Saturday, September 7, 2002

Lighthouse Reef Atoll

Today was the day we have been anticipating since we arrived in Belize. We hired a boat to take us out to the Blue Hole to snorkel and then to Half Moon Caye to have lunch and tour the caye. Both of these are located in an area called the Lighthouse Reef Atoll.

The Lighthouse Reef Atoll is really six cayes and is the farthest atoll from the Belizean shore. The area is famous to divers as it offers some of the best underwater visibility anywhere. Of the six cayes, only two of them are actually inhabited by people—the Half Moon Caye and the Northern Caye. According to the guidebook, the other four are home to only crocodiles and mosquitoes.

One of Mario’s guides, Roy, and his six-year old son, Ryan, picked us up around 8 in the morning. We traveled for about an hour across azure colored water. The sky was blue and clear. We watched in amazement as flying fish literally leapt out of the water and “flew” rapidly along the surface of the ocean for close to 100 yards. They are able to flap their pectoral fins which make them look like tiny birds. Occasionally, a spotted eagle ray would break the ocean surface. On the horizon, we could see the remains of a tanker that had shipwrecked on the outer reef.

Anyone sitting in the front of the boat got bounced around as the boat slapped the waves. We laughed and made jokes about how hard it was to hang on and not land on someone else’s lap. We traveled for about an hour before coming to Turneffe Atoll, about halfway to Lighthouse Reef Atoll. Inside the Turneffe Atoll we wound through mangrove islands similar to the Drowned Cayes where we are staying.

As we came out the other side of these islands and back into open water, Roy stopped the boat, pulled the floatation cushions out, and handed them to us to sit on. He said, “From here on out, the water might become rough.” We wondered, “how much more rough could it possibly be?” But we followed directions, and put the cushions underneath us. Roy started out across the open water. Suffice it to say, that the remaining portion of the trip was not unlike riding a bucking bronco. We were very thankful for the cushions.

The Blue Hole

At the center of the Lighthouse Reef Atoll is the famous Blue Hole. The Blue Hole is really a “sinkhole”, the collapsed roof of an extensive cave system now mostly under the ocean. The Blue Hole is 122 m (400 feet) deep and 305 m (1000 feet) across. The rim of the hole is underwater and covered with reef. Divers from all over the world come to explore this area because it is so rich in sea life, as well as to descend into the marine cave system. When we arrived, there were two other boats anchored in the hole.

The first fish we encountered after jumping in was a six-foot barracuda! Floating on the surface, we could watch the scuba divers down below us. Roy took us on a snorkel tour of the reef wall for close to an hour. After a short break on board to “refuel” with water and snacks, we snorkeled for another hour and a half. Some of us decided to explore the outer reef wall in the hopes of seeing sharks. No, we never did see any! Some of us were disappointed—and some of us weren't.

Once back on board we compared notes on all the life we had seen. There were schools of Blue tangs swimming on the outer reef, spotted eagle rays, Spanish hogfish, Stoplight parrotfish, Peterson cleaning fish, Sergeant majors and dozens more. This is one of the world’s best snorkeling areas and we all felt privileged to spend the morning there. After snorkeling, we headed to Half Moon Caye for lunch.

Half Moon Caye

Half Moon Caye is home to the rare, red-footed booby. Half Moon Caye was Belize’s first protected area in 1928 largely because of the these birds. It is now a sanctuary for them. Both because of the boobies and the Blue Hole, Half Moon Caye is a World Heritage Site.

There are over 4000 boobies that live on the caye for ten months out of the year. They nest in November and lay their eggs in December. Both parents incubate one egg per nest, for seven weeks. The young remain in the nest until July. Boobies are named after their behavior. Apparently, when hungry seamen approached their remote breeding islands the birds were curious rather than alarmed. Unfortunately, this made them very easy to catch. They are now very rare in the Atlantic region.

The endangered Loggerhead and Hawksbill sea turtles both lay their eggs on the beaches of Half Moon Caye. Unfortunately we did not get a chance to see these magnificent creatures. One and two foot iguanas were quite common, however.

After lunch we walked along a path to the sanctuary where there is a 12-foot observation platform that looks out over the Ziricote forest area where the boobies nest. Everywhere we looked, we could see boobies sitting on tree branches. They are difficult to see even though they are large birds. Magnificent Frigate birds flew overhead attempting to steal the boobies’ eggs and nesting chicks.

It looked like a scene out of prehistory with hundreds of boobies sitting in trees and the pterodactyl-looking frigates with their seven-foot wingspan flying overhead and squawking. We have seen many of these birds while out on the boat. They always appear to be hovering motionless in the air, yet they are poor divers and cannot land on water. One way of acquiring food is to prey on the young of other birds.

The Orange Flowered Ziricote (Cordia sebestena) is a native hardwood found on the island. The tree is know locally as Cericote or Geiger tree. Its beautiful, dark grained wood was traditionally used for wood cravings. What is interesting about this tree is that it is the primary climax species that is typical of mature sand cayes. A climax species is the species in an environment that dominates after a period of competition and succession between native species. The dense vegetation is supported by guano (bird droppings) from the booby rookery that enriches the soil.

Also on the island is the Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba) tree. The local name however, is the “tourist tree” since its red shaggy bark is always peeling! It grows 25 m tall with leaves that are five to 12 cm long. The bark is a common tropical remedy for skin afflictions like sunburn, sores, insect bites, etc. It is also taken internally to purify the blood.

The island also houses two lighthouses—one of which is no longer used. We stopped and talked to the rangers who were resting on their porch after lunch. They live on the caye for three weeks at a time then return to Belize City for a week before coming back out to the caye for another three weeks. They said that the caye has no mosquitoes or black flies. Sounds like paradise to us!

Green Moray Eel

After lunch we headed out to an area in the bay nicknamed the Aquarium. This is another area that is great for snorkeling because of the large schools of Yellowtailed snapper and Horseye jack. Roy threw out pieces of bread while we were in the water. We were literally swimming in the middle of the school as they raced to gobble up the bread in a feeding frenzy.

Shelly, Caryn, Kevin, and Michael saw a six-foot green moray eel and were all following it as it swam near the boat. Kevin dove to the bottom to take a close picture of the eel and the normally docile eel turned around to face him, opening its dog-sized jaws. From the boat, all we heard was a loud muffled guffaw through snorkel tubes. Apparently, Kevin’s reaction was pretty funny.

The Aquarium is characterized by long channels of sediment separated by elongated fingers of coral reef mounds called “spur and groove”. The forereef slope dips gently outward toward the edge of the shelf. At the rim of the slope is an abrupt edge or “wall”, where the bottom drops off dramatically. It looks like an underwater cliff. Where the forereef meets the reef itself the water may be 10 to 15 feet deep and at the wall edge, it is between 25 and 30 feet.

The slope beyond the cliff edge can be as high as 60 degrees. The water over the wall edge is surprisingly cooler in contrast with the normally warm water over the reef. There is also a distinct color difference in the water. As you look down into the almost limitless ocean depths, the water turns dark blue and reminds you of outer space. For the inexperienced diver this “edge” can be very intimidating. It is easy to envision huge sea creatures rising up out of the dark blue depths. You cannot help but feel small and insignificant in comparison, and very vulnerable.

The forereef slope meets the reef itself at a distinct wall of coral mounds that grow to just under the low water mark. This formation is called the reefcrest. The reefcrest is an extensive flat area characterized by a variety of coral types that collectively create a marine “forest”. The reefcrest extends for miles down the coast of Belize, separating the environments into exposed forereef, reefcrest, and protected back reef. For snorkelers this is the best area to explore as there is so much sea life living among the reefcrest.

This protective arrangement is known as a barrier reef. The Belize Barrier Reef system extends down almost the entire coastline of the country and is the second largest barrier reef in the world—surpassed only by the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. The mangrove cayes that extend throughout coastal Belize owe their existence to the protection of this barrier reef.

Hannah, the Mermaid

Hannah, by the way, is an amazing diver—snorkeling to depths of 20 to 30 feet. She has a rather unique style of swimming. Instead of kicking her legs and flippers independently, she moves them in unison as a mermaid would. As a matter of fact, she looks just like one when she dives, minus the fish scales of course. We are all in awe of her. She said she learned to snorkel here during her internship. We find that hard to believe, as it appears she was born in water.

After diving in the Aquarium, we headed home. Thankfully the water was not as rough. We explored a few of the mangrove areas back in Turneffe Atoll because Caryn wanted to look for evidence of manatees. She saw what looked like feeding scars in the turtle grass beds but we didn’t find any manatees. Two dolphins appeared in a narrow channel and they played around and under the boat for several minutes. Eventually they got bored perhaps and headed off to who knows where.

We finally headed back and arrived home at dusk, exhausted but very satisfied after our wonderful adventure.