By Daniel Rath
Belize is famous for its incredible biodiversity. Many different types of animals inhabit its land and waters, and some, like the Whale shark and Jaguar, are popular tourist attractions. However, care must be taken to preserve these natural attractions, and this can only be accomplished with the help and support of the Belizean people. Environmental awareness is built into our school curricula, and one such example would be the Environmental Science program at Stann Creek Ecumenical Junior College, where the youth of Belize are taught how humans affect the environment negatively, and what they can do to help conserve Belize's natural habitat.
In an Environmental Science class I took last semester, a major topic of discussion was the conservation and preservation of Belize's seas and marine life. A popular marine attraction is the yearly arrival of the whale sharks, giant filter feeders that migrate to Belize in April and May, at the same time that Belize's snappers begin to spawn. The giant whale sharks converge on the snappers, which have formed a huge spawning ball, and gorge themselves on the fertilized ovum that are released.
The sight of several hundred snappers forming a huge ball and releasing eggs while 40 foot whale sharks swim overhead gulping them up is said to be a sight to behold. Snappers usually spawn in several locations off the coast of Belize, most of which are located right on the drop-off, a sharp drop in water depth of up to 200 feet usually found right outside the barrier reef. As a result, dive operators begin checking these locations beginning in January and marking the location of any snapper groups they see, in the hope of getting a glimpse of a whale shark when they start spawning. Finding these groups often takes many dives, especially when water clarity is low, as the divers can pass within 100 feet of the huge group of fishes and not notice them.
Since I had heard so much about this incredible experience, I really wanted to see it. So, early in January, when my father invited me to join him and two dive instructors, Martin and Jeanette, on a dive trip in search of a snapper spawning, I jumped at the chance. I mean, it was an incredible chance to see this phenomenon I had heard so much about, and maybe pick up some diving tips from the "pros" on the side.
We left our home on a Friday afternoon, and headed out to South Water Caye, a mile-long island about 14 miles offshore that was to be our diving base. The plan was to dive near a mangrove island further along the reef, where Jeanette had heard about a large group of snappers that looked as if they would spawn soon. Of course, I had hardly slept the night before, excited as I was, so as soon as we got out to the caye and set up our equipment, I was fast asleep.
I woke up on Saturday morning, fully refreshed and raring to go. The weather was slightly overcast and windy, and the temperature was in the mid-70s, about 10 degrees lower than I prefer. This did not bode well for the day's diving, as the wind churning up the water lowered visibility, but we hauled on our wetsuits and headed out regardless. We were prepared to make up to three dives before returning home. The first dive site was a sandy patch right outside the reef, about 60 feet deep. We descended and swam along with the current for about 40 minutes, and saw soft corals waving in the current, small fishes, and a fairy basslet trying to hide its brilliant hues behind the coral. However, no snapper were to be found.
As we surfaced and climbed into the boat, we noticed a small fishing skiff a short ways off. We headed over and asked the fishermen if they had noticed any snappers in the area. We had problems communicating with them, as we did not speak Spanish, and they apparently did not understand English. Finally, they pointed in a general southerly direction. As we descended on our next dive, a school of spotted eagle ray passed right in front of us. The water was much deeper here than it was at the first dive site, but still no snapper. In hindsight, we realized that the fishermen were pointing us away from the fish, as they did not want divers scaring them off. They were also looking for the snapper, even though they were not supposed to be fishing for them. The government of Belize has laws in place protecting the snapper during their spawning season, but all that fish in one place is very tempting to a fisherman. In the past, large groups of fishermen used to frequent the snapper spawning areas, hauling in huge catches from the fish schools below, and having a huge negative impact on the whole snapper life cycle.
We headed over to a shallower area to anchor and eat lunch. Over lunch, we discussed where the snapper might be, and what exactly it was that we were doing wrong in our attempts to find them. Or more accurately, my father and Martin and Jeanette discussed the snapper, and I filled myself up on the lunch we packed while sunning myself on the front of the boat. After lunch, we decided that we were still too far north, as the snapper were probably moving along the drop-off, looking for food.
We jumped into the water, with only 20-foot visibility. We could hardly distinguish the sea floor as we swam along at about 40 feet. All this time, we were looking hard for snapper, but all we saw were a few of them lurking near the bottom. Just as we were running out of air, we saw Martin quickly swimming off to one side. We followed him as fast as we could, and suddenly saw a huge ball of hundreds of snapper floating at about 50 feet. The ball was about 50 feet in diameter and next to it, Martin looked like an ant next to a soccer ball. As we watched, the ball rose a couple of feet and then sank and spread out over the bottom. Even though we could not see the sea floor clearly, the little bit that we could see was covered with snappers. We strained our eyes looking for the milky white eggs and sperm that were being released, but unfortunately we were almost out of air and had to surface.
This experience engaged and enlightened me in many ways. I was able to gain an insight into some of the problems that the government must have in enforcing conservation laws. The fishermen that we encountered were not just fishing for sport, but because they needed to make money, and that was the best way they knew how. In addition I was able to get a first-hand look at something that I had learnt so much about in school. It was an added bonus that I was able to gain diving experience from the dive professionals that I accompanied. During the whole experience, I had to be aware of my surroundings and keep looking for the snapper, while staying within the limits set for the dive.
Most of all, It reminded me how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful country
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Images courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography