Kayaking and Diving in Belize
My watch rang at 4 AM. Luke and I got up and carried the 3 heaviest bags to the road. Luke walked up to the bus station to make sure the bus would stop for us. I carried the rest of our 500lbs of equipment to the road. At 4:45 AM, 15 minutes ahead of schedule, the old express bus slammed on the breaks and backed up to our hill of bags. Luke, helped by the driver and the money collector, loaded the back of the bus while I carried the last things out of our bungalow. We filled all the storage space at the end of the bus, blocking the rear door and forcing people to jump over the gear to move through the bus.
In Belize city, the driver took us directly to the river in front of the courthouse where we wanted to set up. We laid our bags on the dock in front of the amused tourist police. We had received new frames for the bows of our kayaks (we broke them in Baja). The tubes didnt fit exactly and Luke had to cut an inch off to set up his kayak. Luckily one of the waiting boat passengers had just bought a couple of metal saws and sold us one. By the time our kayaks were set surrounded by another 400lbs of gear, Channel 5, the national TV news crew arrived to interview us. They wanted a shot of us paddling out the Belize river. They came back 2 hours later, but we were still struggling to fit all our equipment into dry bags. We thought we had streamlined our gear from Baja, but realized that either we forgot how to pack or we just added to many new things (2 mosquito nets, bugshirts, machetes, one more marine radio, tow rope, etc.). By the time we were packed, we were left with a duffel bag containing the kayak bags and other extra bags we only used for shipping equipment. I walked to the marina and talked to the manager who generously agreed to keep the bag for a month. By 5 PM we were finally ready to paddle.
The first destination I had planned to reach in two days was Rendez-vous cay. In the morning, I thought that a 10 nautical mile paddle to Water cay would be a good way to start after weeks spent on the computers. But at 5 PM, I had to consider something else. We paddled to the only island visible from the city and arrived there at dusk to discover it was only mangrove with no hard soil. In minutes we were attacked by hundreds of mosquitoes, we knew we had no choice but to resume paddling in the dark. Sometimes when you spend days planning the full trip (website and transport of equipment), you forget some of the most basic things. This is what we did. Both Luke and I had assumed the other would have a working flashlight at hand, but we did not. The batteries were buried in a small bag and not accessible.
The sky was overcast and there was no moon. In the dark I couldnt read my compass. We paddled half-hour and I checked the compass with the dull light of my watch. The wind was strong and we drifted back toward the mainland each time we stopped. We were definitely out of shape. Since we had arrived in La Paz in December, our only activities had been working on a computer for the website. Our hands were already severely blistered from gripping the paddle, our muscles in pain and our moral going down. Suddenly the night became even darker. A black mass enveloped us and covered the few stars that were visible. Rain started to fall followed by thunder. We stopped to discuss our options. If we went back to Belize city at night it would mean paddling 6 miles back and sleeping on the dock of a city which had a bad reputation for crime. We could backtrack to our mangrove island, tie our kayaks to some trees and wait all night while being devoured by mosquitoes, or we could paddle all night in a head wind toward an island we didnt know. After a loud third thunder, Luke turned back saying: "This one just made the decision for me". I have to admit it was intimidating. We back tracked for 5 minutes and saw the storm pass to the South. With renewed faith, we decided to turn again and paddle to an island.
In the dark I could not even find the light key of the GPS. We decided to paddle toward a large sugar freighter anchored in the bay. The friendly workers sent us to an island 2 miles off. The problem was that they werent fishermen. They didnt know how to read the map and had no sense of directions. We found that the hard way after paddling an hour toward nowhere. I stopped Luke and decided to change our heading to aim to the nearest cay bordering the coral reef. Even if all we could find there was mangrove, we could paddle on the lee side until we reached an island with a sand beach.
After padding along a mangrove for some time we noticed some lights in the distance. Was it a boat or habitations? While we were paddling toward them, they suddenly all disappeared. We had no more navigation aid, but we knew then that they werent coming from a boat. In total darkness we followed the mangrove shore until Luke spotted a wall of bricks protecting a patch of grassy soil. Finally we had found a place where we could camp. Exhausted from our first paddling day, we pulled up the kayaks and started to hear the barking of a large dog coming closer. We imagined that we had landed on a private island guarded by ferocious dogs, I grabbed a stick to fend off our possible aggressor. A powerful light beam moved toward us. It was Kirk and another student member of a Presbyterian Church organization spending their last day in Belize in the resort located 100 yards away behind the cluster of mangrove trees. They were accompanied by the friendly dog of the caretaker. We were shown much hospitality and quickly fell asleep after what had been a very long first day. We paddled over 5 hours in the dark but were only 8.5 miles away from Belize city. (with all our change of directions, and island circling looking for a campsite, we probably paddled 14 or 15 nautical miles).
Yesterday we arrived on this beautiful little island called Rendez-vous cay. Our island was a strip of sand 200 yards long and 50 yards wide. It had 12 coconut trees, 2 mangrove trees, and two other trees we couldnt identify. It was surrounded by emerald water and coral formations. We shared the island with a dozen of pelicans and two dozen small sanderling birds. In Thailand we had started to learn how to climb coconut trees, but never made it to the top. Here coconut juice was very important to us and we struggled to make our way up those trees.
After drinking coconut juice and taking a nap under the palms, Luke was out of the water after his morning swim and told me about his first encounter with a 6 foot shark he couldnt identify. I went speafishing and brought back a nice Nassau Grouper for lunch. With Lukes special touch, it turned out to be an amazing meal. We barbecued it with palm wood, using the spears to replace a grill, and Luke prepared an amazing sauce.
In the afternoon I returned to the water to look for dinner. I saw 3 majestic spotted eagle rays and then faced a barracuda. With their large mouth and razor sharp teeth sticking out of their half open mouth, they look as mean as they are. It circled me a few times and as we moved toward shallower water, I started swimming slowly toward it. It returned toward deeper water. I stopped and turned back; it then came back right at me. Fishermen all told me, never spear a barracuda if you arent sure you can kill it. When it was very close and I was sure I could spear it in the head, I fired my speargun. After hitting right in the head, the spear bounced off without even drawing any blood. I must have been toward the end of the range for my gun and the barracuda fled uninjured. I came out of the water without dinner but enjoyed the evening on this piece of paradise.
We woke up with to the sound of the water. My boat was bumping up against a pole from the dock we had slept on. The wind had changed direction and it looked like it was going to be a headwind day. When kayaking there is nothing worse than a strong headwind. But when we stop, we thank the wind for saving us from bugs. Locals told us that the sand flies present on most cays are very painful. When attacked, locals stop their work and seek refuge in their shacks. We havent experienced them yet and arent looking forward to them. So everyday we hope for a strong tailwind and try not to complain too much when we have to fight a headwind, its still better than no wind.
We left Colson Cay by 9:15 and paddled the first 9 miles against the wind. Luckily the waves hitting us from 10 Oclock werent big. We were still protected by the Belize coral reef.
After 2 hours our back and shoulder muscles were very sore, but we had only paddled one third of the distance. When we start out, we dont see the next island were going to. We take a compass heading and just paddle toward what seems to be nowhere but an endless mass of ocean. After a few hours, usually about 5 miles from it, a small shape starts to break the horizon. At first it is difficult to see if the island is uncampable mangrove or a beautiful sand and coconut tree island. As we paddle closer, dense vegetation usually means mangrove. After 9 miles and 3.5 hours we landed on the first island. It was a small mangrove with the exception of a very small clearing of sand bearing 3 coconut trees. The place was an abandoned fish camp and we were surprised to find there in the middle of nowhere a basketball goal made of reeds and plywood.
We were dehydrated but after a Clifbar and some water quickly resumed our paddling, chased by ferocious mosquitoes. Again we aimed for an island we couldnt see. Six more miles to Tobacco cay where I had heard the snorkeling was good. When the shape of the island appeared, all I could see was dense vegetation. Its amazing what your mind does to you when youre in the middle of the water, dehydrated and under a powerful and bright sun. At times, I thought I could see coconut trees, then they disappeared into a mass of green just like mangrove would be. The last thing we wanted was to arrive tired and dehydrated on an island where we couldnt camp. We kept forcing the paddles in the water. The wind had died which meant faster paddling but also a much more heat. I stopped every 20 minutes to splash myself. My muscles complained and I even felt like I had visions. Finally Tobacco cay was close enough that I could see a small strip of white sand, or maybe it was just an illusion.
We paddled closer and with great relief, we clearly distinguished the sandy island with many coconut trees. We struggled the last half-hour and arrived on a beautiful island. We werent the first people to discover it. The land was separated into 15 lots with expensive bungalows. People wanted to charge us $10 to sleep in the open next to our kayaks without a tent.
Instead, we paddled out to an amount of dead coral that had been erected as a wall to protect the island. We set up camp just separated by 50 yards of water from the expensive resorts. We set up on sharp pieces of coral while they had the beautiful sand beaches. This island wasnt the paradise we had dreamt of, but at least we were expecting the spectacular snorkeling promised in Belize.
The roles on the expedition have often been established based on skills and interests. I was the hunter, we both gathered and foraged, and Luke was the chef. Since Baja my underwater hunting skills have improved significantly.
By 5 PM, less than an hour before sunset, I was in the water looking for dinner. The coral was disappointing, but I kept swimming in the channel running between a gap in the reef. I knew that marine life often congregate in channels. I had the strong feeling I would encounter a shark. I like sharks, I think they look magnificent underwater. In the Caribbean, sharks can be sighted daily, still we have to feed and fish is our main food, so I try to avoid sharks when I go spearfishing. After a few minutes in the water I sighted my first prey, a nice blue parrot fish 15 feet just below me. These fish are very quick and if given any warning, are always able to avoid the spear. I dove straight down and arrived on the fish from behind in a way it couldnt see me. The first shot was good. I hit it next to the head and the parrot fish bled profusely leaving a thick trail of green. This is the color blood looks like underwater. I quickly grabbed my rope stringer from my right bootie, ran the stringer through the fish gills, unscrewed the tip of the spear to free the fish and let it drag on the rope 10 ft behind me. I really had the feeling sharks were around and I wanted to leave the water and give this bleeding fish to Luke before resuming my hunting. On my way back a huge spotted eagle ray swam by me less than 5 feet away. Its wing span was wider than my arm span. Its tail might have been 10 feet long. It was beautiful and just glided graciously in the water. The next minute, a squid swam by. Without any hesitation I added it to the stringer after barely avoiding the black cloud of ink it threw in the water. When I reached the shallow water, I encountered a large lobster which I grabbed but then released. The season was over and the fine of $1000 wasnt a risk I could afford taking. On shore I called Luke, gave him the fish and squid and returned to the water.
Dusk had come and the visibility was now reduced to 15 feet. In 12 feet of water I spotted my second prey, another blue parrot. The red ones are easy targets but they dont taste nearly as good. I dove in and shot, but the fish saw me at the last minute and moved out. My spear touched it, but the fish came loose and moved all around spreading blood in the water. Back to the surface, I quickly re-set my spear and line, re-stretched my two bungie ropes, and dove back after the injured fish. On the second time I had the fish on my spear, as I was going back to the surface, large gray masses were moving all around me, I feared they were sharks. When I broke the surface, they came closer. I was surrounded by at least 20 or 30 Tarpons that I would estimate to be between 60 to 80 lbs. A few came less than 4 feet from me. I wished my spear was free from the parrot fish and my gun armed. I could have easily touched their head maybe even with my arm. By the time I had the fish on the stringer, the water visibility was less than 10 feet and my fish had been bleeding abundantly. I knew I had to get out of the water quickly. The Tarpons had disappeared. I was still in 12 feet deep water but couldnt see the bottom anymore. I re-armed my speargun and before I could swim one more stroke, a gray mass moved right at me. I aimed my gun thinking it might be a large Tarpon, then I choked on my snorkel, swallowed water and quickly kicked back. A huge gray shark had stopped just 6 feet from me. My two quick fin kicks seemed to have scared him as much as it scared me, so I thought. Before I had made much progress, the shark was back full speed, coming right at me while shaking its head from side to side. In this water with poor visibility, it quickly disappeared. This time I had clearly seen it was bigger than me. In a few seconds it was back again. I was frozen, unable to swim. I knew my bleeding fish was driving it crazy, but I couldnt look down to my hip to unclip the stringer. I was paralyzed, just holding on to my speargun tightly to fend off my aggressor. Each time I lost sight of it I quickly spun around, rotating my self, wondering from what direction it would be coming next. I tried to control myself and slowly swam back to shallow water. The shark came back a few times and nearly touched the tip of my spear, each time moving inches from my fins. I felt completely defenseless with a toy in my hand. I was the prey and my chance of escaping seemed smaller every time.
For some reason the shark didnt even get my fish, maybe because the string had been entangled around my leg and the fish was moving in the water even more than my fins. With the fins kicking next to the blood, maybe it thought I was the bleeding animal. I will never know. By the time I reached 6 feet of water it must have been only 2 minutes since the first encounter. I was completely out of breath, but dashed for the shore still swimming on my back aiming the speargun toward deeper water. Both my calves cramped up under the tremendous pressure I put on my long fins, but my adrenaline boost was much superior to the pain of the cramps. In 30 inches depth, loosing all the panic I had contained in the water, I removed my fins and ran out of the water, ripping my neoprene booties on the coral. I was completely exhausted, out of breath and very nauseated. I walked back toward camp in a stage of ¸ shock and ¸ high on adrenaline. Before I could do anything, I had to walk back and forth around camp to discharge all my emotions. Then in the dark, I skinned the squid and cut it in thin slices of sashimi while Luke fixed us a sauce of ginger and soya. It was marvelous. We finished dinner with Lukes special rice and the delicious flesh of the parrot fish. Then exhausted after such a long day I fell asleep.
In the middle of the night rain woke us up. We quickly pulled out our goretex bivis and stuffed our mats and sleeping bags in them. By the time we were protected under our shells, the rain had already almost stopped. It wasnt a great night.
For years Ive been trying to dispel the myth of Jaws. I like sharks and have been in the water with various species a number of times. I really think theyre fascinating. Before this event, I had never felt threatened in any way in their presence. When I think about what happened, all I can say is that I made a few mistakes. I went spearfishing at dusk which is the time shark feed. I was free diving alone which isnt advised, but in our case we make a living from the sea and cant always dive together, and the second diver often spooks the fish. Also I knew that channels were a prime spots for sharks and rays. This was reinforced by sighting the eagle ray. My first fish had bled a lot for 15 minutes before I came out of the water to give it to Luke. This might have already attracted the shark to the area. It took me 2 shots for the second fish and by the time I had it on my stringer, it had also bled profusely and the shark was of course very excited by all the blood. Still the shark was probably more interested by the fish than me. What made me think otherwise then was both fear and the fact that my stringer rope had been entangled in the knife I was wearing on my left calf. The fish followed the movements of my fin just inches from it. The shark might have even thought that the blood was coming from those long flippers which were mine. I dont know for sure. Also considering the size of the head and body of the shark, and its gray color without any particular marking. In spite of the low visibility, I strongly believe it was either a "small" bull shark or a large lemon shark. Both species are known to be aggressive, especially around speared fish.
This morning I jokingly asked Luke: "So, whos going spearfishing today?" But in spite of my last experience, I will go back because this shark wasnt there to get me. It was just enraged by the blood I left too long in his water during his feeding time.
We left Tobacco cay and paddled south to the next island. We met up with Louisa and Tanya, two women who had come with their own Feathercraft kayaks to paddle 2 weeks in Belize. We stopped half way between the island for a swim in crystal clear water. We spotted a nice black tip shark. I like those as they are usually not aggressive. Looking for conch shells, I found a giant hermit crab. We collected a few conch shells and resumed our paddle. We feared we wouldnt be welcomed on Southern cay where expensive resorts catered mainly to organized tours, but when we landed on the north end, the owner of the property was a very friendly man called Jorge. Not only did he grant us permission to camp on his land, but also he taught us how to extract the conch from their shells. After mentioning my scary shark encounter, he told me that the best thing to do in that situation (in addition to letting the bleeding fish go), was to unscrew the tip of the spear and shoot the shark. Without a tip it would not injure it and infuriate it, but it would show him that we could be dangerous and scare it away. Ill try to remember that the next time, as we seem to sight sharks daily. They represent no real threat as long as I dont drag a speared fish next to them. The problem is that we rely on fish to survive and I go in the water once to twice a day to spear fish. There is just no way around it.
In the late afternoon I went to look for dinner for 4 people. Louisa bought some rum and limes, Luke was going to cook, but I had to come back with enough fish. I donned my freediving equipment, this added a bit of pressure to my mind. I couldnt help but to visualize my experience of the previous day. Although it was 4 PM and the sun was still bright, I entered the water with anxiety. The reef was nice, but the waves of the rising tide were pounding it, shaking me back and forth between the sharp columns of coral. After 5 minutes I speared my first blue parrotfish. It jerked a bit on my spear before I could stick my fingers in its gills and subdue it. Already there was more blood in the water than I had wished. I decided not to lose any time with the stringer and just swam to shore to hand the fish to Luke. Returning to the water, I crossed the path of another beautiful spotted eagle ray. It reminded me of the day before and I couldnt help but to nervously look all around me constantly. I shot my second parrotfish in the spine. It bled profusely but came loose from the spear and retreated to die under a rock leaving a cloud of blood in the water. Scared, I quickly swam away against the current. It really was a remake from my previous shark experience which I didnt care to live again. Five minutes and 100 yards farther, I speared a third parrot fish and the same thing happened. I really felt cursed and with all the blood that had been spilled in the water, I seriously considered ending my spearfishing for the day. I swam up current and slowly started to get back toward shallower water when I came across 2 large silvery fish. They quickly swam by me. I didnt know what they were, but they looked good to me and one would suffice for dinner. One swam behind a large rock, I dove and waited for it underwater behind the rock, as it cleared the rock, my spear went through its gills killing it instantly. I left the water happy not to have to dive any longer. I was in the water for less than ¸ hour, but today I was scared and nervous all the time. I felt bad about killing two fish I didnt bring back. I think it will take me a few days to come over my close encounter with an aggressive shark.
Luke prepared some of the conch in ceviche and some sautŽed with garlic. It was delicious. The large fish I speared was a Chub. Jorge didnt seem to fancy it, but we liked its firm flesh. We also improved our coconut tree climbing techniques and collected a few to supplement our meal.
In the evening we met two friendly Garifuna nicknamed God and Lion. We spent a few hours talking about their culture, music and traditions, the changes happening with modernization. They were on the island to build a house for a rich owner. They taught us various techniques to efficiently open old coconuts. They also invited us to meet them in their hometown of Dangriga where they would show us more about the Garifuna lifestyle.
Southern cay in spite of its expensive lodges comes close to the definition of paradise. The water surrounding it is beautiful. On the ocean side, the reef has some nice coral that survived the hurricane Mitch. In the channel live a wide array of marine life including beautiful spotted eagle rays, schools of large Tarpon fish, Sharks, lobsters, and many colorful fish. Inside the lagoon in very shallow water, schools of barracuda can be spotted every time. Most are fairly small, but weve seen a few that looked bigger than us. They usually circle you a few times but arent aggressive unless you have speared fish or if you try to spear them.
On the south end of the island is the IZE, International Zoological Expeditions educational center and lodge. There we met Mac and Jennifer, the managers of the place. We spent time in their library studying some of the local edible and medicinal plants and studying a few fish. Jennifer showed us the few edible plants growing wild on the island. Really this island looked to be a Paradise.
Of course, everything has a reverse side. We understood it when our Garifuna friends showed us a large motor boat from Colombia. They told us those usually carry tons of cocaine and that one of the owners of land on the island is believed to be a big buyer. I guess this explained why the small deep sea fishing boats are all equipped with powerful engines and longer range gas tanks than they would ever need.. I wouldnt think that 450 horse power engines for a small boat were really necessary for game fishing day trips.
On the bright side, most of the people on the island seem unaffected by whats going on in the nearby waters. Before leaving the island, I went spearfishing for my first barracudas. I didnt target any of the big ones. Those fish are very fast, and even the small ones speared in the head will give a good fight. I came out of the water with 3 barracudas and a good size snapper. In addition, Luke brought back a few conch. Again we dined in style.
Our last day on South Water Cay, we met Riley, a great guy with a great cowboy hat. We learned later that he was actually a cowboy when he was younger. Riley is both a hunter and fly fisherman who enjoys the outdoors and has a great knowledge and respect for nature. Our conversations with him were interesting from the beginning. We talked about his effortsto support the local community by helping them start guiding programs and other Eco-tourism activities which will proviede viable and sustainable uses of their land. He himself organizes Hobie Cat tours to the Cayesand employs various people part-time to give something back to the local community. Riley offered to let us stay at his place in a small Garifuna town called Hopkins so we decided to go.
From South Water we paddled 1/2 a mile to Carrie Bow Cay where we met Hedel, a very friendly and interesting architect who defected from Cuba. The day after, we left his island under sail. Our second kite kayaking test was actually the first time we were able to sail any distance with our kites. We managed to cover 2 nautical miles in less than a 1/2 hour with one kite pulling both kayaks (and the drag of a pair of seawings) before the wind died. Without any harness, my arms also died and I had a tough time paddling the remaining 13 miles to Hopkins in the heat. Stay tuned for the the full story. I just wrote a piece about kite kayaking to be submitted to magazines and which I'll post on the site after publication. In the meantime, check the photos.
We were lucky to land directly on Riley's beach which we recognized becuse of his huge catamaran raft he had used on many expeditions, to descend the Colorado and sail the Sea of Cortez, etc. We chilled out for a day and enjoyed the serenity of the town. Garifuna people are very friendly. The kids are very nice and happy to help without ever begging or pestering us to buy some of their oranges or coconut bread. Everybody in town knows Riley. It seems like he is everybody's friend. He introduced us to a woman called Sarita and recommended that we buy some of her home-made rolls. She bakes using the traditional method of her ancestors. Read Luke's cooking page to know more.
From Hopkins, Riley took us and his two customers Keith and Plaegean to the Jaguar Reserve. We walked up-river, swam into pools and walked by giant mahogany trees. We didn't see any jaguars. They are very elusive and we didn't expect many wildlife sightings in the middle of the day but as we walked back, I came across a cat-likeTayra.
Back at the entrance of the park, Riley introduced us to his friends Ernesto and Aurora Saqui. Leaders of a small Mayan community, they are trying to organize themselves to find a viable and sustainable use of the land to preserve both the rainforest and their Mayan culture. Aurora is a Mayan healer and Ernesto a guide and strong conservationist. They are working on projects that could benefit the Mayan community in the future. We spent a couple of days with them and learned much about medicinal plants and the Mayan culture. We are working on a few articles about the traditional healers of Belize and the preservation of their culture. Those will be posted after submissions to publications.
Back to Hopkins we met Pietro, and Italian Anthropologist writing his thesis on the natural medicines of the Garifuna. Pietro will soon contribute to our website with entries in the cultural section.
After days preparing all the file updates for the website and enjoying our stay with Riley, we paddled back south and camped on a patch of sand we found in the middle of mangrove. We collected a dozen young coconuts and drank their juice until our stomachs were about to blow up. We were happy, but our state of happiness didn't last long. As the sun set, the wind died and we were attacked by hundreds of sandflies. We retreated under our mosquito net, but not without any bites. The sandflies usually attack our feet, ankles and lower legs. They leave read dots that look like chicken pox and itch terribly. The natives seem used to them, some don't mind, some still suffer, the tourists on the other hand look like they are prime prey for the tiny blood sucking black flies. Luckily it's the windy season and we don't have to deal with them all the time. We would go crazy.
We filled up our bottles with the remaining coconut juice. Since last night we opened 12 coconuts which yielded a gallon and half of coconut juice. We love coconuts. The juice is delicious and very healthy. To know more check our page on coconuts. We started paddling toward Placencia at good speed (4 knots). By mid day, I was suffering from mild heat stroke. It was enough to lose my breakfast. We stopped on a small mangrove island where I cooled off in the water for 1/2 an hour before resuming paddling. We landed on a nice beach with bungalows a little north of Placencia. A couple came out to great us with interest. Reuben and his wife invited us for lunch.
We paddled ten more minutes south to a nice bungalow complex we heard had an internet service. We met the owner Kitty and negotiated a nice 3 room bungalow for a couple of days and all the internet connections necessary to update our website. Placencia is a cute little town with a beach dotted with coconut trees. Kitty's is the class of the field as far as lodging goes and is located just north of town and offers an internet cafe with delicious food.