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Belize : Ambergris Caye, Reef


Saturday 3rd August Ambergris Caye

Today was our transfer day. We had breakfast outside and the owner said he was going to Belize City himself so offered to be our driver. As he was a born and bred Belizean with lots of connections, he was a mine of interesting information. As we drove out he told us about various things on the way, such as the abandoned opencast mine (not big) that the Chinese had bought for their Olympics. Or the huge gate to nowhere, which was the entrance to a citrus plantation. Recollections of Hurricane Hattie. Tracing antecedents to J or G. Boats- Steve’s ears pricked up and we discussed RIBs, motor boats and such. We saw army (most Belizean men have an army stint) men in the heat and our own army (ahem) unloading at the airport.
We stopped at the Orange Gallery gift emporium to buy a machete (S choice of course) and some slate coasters. Then onwards to Belize City to catch our very civilized Maya Air flight (in total 2 1⁄2 hours drive).
Our check-in was easy, and we did not have a long wait before we were called to our gate. 14 of us were escorted to our small plane on the runaway. We sat so we had a view each side and took off. A lovely, low flight took us over Belize City and its environs, across the bays and islands of the coast, before coming down towards San Pedro (about 20 mins flight). We saw the Blue Hole from a distance.
We came in over the sea and landed at 14.40 on the runway. The heat when we got out was much more, though with a small sea breeze. We collected our luggage from a shed, and then were driven by golf cart to the jetty to catch the boat to Tranquility Bay. Ambergris Caye is the largest of Belize’s 200 Cayes (or islands).
The trip was glorious- we went through the bay outside San Pedro, then cut across through the lagoon like environment fringed with
rushes and hidden occasional houses until we went under a bridge and into the reef-protected sea going north. The water was an amazing colour of pale blue with little white scuds. We could see the edge of the reef, sometimes closer, sometimes further away, as a deep cerulean blue. The sandy
bottom was rarely far away and we saw some larger fish and a variety of birds- frigates, boobies and tropicbirds.
We passed down the Ambergris coastline for 12 miles, seeing a number of resorts on the beach front on the way, including a few with jetties advertising their bars. The coast became less and less busy until after 30 minutes and at the very end of the island (so nearly touching Mexico) we arrived at Tranquility Bay. The resort advertises itself as being the closest to the Belize Barrier Reef and it was indeed a very short distance (a few 100 metres). It is the only resort inside the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve (World Heritage). It is only a stone’s throw from Mexico (Yucatan Peninsula); separated by the ancient Maya dug Bacalar Chica Channel (impressive).
We were met at the Aquarium jetty by the manager who gave us a welcome rum cocktail before taking us to our beachfront cabana- the last in a run of 11. The cool tile floor felt nice underfoot. There was a small kitchen area with a microwave (VERY rusty), kettle, fridge (also rusty), toaster, plates etc. Outside was a small porch and a bowl of water (for cleaning sandy feet before entering).
We were peckish (it was nearly 3pm and we’d not eaten since breakfast) so we headed back towards The Aquarium Restaurant/ Tackle Box Bar, the restaurant/ café/ bar/ PADI dive shop building on the jetty. It was late, but the barman said he could easily get us some food (some nice fresh fish salad) and a coconut cocktail. Outside birds wheeled overhead, hoping to get a meal. Is it all safe to snorkel? We asked and we were told it was all fairly safe within the reef.

Occasionally sharks (usually Nurse) would come up the boat channel, but it was not common.
We were keen to get into the Caribbean for snorkelling, so we changed into our costumes, grabbed our snorkels and walked the 4-foot from our door, across golden sand and into the sea. We took the underwater camera/ camcorder and were really pleased with the results. We headed straight out across the sandy part of the reef until we came across some rocks and cue an amazing profusion of fish.
Now the life cycle of the Scaridae (Parrotfish and Wrasse were originally separately grouped, but its now understood they are the same) is fascinating. They are happy to change colour, markings and gender at any point. They begin life generally as a female (initial phase), often striped or spotted in whites/ browns/ greys, then as a juvenile will start to change markings/ colour to generally, but not exclusively, male (final phase). However, some sneaky males retain their female colour/ marking. This is not the end though, as if the male harem leader dies/ is eaten, one of the female harem will change colour, markings and sex- now she to he is the group leader! Not finished though! An older male can, in time, change colour again to a Super-male (Terminal phase).
An example we saw- Bluehead Wrasse in the initial phase is a yellowy white colour with a black/ dark blue horizontal stripe(s). In the Juvenile to Final phase he turns male and darkens to a yellow green colour with a vivid bright blue head. Or- an initial Stoplight Parrotfish is dark with paler spots, while an adult is greenish with a bright yellow spot. An older male becomes even more vivid in colour.
Parrotfish/ wrasse are probably the most common of reef fish- the species can vary from larger than a human to finger size! They eat algae, scraping it off with their sharp beaks (hence the name). They are diurnal (day time) and sleep inside a protective tube of foul-tasting mucus they secrete (about 20-30 mins) with open ends to allow water to move.
We saw (at least) all the phases of Slippery Dick Wrasse (beautiful final phase of luminescent blue), the initial and medial of Stoplight Parrotfish, all the phases of the Bluehead Wrasse and Striped Parrotfish, as well as Princess and Rainbow Parrotfish and Yellow and Queen Wrasse.
When we’d had enough we went to have a shower, then read our kindles on deckchairs in the warm afternoon sun. By evening the sun was setting and we headed towards The Aquarium. We were not so hungry, so we asked the barman for a coconut cream cocktail. He decided to make an original one for me and it was delicious. He liked it so much, the next day it was written on the board as a Special Offer- Cocotini New! (Vanilla Rum, coconut cream and lime). Whilst drinking we went onto the balcony to see the fish in the floodlights. The eagle rays and stingrays came in to eat several times, but the vast majority were huge barracuda and tarpon. By then we were keen to eat, so went back inside for a supper. After supper we sat in the hammocks outside to office to grab our emails (only area with Wi-Fi). As we headed back to the cabana we saw plenty of Purple Land Crabs scuttling around.

Sunday 4th August Belize Barrier Reef and Snorkelling

We decided we’d spend the day on the beach/ in the water. So after a delicious pancake breakfast, we got our snorkelling stuff and set off towards the closer buoys, which marked the coral heads and canyons. Wow, the fish here, not to mention rays and eels!
Fire coral and a Goby by coral
There are three main types of coral- soft corals, hard corals and stony corals. All corals start life as free-swimming creatures, only to settle into vast colonies that make the coral reefs we swam. Primarily of the soft corals we saw Gorgonion type- branched (like a tree), unbranched (like thin towers), net (like a leaf) and Black type- fan. All these move and sway with the water. Of the hard corals we saw branching (hard tree like), blade (nothing like a blade, more like a set of waves), box fire (the ones where the top looks like a set of open squares), and lace (hard tree with serrated branches). The stony corals are obvious- we saw boulder, mound, knob, encrusting, brain, fleshy, plate/sheet and flower/cup ones. The most stunning were the Staghorn. Some brownish structures that looked like coral were in fact Pinecone Algae. We did see a magnificent example of a fire coral with its red (stinging) tips, which is interesting because each part of the colony
specialises (e.g. Feeding, stinging, sensory).

I spotted several transparent fish and crabs, as well as large hermit crabs and huge conches. After a morning in the sea, we sat on deck chairs for a relax. Several different types of crabs, especially large Ghost Crabs, shot in front of us and, boy, could they dig in quickly! In literally 3 seconds they’d be under the sand and invisible save a couple of eyes poking out.
A small lunch in the Aquarium, then we decided to borrow some fins from the dive shop and go further out to the reef crest and more extensive coral heads and canyons.
More snorkelling and sun sitting, before we decided to go for a late afternoon walk along the beach. We headed north (towards Mexico) along the beach, just where the water lapped at our toes, to the last few Belize houses at the end of the island, before he headed back for a rest, a cocktail (with a Spanish lime aka guinep or kenep base), and dinner. We did notice all the hermit crabs coming from the water and settling on the sides of the cabanas (presumably for the night). We were surprised, not frightened, when a huge lizard skittled out from under a cabana!
Peacock Flounder and Pufferfish. Little Skate, Sharpnosed Eel
Minding our own business over the seaweed beds (just off the reef corals) a movement showed us a cleverly disguised Little Skate. The seaweed beds led to sandy, open water where we came across some bigger fish, a long barracuda, a Tiger Grouper and a Graysby Grouper, as well as larger shoals of Yellow Goatfish and Chromis.
The reef itself was home to so many fish we could not begin to list them- some were tiny, like little Gobies (including the Sharpnose and Pallid), some were huge Groupers hiding in reef caves with their heads out ready to grab prey. Angelfish and Tang were everywhere- in pairs, alone, small groups... (the Blue Tang and Queen were especially colourful), with larger groups of Grunts (Yellow, French and Bluestripe) grazing the shallows. I thought the Damselfish were sweet, usually in pairs- the iridescent Cocoa Damselfish (neon blue and yellow), the vertical striped Sergeant-Major Damselfish that we followed around the reef, the black Dusky, the Longfin and the pretty Bi-Colour Damselfish.
Now I found it quite hard to differentiate between some of the Angelfish, Tang, Damselfish, Butterflyfish and Doctorfish- I suppose they look similar because they fill a similar niche. We saw some Banded Butterflys (very similar to Sergeant- Major Damsels but with 3 stripes instead of 5), Four-eye Butterflys, and Spotfin Butterflyfish as well as a similar Doctorfish (a bit easier as it has a shiny grey body with yellow fins).
At one point, going over a larger part of the reef I spotted a Stonefish- I kept well away. Steve called me over to see a Lionfish in its glory. Soon after, in a reef valley we had separated- I saw a beautifully camouflaged Peacock Flounder while S noticed an equally well camouflaged Sharptail Eel. Other highlights...a pretty red Squirrelfish (from the colour), a fine thin Razorfish, several Bandtailed Pufferfish and a purple and yellow Gramma.

History of Belize Part 3 (British dominance)
The conflict between the Spanish and British to dominate the Central American region continued in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1717 the Spanish expelled British loggers from the Bay of Campeche, but failed to capitalise on their success. Meanwhile British settlers continued to come. By 1763, Treaty of Paris, Spain was forced to concede the right to log the area to the British, whilst it retained overall sovereignty. This was obviously not going to last! Due to the Spanish insistence of sovereignty, the British crown would not establish any government in the area. Obviously however, with Britain so far away, some form of administration was needed, so the settlers began to elect magistrates to enforce laws; possibly as early as 1638, but certainly by 1765 when Burnaby’s Code was written to codify the laws. The British abandoned their settlements until the Treaty of Versailles, 1783, re-established their logging rights (although mahogany logging was taking over). In London Colonel Edward Marcus Despard was made Superintendant of the Settlement of Belize in the Bay of Honduras in 1784 and two years later the Convention of London (Britain and Spain) allowed British settlement and logging, but no right to build forts or farms. But inevitably war broke out- in 1796 the Spanish attacked St George’s Caye, but were driven off. General war in 1797 saw the end of Spanish attempts to control this region, so effectively the British had won.

History of Belize Part 4 (Governance and Colony)
Even though the Spanish claimed regional hegemony and treaties forbade local governance, it was an inevitability. A group of self-elected magistrates held de facto executive and judicial power. A Superintendant continued to be appointed from London, who often clashed with the landowners/ plantation owners. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, 1850, saw an agreement between Britain and America to build a Panama Canal and to
agree not to put colonies in Central America. The British (obviously and perfectly reasonably) took this to mean FUTURE colonies, but the Americans
chose to see if differently (they would!) and ordered the British to leave Belize. In 1853 President Franklin Pierce’s Monroe Doctrine attempt to push an expansionist agenda. We agreed to give up parts of Nicaragua (Mosquito Coast) and the Bay Islands and they agreed we owned Belize (1856 Dallas-Clarendon Treaty). In 1859 the Anglo- Guatemalan Treaty saw Guatemala given up (temporarily as it turned out) their claim on Belize. An agreement between Mexico and Britain in 1893 set the boundary along the Rio Hondo (finalised 1897).
Within these treaties a formal constitution was set up for Belize. The Legislative Assembly (1854) had 18 elected members (requirement £400+ property value) and 3 members appointed by the Superintendant. (Voter requirement- salary £100+ pa OR £7+ property income pa). As the superintendant could dissolve the Assembly, withhold consent to legislative bills and even make his own laws, the Assembly had little teeth. Decisions were effectively made in London by the Colonial Office. Further, there was a mismatch between the interests of the landowners (no tax on land, increased duties, more protection against attacks on their land) and those of the merchant class (more tax on land, lower import/ export duties, no money to protect plantations from raids). This lead to economic stalemate! In the end, the Assembly voted to give up their executive functions and opted for direct rule and crown colony status. So in 1862 the Settlement of Belize was turned into a British colony- British Honduras- run by a Lieutenant-Governor under the Governorship of Jamaica. A new constitution was written, 1871, establishing a Legislative Council with the Lieutenant-Governor, 4 members appointed by him and 5 officials.

History of Belize Part 5 (Independence)
In the 19th century forestry became the predominant export of British Honduras and landowners took ever- increasing control of land and trade. A depression helped remove some settler descendants and small creole traders. The land became concentrated in the hands of companies (particularly the British Honduras Company, later Belize Estate and Produce Company BEPC) with HQs in Europe (mainly Scotland & Germany). These companies dominated the economy and politics for decades. Mahogany and sapodilla (used to make chicle- chewing gum) were logged without any thought of conservation. The Masters and Servants Act 1883 benefitted the landowners, making it a criminal offence to breach a labour contract.
The Creole class began to exert pressure for a bigger say in the politics and economy of the colony. The Great Depression of the 1930s coupled with a devastating hurricane (1931) pushed the colony to the brink. Governor John Burdon rejected bills for a minimum wage and trade unions (1931). This led to demonstrations, strikes, riots, and a nascent independence movement. Antonio Soberanis Gomez’s Labourers and Unemployed Association (LUA) attacked the governor and BEPC, who responded by improving relief work to help hurricane victims (the response from London had previously been lukewarm). The governor legalised trade unions (1941) and removed the crime of breach-of-labour-contract in 1943. The General Workers Union formed a political wing 1949 (in response to a proposed devaluation), the People’s Committee, later the People’s United Party (PUP) 1950 under the leadership of George Price. When the governor, trying to protect the companies interests, proposed the devaluation of the Belize dollar, they saw a chance to move. They asked for constitutional reform, improved suffrage, abolition of the governor’s veto, a ministerial system and the right to have an Executive council run by the majority party. In the 1954 election George Price stormed to victory- of the 70% who voted, over 66% voted PUP. Guatemala, still claiming Belize as its own, attempted to talk to Price to turn Belize into an “associated state of Guatemala”, but he refused, saying he was after independence for Belize (1961). In 1964, Britain gave the Belize government control of internal affairs, keeping defence, foreign affairs and security.
In 1973 British Honduras became Belize and in 1975 the Belize and British governments, worried about Guatemala’s military government’s posturing, took their case to the Commonwealth and UN. They said Belize wished to become self- determining and that Guatemala’s claim that Belize was “lost” territory by grasping colonial powers was rubbish (some Guatemalan maps still show Belize as a 23rd province). Initially Latin America supported Guatemala, but by 1980 most of the area (Mexico, Nicaragua in particular) were on Belize’s side. The UN passed a resolution of independence for Belize. Guatemalan representatives agreed the proposal, but their government refused to ratify it- a situation still not fully secured. In 2008 Belize and Guatemala agreed to take the question to the International Court of Justice- still not done!
Belize became independent on 21st Sept, 1981. Britain left, apart from a small garrison (at Belize’s request). Guatemala did not recognize Belizean independence until 1992.
Modern Politics
There are two main parties in Belize- the PUP (Peoples United Party) and the UDP (United Democratic Party). The leader of the PUP was George Price, and the leader of the UDP was Manuel Esquivel. The parties tend to swing in power, like the Tories and Labour used to in the UK. Quite a number of houses we saw in the Cayo district flew flags belonging to one or other of the parties, though our guide said their policies were very similar.

Posted by PetersF 19:45 Archived in Belize Tagged beaches beach belize

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