Relaxing inside the reef
Caye Caulker: Some 30 kilometres off the coat of Belize City, in a gentle turquoise Caribbean that’s protected by from the wild Atlantic by the northern hemisphere’s biggest reef, sit a handful of low-lying islands of limestone and sand. Caye Caulker, at 8 kilometres long, is one of the largest and we choose it over its more popular, larger neighbour, Ambergris Caye.
The mangrove-fringed island is a laid-back, sun-drenched narrow spit of long jetties and longer siestas. The village of stilted timber houses, too many in a decrepit state, sits on the island’s west coast, removed by a hundred metres from the island’s touristy east coast of hotels, restaurants and bars.
Despite the brief distance, I don’t see any of the suntanned holidaymakers on my strolls through the village, presumably because there’s nothing of interest for them in the local’s area. People smile with friendliness as I pass, but, unusually, I feel a bit like I’m intruding: surely they get enough of tourists without the additional invasion of their home zone?
But an island of this tiny size is necessarily mixed, with locals, visiting mainlanders and foreign tourists mingling on the streets and in the cafés. Although tourism is the primary industry here, the island is not an artificial construct purely to service resorts – it was living and breathing before the tourists arrived in the 1970s, and it would surely continue if they stopped coming.
The island’s on a major fish migratory route and the reefs around are conch and lobster breeding grounds – every family fishes and I can’t wait to break up the relentless chicken-rice-&-beans of Central America with some fresh seafood.
We find a room in a place run by a cheerful family and Nick sets off to enquire about diving. (Sadly, I have a horrible cold and can’t even equalise on land, so diving’s off.) Belize’s biggest tourist attraction is the Blue Hole, an almost perfectly circular 130m-deep sinkhole, located in Lighthouse Reef, around 60 kilometres (2 hours) away.
The hole, first dived by Jacques Cousteau, who dynamited a break in the reef to get his boat through, is hung with spectacular stalactites and other limestone formations that begin around 40 metres down. Because dive boats often chum the water, large sharks often congregate. Nick’s very excited.
In the event, the Blue Hole disappoints him: visibility is poor and he sees no sharks. But the other two dives he does on the atoll more than compensate, with eagle rays, turtles and spectacular corals.
The corals here, Nick tells me, are in far better condition than those we dived with in Utila, Honduras, presumably because they have been far better protected. Still, his dive instructor laments their decline over the past 20 years he’s dived here. He describes a wonderland of colour and marine life now lost to the Caribbean.
Last month, researchers reported that the corals on Belize’s outer, ocean facing reefs were more stressed than those on the protected inner reefs, perhaps because those growing on the inside are more resilient having already had to adapt to warmer conditions.
Belize, like all coastal nations, depends on its marine environment for food, livelihoods and exports – around 15% of its GDP is reliant on its coral reef, according to a recent analysis – but climate change, pollution and the the very industries that depend on it are also destroying it.
In our strolls around the island, we find dumped and washed-up garbage choking the mangroves and poisoning wildlife. Lobster is not on sale during the protected mid-February to mid-June period, but hammerhead shark fillets are the special at one restaurant, despite being on the IUCN Red List of endangered species.
These threats can be managed with better regulation, education and goodwill. Harder to resolve is the threat of global warming. Sea-level rise will lead to more regular inundations from storm surges and the erosion that follows. This low-lying sandbar is being rebuilt daily using dredged sand, but for how long? In the 1960s, Hurricane Hattie swept through and split the island in two – it’s created a handy shortcut for boats that no longer need to circumnavigate the island. Like the Maldivians, these islanders are leading a fragile, time-limited existence.
For now, though, the island is above water and the perfect place to get over my cold, enjoy seafood – especially the invasive lionfish – and read some books – the island even has a library!