Edited by Naturalight Productions
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From where I sit under the shade of a palm tree on the Placencia shore, the Caribbean Sea appears calm -- rippled, but not rough -- and beckoning. The to-and-fro motion of the waves, reminiscent of a hula dancer, tells me that there's nothing to worry about, that a world of wonder lays waiting for me, ready to welcome my arrival. I can feel the inspiration that will get my new project out of my head and unto paper. Let's go already. I think as my impatience grows. The sea has charmed me under her spell and I'm ready to go to her.
Water taxis from nearby Mango Creek/Independence Village have begun their hourly commute to the Placencia pier. A bus awaiting its departure time, stands idle nearby. Small boats moored on the pier and close to the shore announce Placencia's fishing heritage. For the tenth time, I review the contents of my beach tote: towel, pareo, flip flops, pens, journal, sandwiches and drinking water. What's taking them so long? I'm eager to go.
After what feels like an eternity, Brian Young, a fisherman and active member of a community group called Friends of Nature, comes strolling out of the beach side office. "Friends" are the ones sponsoring this familiarization trip. I'm just tagging along in search of a quiet place to sit down and write. Judging from the diving and snorkeling gear the other passengers are loading unto the boat, I will be alone on that quest.
Once aboard the fiberglass skiff, my eyes are transfixed on the sea. I don't want to miss a thing. Looking around at the dozen or so passengers, I silently hope that this little island can accommodate all of us. As our boat hums away from the shore, I look back at Placencia Point. People are still milling about and someone has already taken my place at the palm tree. When the captain changes gear sending the boat forward at full speed to battle the Caribbean's waves, the Placencia shore shrinks like a lover at an airport.
Now this is the part I hadn't anticipated. The sea's waves are like a crowd of people jumping up in excitement as we pass, hands outstretched and throwing handfuls of water at us in the boat. In no time we are all soaking wet. Contrary to what I had seen from the shore, this is quite a bumpy ride. Brian leans over to tell me the ride's not so rough when the sea is calm. The captain's tan and his bleached hair tell me that he is experienced with the sea, so I just close my eyes, hold on tight and endure the ride.
At one point when I open my eyes, the boat is in an uproar over a group of dolphins that are swimming towards Placencia Point and Independence Village. To the seafarers who traverse these waters daily, dolphin and manatee sightings are an all too familiar treat but to the visitors, it is a moment to treasure. When they disappear, I notice a brightly shining sun in an almost cloudless sky that makes the aqua marine colored water sparkle. Inspiration is fast to come: "She's like the waves, determined and persistent. That's the best way he could describe her". I already have the first lines for my book. This is great!
When next I open my eyes, palm trees dance to the sound of the Caribbean Sea and a shimmering white beach welcomes a boatful of visitors to Laughingbird Caye. Wow, what a sight! I can't believe it! Crystal clear water reveals patches of coral crouching on a sandy bottom. My senses are arrested with wonderment. This intriguing, calm, colorful, life-filled world is unlike any I've ever experienced. Fish and other marine life dart around seemingly oblivious to the uproar the boat had just created on the sea's surface.
Being a non swimmer, I fight the urge to jump in like some people have already done. It is only then that I realize that I'm alone in the boat and snap out of my trance long enough for my brain to take stock of the legendary Laughingbird Caye National Park. I read the park rules with a smile: Take nothing but pictures, leave only footprints.
A quick summary of what I've read and what I'm now seeing take shape. Laughingbird Caye is 1.5 acres of coconut palms and mangroves growing out of an underwater limestone ridge that encircles reefs and lagoons. The island itself is only a small part of the faro, and is formed from the sun-bleached sand, shells and coral rubble that jut out of the sea. A visitor center, thatch open-air picnic palapa and the iron grills are the only infrastructure on the island. Responsibility for its management falls unto the capable shoulders of the fisher "friends" from the five communities (Hopkins, Seine Bight, Placencia, Independence and Monkey River) that have have joined forces to protect the reef and natural beauty of the area.
Accompanied by Ranger Nicholas who spends two weeks a month on Laughingbird Caye to monitor visitor activities in the area, we take an easy stroll up the beach to what I think is the northern side of the island. This part of the island once housed a thriving colony of Laughing Gulls (Laurus Atricilla) for which the island is named. Today that rookery has moved to nearby islands but Laughingbird Caye still receives an occasional namesake visitor.
On the windward side near the visitor center, Ranger Nicholas points out the start off point for snorkelers. Eager to sample the reef's offerings, quite a few members of the group stop at this point.
The captain's son calls us over to the southern part, where two dorsal fins are circling. Maybe it's because I'm not a sea-journer, but I quickly think of the movie Jaws. Ranger Nicholas dispels my fears by identifying them as timid lemon sharks.
The pendulum motion of their tails propels them so close to the shore that their sleek bodies are barely covered by water. I can't believe my eyes. This is so unreal to me. I bravely step into the shallow water to get a closer shot with my camera. To my chagrin, the pair bolts. I smile sheephishly at Ranger Nicholas who assures me that they'll be back in a few minutes.
West of me picnic tables are being setup. Brian and others are firing up the barbecue grills. The limited hammocks under the cool thatched palapa have all been snatched. In the water north of me a group of pronated bodies with snorkels jutting skyward are feasting on a natural aquarium filled with blue tangs, trigger and angel fish, brain and soft corals, coelenterates, and probably some yet undiscovered marine creatures. Southeast of me dorsal fins -- this time three of them -- have started to circle. Next to me the sound of waves lapping the shore sets a relaxing, meditative mood. Above me coconut trees top it all off with incessant waves to the world. I am mesmerized. These sights would make a perfect setting for my new book. I think to myself as my pen makes contact with my journal.
Hours later, Brian finds me dosing with my journal on my lap. The afternoon sun has started to descend and the captain wants to get us back to the mainland before sunset. But how can I come here and not get into the water? I spot a section where the water appears to be ankle deep and run toward it. The knee-depth is perfect for non-swimmers to wade and squat in. From my new spot I watch everyone pack up, say goodbye to Ranger Nicholas and board. At the captain's final call, I scramble to my feet and hop in.
The sea is deceptively unthreatening, translucent, cerulean blue. I know not to be fooled by her apparent calm and prepare myself to get wet by the crowd of excited waves. A final glance to the now familiar, sparkling white shore makes me think of a new lover, an unforgettable experience now left behind. I can't wait to come back to Laughingbird!
Special Thanks to:
Friends of Nature
Friends of Nature is a community-based organization made up of representatives of five coastal communities of Southern Belize: Hopkins, Seine Bight, Independence, Monkey River and Placencia. Friends of Nature co-manages the Laughingbird Caye National Park and Gladden Spit/Silk Cayes Marine Reserve.
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography
Gayle R. Usher
Friends of Nature