Thinking Beyond the Box – Dolphins Delight

Tourism has embraced Belize big time. Over the last 20 to 25 years the tourist industry has burgeoned by leaps and bounds. It has developed from a peripheral, semi-quixotic business headed by some Hemmingway-esque figures like Ray Auxillou, Chocolate Heredia, Mick Fleming and Hugh Parkey into one of the major money earners in the Jewel.

The tourist world has discovered the abundant natural wonders of Belize and consequently hordes of overnight and cruise travelers (nearly a million a year) have trekked to our shores to partake of those wonders.

To keep the attention of the tourist market Belizean entrepreneurs have expanded and diversified the market appeal beyond the traditional ‘Big 3’: sun – sand – sea. And as the numbers of tourists grow, the industry has been experiencing its own form of “growing pains”. The most prevalent ‘growing pain’ is how to keep the experience fresh.

Demographically the new generation of tourists that come to Belize are better educated, wealthier, better versed in environmental-ecological issues, more sophisticated and more demanding vis a vis quality encounters than the tourists of a few years ago. The hippie backpacker, communal youth hostel, granola-vegie oh-so healthy diet and ganja niche market composed of students and other assorted 20ish wayfarers is still viable but has been emphatically overshadowed by the new generation of upper middle class and nouveau riche travelers who don’t mind spending a pretty penny for quality experiences in foreign countries.

The discerning, well-heeled tourist comes to Belize with high expectations. They come looking for Mother Nature up close and personal. They desire wilderness encounters that they can brag about to their family, friends and colleagues back home. They want to bring back more than the obligatory suntan and sand between their toes.

In this latest series of reviews- blazing new territory- I will be focusing on novel developments in the local tourist market. In this seminal critique the trailblazing Spanish Lookout Caye Lodge is highlighted.

Spanish Lookout Caye is situated about 8 ½ miles from Belize City on a 186-acre twin mangrove island in the Drowned Cayes range and 2 miles west of the Belize barrier reef. The caye is owned and operated by Hugh Parkey Foundation for Marine Awareness and Education. It is one of those new breed of tourist destinations that combine environmental awareness, field work in marine biology, quality diving and close, interactive encounters with four dolphins (2 males Dill, Ronnie and 2 females Mika and Maury) born and bred in captivity; frolicking with Flipper.

When I visited the caye the four dolphins had just arrived there from their former home at an aquatic park in Roatan, Honduras two days before. A priori, I wasn’t expecting much from those aquatic mammals that seem to habitually establish a rapport with man, (check out the 60s TV series Flipper or one of the ‘Free Willy’ movies to see that cross species rapport in cinematic terms).

Sure, two days isn’t much of an acclimation time. But then the dolphins have the equivalent of the Buckingham Palace as their new home. The dolphins have an expansive 4 ½ acre lagoon to cavort around in. Each dolphin has his/her own personal intern trainer plus a marine biologist director that oversees the entire enterprise. That team cares for each dolphin’s every whim and need. They monitor the dolphins’ diet, their weight, their activity level and their moods. Pampered to the max. The life of Riley.

Surprisingly, even though the dolphins had only a couple days prior arrived in their new environs, they had already adapted to their trainers and surroundings and were spontaneously jumping, doing joyous spins in the air and jabbering in dolphin-talk contentedly with each other and their human buddies. The dolphins showed off their tricks impulsively, without prodding. They appeared to be literally “jumping for joy”.

According to the head honcho at Spanish Lookout Caye, the effervescent Teresa Parkey, (widow of the legendary Hugh), who happens to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Belize’s reef and quality dive spots, once the “diving with dolphins” experience gets environmental approval and is underway one can snorkel with dolphins; dive with them in the lagoon. With the animal’s safety in mind the diving tours will be monitored by trained marine behaviorists and if desired by the participant, a videographer is on hand to document the event.

As in the similar aquatic park “diving with dolphins” in Roatan at Spanish Lookout Caye the program should have a “trainer-for-a-day” component, and more than likely a dolphin specialty course. The dolphin programs will offer the rare opportunity for divers and snorkelers to interact with the mammals on their own initiative. A rapport is created by the dolphin’s natural curious instinct. The lagoon dive promises to be the once in a lifetime way to observe the dolphins in their natural habitat, where there is no feeding incentive to prompt interaction with the participants. The snorkeling experience affords more opportunity for physical contact. For those that are non-swimmers there will be a waist-deep water dolphin encounter.

Teresa is in some ways a bridge between the old guard and the innovators. With her vast knowledge of the lay of the sea she can give nonpareil dive experiences, but has insightfully expanded that with an educational component which is geared to the tourist market and significantly to the Primary School students of Belize. She offers educational field trips to students year round. Add to that the distinctive “diving with dolphins” component and you have a tourist destination that is multifaceted and inimitable. Spanish Lookout Caye is definitely blazing new tourism territory. Bravo, Teresa!