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 researcher 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.
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.