Bacalar Chico Marine and Wildlife Reserve

Bacalar Chico One of Belize's newest reserves encompasses an area of sixty square kilometers. Accesible only by sea, Bacalar Chico Marine and Wildlife Reserve, is at the northern tip of Ambergris Caye overlooking the Bay of Chetumal and Mexico. The ranger station is located amidst the ruins of Chac Balam, which was an important Maya trading center. Fifteen hundred years ago these same Maya cut the narrow channel that separates Ambergris Caye from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Diving opportunities are spectacular. Tours to Bacalar Chico can be arranged through local tour guides. Dress lightly, wear a bathing suit, repellant and/or sunscreen, comfortable shoes or sandals, sunglasses, and a hat.

Bacalar Chico is bounded on the north by the Belize/Mexico border and the channel, and a southern boundary marked by the point from San Juan to Robles Point, including a portion of Chetumal Bay and a little beyond the reef. The towns of Corozal, San Pedro, and Sarteneja are cooperatively involved.

Click here for the Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve website.

The Bacalar Chico Project is geared toward sustainable use and development of this unique area of North Ambergris Caye due to a variety of exceptional factors: at Rocky Point the reef touches the shore; the green sea turtle and the loggerhead nesting site between Robles and Rocky Point; the offshore marine habitat once known as a breeding area for Queen conch; and the seasonal spawning bank for the nassau and yellowfin groupers; the high diversity of terrestrial and vegatation zones.

A ranger station and visitors center has been established about a mile from the border. Rangers can advise to the closed fishing areas. The new reserve is diverse. It is home to seven Maya sites of which only one has been excavated, the puma and jaguar (both endangered species), and an abundance of flora and fauna.


The Bacalar Chico EDECO Project involves an Eco-tour and an educational awareness program. The educational and awareness program is planned for primary schools and the public in the neighboring communities of Sarteneja and Corozal. Also, Bacalar Chico wants to develop an Eco-tour through coordinated efforts between Bacalar Chico and the guides of Sarteneja, Corozal and San Pedro.

Recently Green Reef, with the assistance of a London based volunteer group, Trekforce, spent six weeks working tirelessly to cut and clear an eighteen-kilometer nature trail at the Bacalar Chico National Park. The group of young men and women took on the task of making the nature trail a possibility; they even lodged at the park making themselves their very own palapa that they call “the ark.” For more information on the Bacalar Chico Trails, click here.

Bacalar Chico was established in June of 1996. Its main responsibilities include sustaining the use of resources, while providing protection to endangered and threatened wildlife. The responsibilities also include providing a place for recreational activities, research and conducting educational outreach programs.

Bacalar Chico's cultural resources, Ancient Monuments and its biodiversity will be the focus of the Eco-tour and the educational outreach program. We hope to explain the significance of these resources and how they make an impact on the communities.

The staff of Bacalar Chico has been involved with biological surveys, developing educational aids and work related training since 1995. Biological monitoring had included crocodile surveys, turtle nesting surveys, fishing pressure, coral cover surveys, birds and other wildlife surveys. The EDECO Project will enable Bacalar Chico to reach beyond its boundaries with its educational and awareness programs.

Bacalar Chico's plans for this year include the construction of palapas and barbecue grills for the guard station, and the purchase of kayaks and snorkel gear for the enhancement and future of the Eco-tours.

The Eco-tours will cover a variety of diverse habitats, exclusive only to this remote and spectacular part of Ambergris Caye. The tour will incorporate mangroves, Mayan sites, lagoons, artificial reef, forest trails, sinkholes, and the second largest Barrier Reef in the world. Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve is lucky enough to have a unique phenomenon where the coral reef touches the coast, at Rocky Point, and the beaches are a nesting area for two types of turtles, the Green Sea Turtle -and the Loggerhead Turtle. This Eco-tour. will offer an enjoyable insight into the interesting wildlife of Belize.

The ultimate result of this project will be the increased protection and preservation of our heritage sites and a greater awareness of the Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve its wildlife and its goals.

The Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve (BCNP & MR) were established in 1996 and is managed by the Fisheries and Forest Departments. The BCNP & MR are a part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, which was nominated in 1996 as a World Heritage Site under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. The 41 square mile protected area is located on the northern portion of Ambergris Caye bordering Mexico along with associated reef tract on the east and an area of the Cheturnal Bay on the west.

The reef lagoon has extensive sea grass beds and patch reefs. The fore reef has high relic spur-and-grove for- mations and a double reef crest in the north. It is a luxuriant portion of the second largest barrier reef in the world and is noted for its deep water conch population, and spawning ground at Rocky Point for Nassau and Yellow- fin Groupers.

The objectives of the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve are: to ensure the health of the fishery stock, regulate water sports, conduct monitoring and assist in research. provide job opportunities to tour guides and a venue for recreational activities, prohibit illegal fishing and to deter other illegal activities which may be detrimental to the health of the flora and fauna.

This reserve is situated on the northern most tip of Ambergris Caye and is only accessible by boat. The region encompasses intraisland lagoons, mud flats, sink holes, mangroves forests, savannahs, semideciduous forest and is home to many different animals. There are about eight different Mayan sites in the Bacalar Chico area two of which, San Juan and Chac- balam) have been partially excavated and have been made somewhat accessible by trails. Bacalar Chico Rangers are presently working on establishing an eco-tour of the reserve in order to generate funds to help with the upkeep of the reserve, to provide business opportunities for tour guides in San Pedro and on the mainland and to educate the public about the reserve.

On Sunday, February 23rd, 1998, Dylan Gomez of Bacalar Chico conducted a tour of the reserve and explained the plans they have to develop the Bacalar Chico eco-tour. He mentioned that tour guides from X'calak, Sartenja and Corozal have expressed their interest in carrying out this eco-tour and that San Pedro tour guides need to be encouraged and made aware of the gold mine sitting in their back yard. Gomez also said that they were working on having the Statutory Instrument which states the boundaries of the reserve amended so that the Santa Cruz Mayan site could be included in the reserve.

The site borders Bacalar Chico. Gomez said that he has received suggestions from tour guides and would like to know what guides would need in order to conduct a tour of the reserve. Several guides have requested a palapa or picnic area and accommodations for guests for overnight trips. Gomez said that they would try to do what was in their capacity and while they would like to be able to provide overnight accommodations such would not be available for some time.

The tour Gomez conducted was of the northern leeward side ofthe island, the Bacalar Chico Ranger's station. the area along Billy's Island and Cayo Chelem (which belongs to Mexico) and the Bacalar Chico Channel, which separates Mexico from Ambergris Caye - Belize. This channel is said to have been originally dug by the Mayans to allow easy access to Mexico on their trade route and then later dredged by Mexicans. The channel is also said to have been used by pirates and buccaneers.

Patches of dwarf red mangrove (dwarf because of the lack of phosphate in the soil in certain areas), white and black mangrove line the channel. Traveling along the channel east to west Mexican mangroves are on the left and Belizean mangroves are on the right. The boat ride although slow. is great for bird watching. Great blue herons, white ibis, egrets and other magnificent birds are commonly sighted along the channel. One inlet along the Bacalar channel leads to the "seven positas" or seven little pools. These "positas" are seven holes that lead into one great cavern. The area is ideal for snorklers and divers. Snapper, Needle fish and southern sting rays are plentiful.

The second inlet along the channel leads to Rio del Bacalar, into the Bacalar Chico Lagoon, through Rio de Cantena and then into Laguna de Cantena. The Bacalar Chico channel leads out into the sea to the Barrier Reef. On the front side of the reserve is the Bacalar Chico station that was built by Raleigh International. The station is situated only about 8 minutes away from X'calak.

The sensitive ecosystem, however, can be threatened by development degradations and possible pollution. Any development that causes damage and disturbs the natural beauty of a marine reserve contravenes Section 9 A, Subsection 3 of the Fisheries Act Chapter 174 of the Laws of Belize. All marine reserves are protected by this legislation.

The recent construction of a bulk- head by Ambergris Caye Company within the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve has violated this and the Fisheries Department will take the appropri- ate action to address this issue. Monitoring will be conducted by the Con- servation Compliance Unit (CCU) of the Fisheries Department so as to ensure that incidents of this nature are not repeated in the future.

One of the CCU's main responsibilities is to monitor all developments in the coastal zone. The general pub- lic is asked to assist in the protection of our valuable resources by reporting to the Fisheries Department any development that may seem to be causing damage to the marine environinent.

The Fisheries Department can be contacted at the following telephone numbers: 02-44552/32623.

For more on Bacalar Chico, click here.

Tour guides that are interested in learning more about Bacalar Chico and the eco-tour are asked to contact Dylan Gomez or Aurial Samos through the Hol Chan Marine Reserve office in San Pedro Town at 226-2247.

One man's visit to the park!

Ambergris Caye and the New Bacalar Chico National Park

After visiting numerous offices in Belize City and Belmopan, I was eager to get back out to the cayes to see the new and proposed marine reserves. My first port of call was San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, where I headed to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve Office, on Caribe Street. Everyone going out to the reef should pay a visit here first. The staff consists of mostly young, highly educated Belizeans whose tremendous enthusiasm, together with the superb displays and news of the latest projects, will enable you to get the most out of your visit.

Dylan Gomez, a biologist working in the newly declared Bacalar Chico National Park, is helping develop the park's management plan. This will include provision for certain areas to be open to non-motor craft only. Visitors will transfer from larger skiffs to canoes, minimizing disturbance in the narrow, shallow mangrove lagoons and channels, Gomez says.

The park, which opened officially August 23, 1996, comprises a 15,000-acre marine reserve and 12,000 acres of terrestrial reserve. A headquarters building with office space for a marine biologist, a terrestrial biologist, and two marine rangers has been completed, and a visitor center (with composting toilets) is being built. The concrete jetty and walkway here are remnants of the former Pinkerton Estate which once held much of the land in this area.

At present the park is accessible only by sea, from points on Ambergris Caye, from Sarteneja and elsewhere on the mainland off the Bay of Chetumal (several hours by boat), and from the Mexican port town of X'calak, only about 25 minutes away by boat.

I joined Gomez on a visit to Bacalar Chico, calling at a remote fisheries monitoring station where officials check that catches are within legal limits. Green and loggerhead turtles come ashore to nest between Rocky Point and Robles Point. This alone would be sufficient reason to establish the reserve; more loggerheads nest here than anywhere else in Belize and the only other significant nesting site is a small area on Half Moon Caye. There are at least 187 species of birds, including many Yucatán endemics, and the 40 mammal species include all five of Belize's cats.

Many hope that the park rangers will be granted the powers of Fisheries Officers, providing much-needed support in monitoring and enforcement of the law.

The park also has several Maya sites. We visited the site of San Juan, near the northwest corner of Ambergris Caye. The site was an important transshipment point in Maya times, and the ancient sea wall is clearly visible beneath the surface. The beach must have been a scene of bustling activity at one time, as goods were unloaded from canoes paddled down the rich, heavily populated river valleys of Belize, and transferred to large trading canoes, capable of sea journeys. Plenty of goods must have been damaged, too - visitors will scrunch over an entire beach made of broken pottery. San Juan is set to be the site of the new ranger station and visitor center. The park's northern boundary is the Bacalar Chico channel, a narrow, mangrove-lined canal, dug and cleared by the Maya to avoid a long journey around the southern tip of the caye. Mexico, on the other bank, is so close that if you're in a boat you can almost touch the mangroves on either side - there is a strong chance that a comparable area of Quintana Roo will also be declared a national park by the Mexican government.

San Pedro's tour guides, who stand to benefit most from the park, are keen supporters, but fishermen also see the advantage of increased protection for vital breeding areas in the mangroves. Daniel Nuñez, who leads tours to Maya sites in the park says "We need more protected areas, and the rules need to be enforced. My brother is still a fisherman, and he's trying hard to save mangroves on his land, but people have come and cut them down, trying to squat on the land."

Changa Paz, of Amigos del Mar dive shop, even suggests a moratorium on lobster and conch fishing, to allow stocks to recover, and hopes for a southward extension of Hol Chan Marine Reserve, to join with the proposed Caye Caulker Marine Reserve.

That is a sentiment echoed by Chris Allnatt of Blue Hole Dive Center. Both guides are determined to play their role in conservation on Ambergris Caye. Paz has installed dozens of mooring buoys near the reef (at US$250each), both at his own expense and helped by donations, and Allnatt recently organized a beach clean up. "The amount of plastic garbage was incredible," he says. "Although a lot of it is thrown overboard from passing ships, much is generated within the town. Proper enforcement of the new litter laws, with big fines, would make people respect the law, and the message would get across. The same message could be applied to the fishing regulations."

Other San Pedranos, who don't wish to be named for fear of repercussions, told me that in many cases the people who catch illegal fish and lobster are protected from prosecution by political and family influence. The clear message was that while most people support increased legislation to protect the marine environment, they felt that the government was not doing enough to enforce the existing laws.

This seems to be particularly relevant with respect to the Mangrove Regulations, 1989, which prohibit any "alteration" of mangroves on any land except with a permit. Simon Zisman, a British geographer working in Belize, has recently completed the second edition of his highly recommended Directory of Belizean Protected Areas and Sites of Nature Conservation Interest. In this book, whenever he writes that a site's mangroves are "protected by Forestry Department regulations" the statement is almost always accompanied by the words "although the relevant regulations are not being enforced." I would have thought by now that everyone in Belize was convinced of the importance of protecting mangroves. They provide essential breeding grounds and nurseries for commercially important fish; mangroves and the adjacent seagrass beds retain and filter sediment from river runoff, increasing the clarity of water on the reefs; they are the first line of storm defence, absorbing the power of the wind. For these and many other reasons studies have shown coastal mangroves to have a economic value ranging from US$9,000 to $25,000 per acre.

In Belize I've read leaflets, listened to seminars and workshops and even attended a week-long conference dedicated to showing the tourism industry the economic and conservation importance of mangroves, yet everywhere mangroves are cut indiscriminately. What's going wrong? I visited Rafael Manzanero, a senior Forest Officer, in the Conservation Division of the Ministry of Natural Resources in Belmopan, to find out. He said there is a need to raise public awareness: "This worked some years ago, when the Mangrove Regulations were initiated, but interest has slowed down recently. We're having a new, nationwide campaign on the need to apply for a permit before mangroves are cut, and at the same time the existing regulations are being strengthened, with higher application fees and heavier fines for non-compliance. At the moment the application fee does not cover the necessary site visit, costing us money we should be spending on conservation work."

In a workshop across from his office he showed me several huge new signs advising anyone thinking of cutting mangroves to get a permit first. The education campaign is under way. It remains to be seen if real enforcement will follow.

I'll let Simon Zisman have the last word on mangroves - for the moment. "Belize is globally important for its reef. There should, therefore, be a presumption against development in the coastal zone...unless it provides Belize with economic benefits that are high and sustainable in comparison to the value of mangroves and other coastal environments being converted."

Click here for information on volunteers and volunteering at Bacalar Chico.

Click here for information on the conservation of Bacalar Chico.

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