country with a variety of ecosystems. Limestone mountains riddled with caves covered in rain forest, pine-covered granite ridges, palm savanna, river jungles, freshwater wetlands, mangrove forests, shallow sea grass flats, hundreds of cayes (islands), the largest coral barrier reef in the western hemisphere, and three big offshore atolls make for spectacular scenery and biodiversity.
Three of the first five laws passed by the new Belize government upon gaining independence from Great Britain in 1981 were environmental protection laws. Because Belize has only about 368,000 people, most of the country is wild and undeveloped. In addition to citrus and sugar cane agriculture, ecotourism is a big industry. Belize has set aside over 40 percent of its land area as conservation reserves. The coastal zone and the coral reef are gaining protection with marine reserves.
The coral reef is an ecosystem with astounding biodiversity. The first time I went snorkeling on the Belize reef, I saw more species of fish in the first few minutes than I had seen in my entire life in freshwater. The water along the coral reef is so clear that at times it seems you are floating on air.
One of my favorite pastimes is to relax, float along with mask and snorkel and look down at the reef. Schools of foraging blue tangs change color from light violet to deep purple as they patrol the coral. Reef squids jet in, look you over curiously, change color, and jet away. Stoplight parrotfish fly by in bright blue and orange, and then stop to grind algae off the coral with horse-like teeth. They poop out clouds of coral sand, contributing to the grass-covered sand flats and beaches. Groupers stop over a coral head barber shop/cleaning station, flare their gills, and little wrasses move in to remove parasites. Big barracudas suddenly appear and make toothy yawns. Spiny lobsters with long antennae scurry back into their holes in the coral. Fairy shrimp, delicate as spiders, walk on the sponges. Big brown nurse sharks snooze in the shade of the coral gardens.
We go fishing with Belizean guides who have become good friends. They know the sea in their area like we know our own neighborhoods and can really handle a boat. Our friend Eloy Cuevas navigates by watching the bottom and the cayes. He “notices” fish, fish shadows and ‘nervous water.’ He can tell what kind of fish they are from a distance.
Fishing in the ocean there is special because of the beautiful scenery and because saltwater fish can really pull. Bill and Susan Smith like to troll outside the barrier reef for big king mackerel, wahoos and groupers. Wahoos are so fast and toothy that they can slice titanium leaders.
Trolling outside the reef with Eloy, we watch for flocks of terns and blue-footed booby birds diving on baitfish that blackfin and yellowfin tuna have chased up to the surface in a feeding frenzy. We cast lures to catch the football-shaped bundles of tuna energy. Once while catching tuna, we saw a whale shark longer than the boat right beside us in the next wave. The whale shark was there to feed on the small baitfish too.
I like to wade the shallow flats fly fishing for bonefish and permit. Bonefish look like gray suckers with a pointy nose. Permit are incredibly wary bluegill-shaped silver powerhouses with big eyes and a sickle-shaped tail. Both bonefish and permit are turbo-charged dragsters that can peel 100 yards of line off your reel in seconds. We cast for barracudas at cuts in the reef and around the mangroves that line the cayes. It’s pretty exciting to see a big barracuda explode out of the water with your lure, making the line sizzle through the water.
Our friend Magda Morales owns The Shak, an open-air restaurant right on the beach. She cooks fish for us many ways, all good. Whole fried snapper and grilled grouper are favorites along with her salads, fruit smoothies and the ubiquitous rice and beans.
A stay at a locally-owned resort in Belize is a great way to thaw out after a long winter. There’s plenty of opportunity to go snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, and get to know the local Belizeans. There’s always something new to see out in the sea. Please don’t go there on a cruise ship or buy a condo built on fill in what used to be a mangrove forest. Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at email@example.com.
--Dan Wilcox, outdoor columnist