Swimming over the manatees: Tikal through to Ambergris Caye, Belize.


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Published: February 23rd 2016
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It was pretty hard to sleep well with the roaring of Howler monkeys just outside our room at Tikal! We were picked up by another of Eduardo's mates relatives after breakfast and taken directly to Belize City. Unlike two days earlier when Eduardo did his best to drive into Tikal under the speed limit (40 kph) to avoid wildlife, the driver Tonito drove at 90 kph through the park. As expected the park officials didn't bat an eyelid at the direct evidence of speeding. Gradually down through the villages and Flores before coming down the the flat country that abutts Belize on the Guatemala side. Stopping for a break near the frontier we noticed the petrol station attendant had a sawn-off shotgun. It was very hot when we got to the frontier. At several places we saw Guatemalan soldiers manning fortified posts along the highway. Machine-guns and all. A young fellow called Jefferson attached himself to our group in order to assist the transfer. It was unclear at the start that this was going to be a productive relationship. This was a real frontier with border guards as well as some pretence of threatened inspection.

The differences between Guatemala and Belize are immediately obvious over and above the language. The streets are clear. The houses are wooden and lifted on stilts. The waterways are clear. The trip out to Belize City was straight-forward though hot. The turn-off to the Capital, Belmopan was nondescript and easily missed. Apparently the town per se is forgettable also. Towards Belize City the landscape turned to mangrove swamps. We loved the real estate signs quoting prices for undrained mangrove swamp. Belize City looked like no other with canals and concrete buildings. Dry land is clearly at a premium as the cemetery is distributed on either side of the road plus traffic islands. We finally got to the ferry terminal and secured tickets for the fast ferry to go in about 45 mins. Well timed by the driver Tonito. Lunch across the road from the street cart. We had jerked chicken, as well as pig tails and mashed peas. Definitely in the Caribbean now. Boarding the fast ferry was exceedingly hot and still. Tourists from Italy as well as the locals of many colours and shapes. No bow-thruster on this boat, so lots of man-handling. Out through the reasonably dirty harbour, past old wooden work boats. Boats built around Sartenja I understand.

The water got clearer and bluer as we went. We traveled up among low wooded coral cayes. Some colourful characters on-board. Many stories to tell by clothing, tattoos and behaviours. First stop Caulker Caye and then to Ambergris. Both cayes had many docks pointing out to see, all public. The cayes are only accessible by boat or small plane - so there was much unloading at docks. Golf carts are the standard vehicles on the caye - although we did take a car taxi to our apartment. Set of eight apartments right on the water. The afternoon breeze came in, and there was wonderful air cross-flow through the apartment.

The pool was just beyond our back door, with views looking out to the Caribbean. First activity was beers in the pool! In front of the apartment was the protected "lagoon" to the breaking reef. Between the beach and the breaking reef was where we spent many many hours snorkeling. There was lots of Sargassum seaweed washed up on the sand and providing a bit of a sulfurous odour to the place. This is currently a problem right along the Caribbean. We wandered down to the local bakery and supermarket and got morning supplies.

Next morning Greg discovered the water sports shack about 100m down the beach and hired a windsurfer for 90 mins. JP Australia board that was rigid/inflatable. Certainly stable but sticky in trying to get to the plane. The rest of us sat on lounges at the end of a peer, and caught up on readings. We arranged a half-day snorkeling trip out to Hol Chan and "shark and Stingray alley". In the speedboat with us were two other couples, and the driver/guide (Joel). There were lots of boats around Hol Chan - all on guest moorings. We dived along the edges of a channel. We saw beautiful fan corals and stick corals. Various forms of "Jacks", turtles, an aggressive bright green moray eel, a small nurse shark, angel fish, blue tangs, trigger fish, snapper, a fish that looked like Mulloway, gar and pencil fish. There was a deep hole that communicated through and was full of resting fish. Guide Joel swam through it, though the girls were glad that the boys did not attempt it. Our guide provided some food at Shark and Stingray Alley which brought about ten big nurse sharks into a whorl. Lots of Jacks also enjoyed the excitement. We were in the water and they were whirling around us. All of us stayed away from the sharks, firstly because of reputation but also their raspy skin. Back home then Pina Coladas around the pool. Dinner back up in town at a Salvadorian place. I had a whole snapper.

We had arranged with Joel for a private boat trip to pick us up at the pier in front of the apartment at 0800 the next day and travel out to an area where we could potentially swim with Manatees. We ripped down to 17 47.887N, 87 59.804W, to the east of Caye Caulker. We swam with the guide Gonzalo along a reef edge with a sandy base at about 30 ft down. Lots of tropical fish and glimpses of Remoras, Dolphins, Eagle Rays. The Remoras were interesting because I have always heard these come around when big fish or mammals are present. One hour in the water but nothing. We moved a little further south and swam in a coral garden for another thirty minutes. Stag horn corals, fern corals, angel fish and other beautiful disc fish - steely grey. The guides on boats were communicating, and Gonzola heard that a pair of manatees had been sited. We sped there and dived into the water. There they were. Massive prehistoric looking creatures just floating through the water. At times they groomed each other or small fish groomed them. We could swim quite close to them - as could the other dozen or so people that had gathered. Fantastic!

One more day of snorkeling! Gonzalo again picked us up at the pier at 0800 and this time took us to Mexico Rocks. Mexico Rocks was a large area of scattered bommies each with its own group of fish and other characters. Mostly the same species but one or two exceptions. We swam with turtles, and again saw sharks from the boat. I saw a pair of parrot-looking fish that were mostly steely grey. There were coney fish, Rufous squirrel fish, spotted truck fish, and Ray tails. Various parrotfish. Jacks and dart. Broad array of damselfishes. Trumpetfish. Sand tilefish formed an S-shape in order to hold steady. Last stop was called 'tres cocos' and it was close to the barrier reef and one of the channels out. Max 8 ft deep but crystal clear and surging. Lots to entertain us for an hour. No new species but a better chance to view fern, brain and stag horn corals. Classic hard coral staghorns, elk horn and brain corals. Back to the wharf by midday. Catherine and Wendell had both got sunburn legs the day before - prevented on this trip by Wendell wearing her pajama pants and Catherine wearing Wendell's long pants.

It was a lazy afternoon waiting for the key meal at Caroline's Cookin". We had pre-ordered BBQed lobsters and all the fixins and didn't want to spoil that. It lived up to our expectations particularly because Caroline herself was a real live-wire. The next morning saw us starting the long journey home with a short but spectacular hop to Caye Caulker in a large Cessna. Next stop Belize City International and many more before Melbourne.


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