Outstanding guides show us the best Belize has to offer in birdwatching, fishing and scuba diving
BY JIM COCHRANE, EDMONTON JOURNAL NOVEMBER 20, 2010
Hanging upside down in our overturned sea kayak, we were desperately trying to remember our guide's recent instructions -- "Pull the 'Oh s--t' tab and if you can't find it, punch out your spray skirt with your knees."
This was the part that I secretly feared when my wife, Kathryn, and I planned our trip to Belize.
It was clear from the information on the Island Expeditions website that we would be tipping our kayaks, escaping and eventually getting back in as part of our trip, but being in my 70s, sporting a hip replacement and having never kayaked before, I was a bit apprehensive. But, under the watchful eyes of the staff, we were successful in righting our kayak and climbing safely back in. Whew.
This was the second part of a trip that we had booked with Island Expeditions in March of this year. For the first leg we spent three days at Birds Eye View Lodge, located on the shores of the Crooked Tree Lagoon in Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Belize.
From our balcony the lagoon looked to be blanketed with thousands of birds. And a trip on the water in a small boat brought us within camera range of many varieties of birds. The Jabiru stork is just one of over 250 resident and migrating bird species commonly seen around the lodge. We saw 27 varieties in two days there. This is truly a birdwatcher's paradise, with birders from all over the world coming to Crooked Tree nature reserve.
The next day we boated 20 km upriver to the Lamanai Mayan site, spotting lots of birds and animals along the way. Our outstanding guides were able to spot some tiny creatures such as a Jesus Christ lizard (they run across the top of the water) to turtles, crocodiles and many birds as we cruised along at about 35 km/h. Also along the river were locals fishing from everything from outboard powered craft to dugout canoes.
There are 21 Mayan sites throughout Belize, and one of our day trips was a visit to the Altun Ha ruins. This is where the famous Jade Head -- "the Jewel of Belize" -- was found in 1968 by David Pendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum. The head, 14.9 cm high and weighing 4.42 kg, was kept for several years in Ontario, but has been back in Belize for some time, and this year it is being toured throughout the country.
For the last part of our trip, we were driven to Belize City, where we caught a large, fast boat that took us 80 km to Half Moon Caye (pronounced key), the last island in the world's second-largest reef, behind only the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
We spent a week on Lighthouse reef, living in standup tents with wooden floors, a coal oil lamp, and a regular bed. The accommodations were basic -- an outdoor toilet, sun-heated water for showers -- but comfortable, with minimal effect on the environment. Island Expeditions has an arrangement with the Belize Audubon Society, which is in charge of the 2.6-sq.-km. area on and around the Caye.
The highlight is the red-footed booby and magnificent frigatebird nesting areas, the reason for establishing the nature reserve in the first place.
Dive boats come ashore on the opposite side of the island to our camp, register with the Audubon Society to go to the Blue Hole, a large underwater sinkhole, have lunch on the beach and head to the nesting viewing stand.
There were 10 travellers in our group: two other Canadian couples and four American ladies. We were the oldest, but we soon became friends with our fellow adventurers.
The staff were very knowledgeable and personable local Belizeans with one New Zealander, team leader Jamie Sharp, who has been working from Canada for about seven years.
On our second day of this leg of the trip, the whole group kayaked over 11 km to the Blue Hole. After a kilometre and a half, Kathryn and I lagged behind the group, so one of the staff in an accompanying motor boat picked up our rope and towed us to the front of the gang, as they did for some of the others as well.
The Blue Hole, a heritage site made famous by marine scientist Jacques Cousteau, is a perfectly circular limestone sinkhole about 145 metres deep. It is surrounded by a reef, which we snorkelled around.
This is a popular spot for recreational scuba divers, who go down to see remaining stalactites and stalagmites. But some of them reported that it is quite dark and there was not much else to see. Our group snorkelled around the surrounding reefs and encountered lots of coral and small fish.
On our way back from this outing, our kayaks were outfitted with sails. The sailing was a little tricky at first, but much easier than having to paddle the whole distance back.
We snorkelled every day at various places, sometimes right off shore at Half Moon Caye where there were many very colourful corals, sponges, conch and fish, and we preferred snorkelling over the shallower reefs that gave us a closer view of them all. With staff also in the water and in a nearby boat, we felt very comfortable.
One day, several of us went fishing, and although I took my own little spinning rod along, I soon switched to the "native" way of towing a hand line wound around a piece of cork and baited with smaller fish, conch and shrimp.
Although I was unlucky, our group did catch quite a few barracuda, which were delicious, and several other large fish, including an 11-kg grouper and a very large tarpon, which was thrown back "because they are too bony."
The fish were cooked by the chef, who had previously worked with a cruise line.
It was a little embarrassing to be beaten by the four American ladies in our group, who outfished me.
They were quite happy to joke that they were just getting even for our Olympic hockey teams' victories over their squads.