Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Belize trip: day 4

On Day 4 of my Belize trip we visited the Smithsonian Institute on Carrie Bow Caye. Just as we were gearing up to leave Tobacco Caye, we saw water spouts! I don't think my camera would have been up to the task of photographing them but basically they are tornadoes made of water. They did not actually touch the ocean, they were floating above the ocean some distance away but headed in our direction. By the time we were on the water though they had disappeared.

Carrie Bow is owned by the Bowman family and named for a Bowman, they let the Smithsonian use it as a base for doing research on coral reefs. One of the Bowman sons switched the family business from bananas to citrus fruit, making a ton of money in the process, and used part of the money to buy this little island, just big enough for a house and a couple of out buildings.

They cut down all the mangroves, to get rid of the mosquitoes that live in them. Now, I can well understand the motivation, I would do the same. Being somewhat of a mosquito attractor, I am all for reducing mosquito habitat wherever I happen to be. However, mosquito habitat is not all that mangroves provide.

If you cut down a mangrove, it grows back. If you cut it down again, it might grow back. If you continue to cut it down every time it shows its head, eventually you will kill it off permanently. The roots will die. The muck that a mangrove produces around its roots will wash away. The nutrients in that muck will disappear into the ocean and no more mangroves or any other plants will grow in the bare sand left behind. And then, the very next time a storm or hurricane hits that island, the sand too is washed away.

Thanks to a misguided development policy, Belize has been losing its offshore coral cayes at an alarming rate. And if all those cayes did was provide a few folks some fancy homes or resorts that might be no big deal, but as usual, nothing is single-purpose, the cayes protect the mainland from the full force of rainy season hurricanes.

Henry Bowman cut down all the mangroves on Carrie Bow Caye, or rather, he had them cut down. Briefly, the Bowmans enjoyed a mosquito-free vacation island. Then the storms came and the sand left. So, Henry Bowman built (or had built) a great concrete wall along the shore to keep the sand in.

From the second storey deck of the Smithsonian research station, the station manager pointed out the concrete wall to us, under water some thirty feet out from the shoreline. He pointed further out to an invisible line that used to be the island shoreline when once there were mangroves there.

He said they were trying various ideas to keep the sand in, but it was as yet a battle they were not winning. They were trying to replant the mangroves, but so far with little success. Without the protection of the strong root system of an established mangrove swamp, the new little mangroves stand little chance against the hurricane season.

The Belizean government has seen the light on this matter and cutting down mangroves is no longer an easy process. Much paperwork, much bureaucracy. In fact, as we learned during our short visit to the Smithsonian, the Belizean government is relatively enlightened when it comes to environmental sustainability. They see their future in eco-tourism, they see the value in preserving their natural and cultural heritage.

We asked questions about the coral reef and climate change. The station manager gave us interesting responses. They see it as a very complex system with complex responses to environmental change. Yes, warming oceans are detrimental to corals. But so is pollution, so are shrimp farms, so is agricultural run-off. The most damage they see on the reef is due to hurricanes, which are probably more frequent and stronger than they once were. But storm-damaged reefs recover, grow back.

Later in the day we went snorkelling off Carrie Bow and saw first hand the great elkhorn corals destroyed by storms and now growing back. It is eerie to drift through a dead elkhorn forest, the great coral "trees" lying broken in tangled masses on the bottom. But then you see the buds of new growth on the broken trunks and you know it is coming back to life.

Again, from my notebook list, here are some of the fish we saw:

donkey dung sea cucumber
queen triggerfish
doctorfish
white grunt
bicolor damselfish ----->
tiger grouper
yellowtail damselfish
redband parrotfish
yellowhead wrasse
bank butterflyfish

We also saw featherduster and social featherduster tube worms, and "christmas tree" tube worms. Tube worms are fun, if you wave the water near them they pull into their tubes very rapidly: now you see them now you don't.

This picture is looking down on a coral fan, as I said before, my underwater photos are not terribly great!

We returned to Water Caye for lunch and then snorkelled again from our kayaks near the barrier reef.

I saw an octopus! At first I didn't know what I was seeing, it looked like a very odd-shaped fish moving across the bottom in a jumbled sort of way. Just as it got itself under a coral overhang I realized what I was seeing. Oddly, it was accompanied by a fish who also swam under the overhang with it. I called out to the others about my find and everyone swam over; Omar dove and poked under the overhang to get the octopus to come out again. The fish came out but not the octopus. But at least Omar was able to confirm my sighting, he saw it too. I was so pleased at seeing an octopus!

We went for a third snorkel after dark. Fortunately dark comes early here, so we were in the water with underwater lamps by 7pm. We just went in off the beach, not very far out from shore.

We saw some very large hermit crabs in conch shells, anemones, more sea cucumbers and several moray eels. The sea cucumbers looked like snakes, they were long and slender, slithering around on the bottom. When Omar poked them they shrivelled up into the cucumber shape we are used to.

We saw a trunk fish and a squid. The squid was swimming near the surface, Sam followed it for awhile and was so close he could reach out and touch it. Which he did.

Then we all saw an octopus.

It was a Caribbean Reef Octopus, probably about 6 or 8 feet in diameter. Its head was about softball-sized, maybe a bit larger. It had diaphanous webbing between its legs, so it appeared to have a body about 3 or 4 feet in diameter. It flowed gracefully across the sea bottom. When it came to a rock or coral outcropping it flowed over it, enveloping it. It was basically a cream colour but it changed colour as it moved, from cream to turquoise and back to cream again.

It was so beautiful, so amazing! Graceful and elegant, like a ballet dancer. Its large eyes watched us as we circled it, shining our lamps at it. I stayed with it for a long time, I just couldn't tear myself away from the awesome sight of it. That one viewing alone was worth the cost and effort of this entire trip!

Needless to say I have no photographs of this, only memories. The underwater camera was a pain to use and definitely not up to the challenges of after-dark snorkelling. Emerging from the water into the cold 27C air (never thought I'd say that!) was bracing! We grabbed our towels and ran back to the IZE for dinner. Nevertheless I think most of the sandflea bites I got on this trip were from that short run from the beach to the dining room.

For dinner we had a wonderful chicken curry with baked potato and a zuchini cake. Our server was a wonderful woman with a stern librarian kind of face; when Omar flirted with her, calling her "baby girl" she gave him The Look over the rims of her glasses. Later I asked Sam what was on the back of his T-shirt and he got up and did a little dance with his back to me, just as our server was approaching to serve the cake. She gave Sam The Look and we all laughed. When I finished my cake she brought another piece and set it in front of me, then quickly snatched it away and gave it to someone else! As she returned to the kitchen she looked over her shoulder at me with The Look and then an evil grin: Gotcha!

At one point in the afternoon hanging out on our deck, we saw something small and bright blue drifting in the water in the little lagoon below the deck. We watched it drift slowly toward us and finally I went out and around our house and under the deck to retrieve it. Amid much joking about what it was I insisted that it was a real creature, possibly a jellyfish, but certain unbelievers stuck to the theory that it was some man-made plastic object. I was able once again to get confirmation from authority, in this case Jenn the co-owner of the IZE, that it was indeed a Bluebutton Jellyfish. So there!

We also noticed that the one grackle that hung out around our house was one-legged, or appeared to be. As it turns out he actually has two legs, but one is damaged and unusable as a leg so he keeps it tucked up under his belly, only occasionally extending it for balance.

A very full Day 4! Tomorrow we leave Water Caye, we will be sad to leave, it is such a beautiful place and we love our little house.

Back to trip summary
Back to Day 3
On to Day 5...

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