Belize is an amazingly beautiful country and I’ve been wanting of visiting again since I left.
No bigger than New Hampshire, Belize doesn’t quite fit the mold of Latin America or the Caribbean, but proudly considers itself both. I love the low-key nature of its people and the seamless mix of cultures – Belizean, Creole, Mestizo, Garifuna, Maya and even expat. The country is so diverse that you can be snorkeling/diving on the barrier reef one day and hiking in the jungle the next. There is something for everyone here.
Taking a Different Kind of Vacation
For my first visit to Belize however, my friends and I chose a different experience than most people. We volunteered for an organization named Blue Ventures, an organization that has been helping to monitor the health of the reef and fish in an around the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve. A friend of mine had done this the year before, and my group of friends and I felt it would be a great adventure. Not only would we get to dive every day, we would also get to learn about the marine environment, but also survey, hunt and dissect invasive lion fish. All of our research was contributing to the marine research of the on site marine biologists.
The Impact of Blue Ventures
Since March 2010, Blue Ventures has been conducting coral reef monitoring and research in the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve, filling a data gap for one of the most remote marine protected areas in Belize.
One of the focuses of the research is to research the impact of the lionfish on the Belize Barrier Reef and on juvenile reef fish. The lionfish, while beautiful, is actually an invasive species and has no native predators outside it native home in the Indo-Pacific. It is a great threat to Belize’s reef fisheries.
Research and Data
Blue Ventures research goal is to understand how to effectively control lionfish populations, monitor the progression of the invasion in Belize, and directly contribute to efforts to combat it’s spread. The only way to prevent the spread is through lionfish culls while scuba diving.
Why are Lionfish bad?
Don’t let their beauty fool you. Lionfish not only have a venomous sting to humans with 13 venomous dorsal spines, 2 venomous pelvic spines and 3 venomous anal spines, but they are also wreaking havoc on reefs up and down the Atlantic.
Lionfish have virtually no natural enemies in the Western Atlantic.
With a reproduction rate of 2 million eggs a year from one female, reproducing every 4 days or so, this is just the start of the problem. In addition to the reproduction rate, lionfish are non-selective feeders, so they virtually have an all you can eat seafood buffet.
Lionfish can prey up to two thirds of their own length and their stomachs can expand up to 30 times their normal size after a meal. They can also consume more than 50 different species.
You can now see why this particular invasive species is a bad thing.
Traveling to Bacalar Chico Was A Trek
We spent the first couple of days in Caye Caulker diving all of the amazing dive sites you check off your bucket list like the Blue Hole and a couple of other dive sites out at Turneff Atoll North. Personally, I wasn’t too impressed with the Blue Hole, but that is a discussion for another day.
Travel to Bacalar Chico took a good portion of the day. We boarded the water taxi from Caye Caulker and traveled to San Pedro. Once we were in San Pedro we got some last minute food essentials, grabbed our last restaurant meal, and patiently waited for the Blue Ventures boat to whisk us off to the remote, off grid dive camp. It was a beautiful journey through the mangroves. Sadly, we didn’t see any manatee this time around.
Bacalar Chico Dive Camp
Bacalar Chico Dive Camp was amazing! It was truly off grid.
No wifi, electricity was from the generator that was shut down at 9pm, and fresh water was from the rain cistern. I never thought I would enjoy a place like this, but it was so much fun!
Being a volunteer didn’t mean you didn’t have responsibilities.
We were given a quick tour of camp, and then given our list of chores which we would rotate throughout the week. The chores were not fun and included anything from raking the beach to cleaning the bathrooms or sweeping the main room floors, but hey, it’s all part of the experience.
We then set up our bunks before dinner and lights went out. There were 4 people to a bungalow and 2 bunk beds in each bungalow. With my friends, it was just like we had traveled to an adult summer camp!
The fun part came when we were able to start learning about the marine life, surveying the reefs and how to measure, record and cull the lionfish!
There was actually a test on all of the materials we learned so that Blue Ventures knows the data collected is accurate by scientific standards and is robust.
Time to Start Diving
Initially it was more like snorkeling thanks to the weather.
The weather to start our dives was not cooperating, so we spent our first 10 dives or so diving the shallows of the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve. This was very surgey and at some points seemed like we were snorkeling since in some spots it was barely 10 feet. This wasn’t fun, but we had to practice our reef measurements and underwater note taking ability.
After a few days, the weather cleared up enough so we could go outside of the area where the protective reef barrier was and into the deeper water.
Finally!!! This was the first time we could do a true survey. We unrolled our measuring tape along the reef, made our notes, and then after the work was done we finished the dive by exploring.
The next dive we were able to do a lionfish cull.
When asked if I wanted to be the one to spear I didn’t hesitate at the opportunity! SO COOL!!! To spear the lionfish we used a Hawaiian sling. A Hawaiian sling is a pole, about 6-8 feet long with three prongs on one end, and an elastic rubber tube connected to the other. To generate a shot at a fish, grab the rubber tube and pull down towards the spear head. When you let go, the spear ‘shoots’ or jumps forward because of the rubber tube contracting.
Early into the dive, we spotted our first lionfish.
First, we recorded where the lionfish was found, the surrounding reef, and the size of the lionfish. Then, I went in for the kill, the first of many.
Once we speared the lionfish, my teammate would bring the collection bucket. We had to be careful when shoving the lionfish in so we wouldn’t get stung. The bucket basically had cuts in the lid so there was only one way in and no way out.
Once we got back to the dock, we opened the buckets, dissected the lionfish and logged everything about the lionfish from measurements to the weight, stomach contents and even the mutations. What the marine biologists were finding was that the lionfish were mutating and biologically changing to fit their new surroundings. Fascinating!
Placencia Lobster Festival and Lionfish Hunt
At the end of the week and after 14 dives, we traveled to Placencia for the Placencia Lobster Festival.
Lobster Festival in Placencia marks the opening of lobster season. While Lobster Fest is mostly about lobster, there is also a lionfish hunt. We were originally tasked with helping the boats count the fish coming up, but we were then asked if we wanted to participate in the hunt. YES!!!
This was by far the best experiences of the entire trip. For the lionfish hunt, you get 3 dives to catch as many lionfish as possible. There were 5 boats competing this year, with around 5-6 divers per boat. Our boat had 4 divers, including myself. Our boat brought in just over 150 lionfish. The interesting observation we made while hunting was that most of the lionfish were found between 60-80 feet. Originally they were found around 40 feet. This meant they were evolving to their environment, which isn’t good.
At the end of the 8 hour hunt, the 5 boats brought in over 1,000 pounds in total of lionfish.
That is crazy considering lionfish aren’t huge fish. The number 1 boat brought in over 500 lionfish alone.
The lionfish we brought in were used to educate the locals about lionfish and create awareness. First, the fish is delicious. Second, the fins are used for jewelry, which is unique and really cool looking!
Lessons from the week
There are movements across Florida, the Gulf Coast, and Caribbean islands to create awareness about lionfish in hopes of getting more divers involved, and even non-divers involved by eating them, or purchasing products like lionfish jewelry.
As unfortunate as it is that lionfish seem here to stay, everyone can help to keep their population under control. They not only make a great meal, but their gorgeous colors, spots, and patterns of their fins make beautiful jewelry. The key is getting the knowledge out there.
Future trips to Belize
I definitely need to make a trip back to Belize. It is a beautiful place, and while I had an extraordinarily rare experience, the country has so much more to offer. I would love to explore the history as Belize is home to one of the world’s most mysterious civilizations – the ancient Maya. The Cayo District and Toledo’s Deep South in particular are peppered with archaeological sites that date to AD 250–1000. How cool is that?
In addition about 67% of the Cayo District is national parks and reserves and it’s home to some of the biggest and most exciting caves in Belize.
So much to do and so little time. Hopefully I will be able to travel back soon.
Thanks for stopping by! Have you been to Belize? What was your experience? Take a look at my YouTube video about the Bacalar Chico dive camp and Placencia. Come back later for a look at Caye Caulker and diving the Blue Hole!
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