Although there are freshwater species of Crocodile residing in Belize, The American or Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is the most common species of Crocodile that can be found in its surrounding Cayes and Mangrove communities. They hide in the shallow waters of once undisturbed islands edging their way to the mainland, though they have been known to cross neighbouring waters of their Australian cousins in search for food. Crocodiles are highly territorial, making their proximity with humans one that could be both a threat to their sustenance and an asset. They have been known to travel as far as one hundred and fifty metres to each territory when their own becomes threatened or scarcely populated, making their nomadic habits unpredictable to track.
While there have been few documented cases of Crocodile attacks on this side of Central America, with both the planned expansion of property and an insouciant attitude with feeding, one could expect this to change. Tour guides and local fishermen often approach the matter of Crocodiles with an attitude lending well into their own interests than that of the consequences, one to cultivate a potentially volatile outcome. On the flip side there have been cases of larger adults visit neighbouring docks of Caye Caulker without succumbing to their meat-eating disposition, though their new intrigue should not always be labelled nonchalantly.
Due to over-exploited populations of the Morelet’s crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii) in the earlier 20th Century, Crocodile densities in the Northern river systems of Belize came to a prompt decline, urging the reintroduction of juvenile species to areas most affected. The Saltwater Crocodiles may not share the same concern as the once listed endangered species of mainland Belize, but their tendency to settle in alluvial waters could make future weather extremes problematic. Most of the crocs sighted during a survey conducted by Placencia based NGO CRC (Crocodile Research Coalition) were juveniles, whether this could reflect a rigorous pursuit of larger adults or their ability to remain undetected is hard to say.
I spoke briefly to the co-ordinator, Miriam, who kindly invited me onto the night survey alongside local school students, in which she faiths the success of Crocodile conservation firmly on education. It was clear to see that there was plenty of retained knowledge amongst a staggered age range of students, a knowledge to which expanded my own awareness of these prehistorical beasts. One detail that did spark further interest with further wellbeing of these animals is their enriched resonance with Mayan culture and their symbolism with the expansion of consciousness.
You’re never further than ten feet of a dog on Caye Caulker, which makes it hard for tourists to get down Middle Street. This does not seem like it has always been an amicable debate, which is why there are a lot of animal shelters and the like on the island. Tourism especially on somewhere like Caye Caulker comes with its own range of negative implications, though I do believe tourism has come to feed a much kinder attitude toward pets. Observing this over the last few weeks has allowed me to gauge not only the disposition with strays and unruly pets, but the contrast between local pet owners and people that pass.
Petting a dog is not something we consider to avoid doing when we see one approaching, though the expanse of dogs getting more attention than that of their owners is one resulting in their new found ‘independence’ You could be stood at a bar in Caye Caulker and see dogs walking in and out just as casually as you would yourself, whether they come home depends on how well their night is going. Amongst the dive shops and restaurants that litter the sandy streets of Caye Caulker, the animal shelters that tuck in between each establishment house an array of different dogs just waiting for a new owner. Whether or not the dogs I have seen have been mistreated or just want to use the new opportunity of open spaces, it is commonplace to see at least one bolt down the road just before it is about to rain.
I spoke briefly with a few volunteers from the animal shelters and was informed that adoptions of these animals were certainly on the rise. One of the locals that invited me round to his house, showed me his dog that he had rescued from the animal shelter a few weeks before and was shocked to see the state it was in. It was covered in that many fleas but was too exhausted to itch or scratch, a skin condition had left a coat of blistered sores and infections. The owner assured me how he had now managed to get antibiotics and all the relevant ointments to treat the dog, to which I had seen improvements already the following week. It is great to see how the attitudes towards animals in poverty have improved, as the cost to feed and house a dog for some people may be more of a burden than the initial blessing of companionship.
This was one of my first experiences in the water with both Nurse Sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum) and (Dasyatidae) Rays. It was extraordinary to watch each species entwining between the next as though they were the same. These animals may not have always been so harmonious together, just as they would not have been so accustomed to humans and intrigued by boat engines, making their shift in nature one worth noting.
The Southern, Caribbean and illusive Eagle Ray are all species that can be found patrolling the waters of Caye Caulker, though the Nurse Shark is usually the most common species to be seen in this area. Sharks are nocturnal, which makes their new jovial turn of character one that displaces their natural instincts and makes them even more susceptible to more forthright ‘predators’ They have short, abrasive teeth that grind and grit rather than puncture and do not share the same dexterous regard as other species of Shark such as the Reef or Bull Shark. It is easy to confuse them with a Catfish, though it is recommended that you leave your hand in its mouth until it lets go as opposed to taking it out suddenly, minus a few fingers. Nurse Sharks hunt mainly fish, though this shift in behaviour as nocturnal hunters will undoubtedly make them less operative as predators and more attractive as prey.
The Rays of Caye Caulker are probably the most majestic class of marine species circling the depths of the island, though their contact with idle tourists has paved way for a much sandier path. They can often be found half buried at the seabed with their barbed tail covered and sensory organs protruding just above, a transcending shift of evolution, one favouring the nap as a key component of the hunt. They stalk mainly Crustaceans and other shadow dwellers that hide between rocks and under boats, which is why they are often found guarding the shallow waters of the docks late at night. While it is highly unlikely for a Ray to attack a human, their new congeniality with tourists may not always remain this way when the petting boundaries become tainted. Tourists must remember that both of these animals are not to be handled flippantly, they are highly capable predators who live in hostile environments and do not hesitate to dispel threats.
This reoccurring debate of human interaction is one that seems to precede most of the topics at hand. It is essential to look retrospectively on our behaviour in environments that are dependable on certain species survival, in order to ascertain a longevity of not only the reef and surrounding habitats but those affording our own.
While there are a number of both exotic and endangered species of fish within the neighbouring waters of Caye Caulker, The Pterois Antennata do not receive half the same compassion. Due to their destructive nature of local species, avid fisherman seek to cull local population of Lionfish every March during the now two year running ‘Lionfish Derby’ It is an event that comes with just as much a competitive spirit as it does a principled one, though subjectively it does not seem so when there is a beautiful fish impaled on a spear. This debate is one that lends into the argument of certain species that are protected due to their commercial value to tourism and threat to humans as opposed to their contribution and place within the ecosystem.
Lionfish are fascinating animals to observe in the water, though too much intrigue will almost undoubtedly be met with much lesser a courteous introduction. Lionfish are able to produce venom that can be displayed through their needle like dorsal fins, stinging humans as well as other animals in the water. The extent of their venom can cause humans to become very ill, cause respiratory difficulties and severe nausea at the best of times. Due to this fact Lionfish are killed both recreationally and vigilantly, protecting various species of both ecologically and commercially important fish, invertebrates in reefs, mangroves and seagrass habitats. There have been cases of fatalities from Lionfish venom, although this rarity comes with the extent of exposure and stupidity of the curious swimmer.
Lionfish can reproduce from 2 to 15,000 eggs during mating, making their populace a big issue for areas affected by their veracious grazing and predatory aggression. Local restaurant’s and the like on Caye Caulker have now endorsed Lionfish on their menus in a bid to assist efforts of their growing numbers at the expense of marine life, though it does taste more like Lobster than it does a fish. Their appearance may not be relative to their taste, though the Lionfish does not have scales, has more of a rubbery than slimy texture and requires effective removal of their spines before eating.
The theme of marine conservation is one to appear frequently throughout the subject matter of this project, though the matter of Lionfish is one that presents a question to the table of both tourist and ecological justification. If the parameters of the food chain would somehow shift in the near future, exotic species being at the forefront of predatorily behaviour, would tourists come to turn their attention to their disposal or revel in their beauty?
Our camp is situated on the north side of the island in a remote area of the mangroves, our only neighbours being salt water crocodiles and the expanse of marine life that visit or reside under our dock. In addition to all things to see underwater, there are just as many sights from above, replacing Pigeons with Pelicans and Helicopters for Hawks. Living is very basic on camp, so we occasionally relax on the South when we deserve a break from the sand flies and mosquitos. We don’t have access to running water or internet which is as much a blessing as it is an inconvenience, though there is some consolation waking up every morning in paradise. We have a dog, Fury, who is more like a mascot than a Pitbull Terrier, amongst our Chickens who probably make more noise and a Cockerel, Trump, who gets up extra early to rehearse his broken squawk. The mother hen has recently had a few chicks but due to nature’s cruel disposition, Trump has been denied full custody on moral grounds.
While camp life is primitive, it has made me appreciate that which I may take for granted, whilst providing an indication of the things I could probably live without. This does not apply for my latest exhibition of culinary genius, mastery of two ways to not cook rice; burnt or al dente. Another attempt came in the form of channelling my Neanderthal heritage, spearing fish from the end of the dock with a Hawaiian sling, though a lot of those residing under the boat are juveniles. The tourists that come to visit us on fishing trips and the like always have a conversation brewing; whether that be about the neighbouring mangroves or how many pull-ups they can do in front of their wives. We let them use our barbecue, lit using coconut husks that litter the surrounding trail, and in return we are left the ‘scraps’ of Lobster and various exotic fish. These kinds of visits definitely don’t go amiss especially when it’s delivered to my new address, which doesn’t have a post box but you can feed a few fish whilst you’re there.
As I was about to embark on my journey to Belize, both anticipation and dread added to the surplus of weight I carried on my shoulders. Although I had been sceptical about my arrival at Philip Goldson; the possibly of a lost bag, reluctant customs officer or an absent transfer, arriving on Caye Caulker was as much a breeze as the one that greeted me at the airport exit.
Making our way through the rural areas of Belize gave me a better insight to the contrast of basic local living and tourist luxury, a matter not to have any effect on how well received tourists are to the renowned charm of laidback Belizean culture. Following a short journey from the airport to Belize City, myself and Dagny were accompanied by two familiar faces that she had previously met on the island, a comforting reminder of just how easy it is to make new friends out here. I loaded my bags onto the ferry and all previous scepticism had completely subsided.
I still had another stretch of boat rides to reach camp on the north side, but stepping out in the midday heat of January and across onto the first boat was the point to which I knew I’d made a great decision. For every wave further from the stresses of the city was one closer to nature and its expanse of living things, the mangroves being one of the communities once untouched, now yet another wing on the butterfly effect of our ecosystem. These are issues I will cover throughout the duration of my time here, and something making me evermore cynical of tourist influx, lending into a much larger debate of our intrusion of nature. All that was left for me to do was take my first step into the white sand and bury with them, the disposition of what I know to be the obliviousness of our culture.