We just ran across this interesting article in the New York Times about seagrass. The reason this interests us is because our island is surrounded by large beds of Belize seagrass, which thrive in the shallow waters ringing the island and between patch reefs inside the atoll. We see an incredible amount of marine life in theses underwater seagrass meadows, and many species live there permanently and do not interact with the coral reefs at all. As we snorkel between the reefs we cruise over large expanses of the seagrass, where we see lots of conch, eels, rays, turtles, and fish which live and feed on the grass.

glovers reef belize seagrass

We learned a lot from this article, we didn’t realize how important seagrass is. Seagrass meadows are endangered, and are actually one of the most endangered ecosystems on Earth. Not only do they offer protection for fishes and other creatures, but they also filter seawater to keep it free of pollutants. And not only that, seagrass also locks up vast amounts of carbon so that it doesn’t enter the atmosphere.

But these meadows are disappearing at a rate of a football field every 30 minutes! This is an astonishing rate!

When we snorkel over the seagrass beds, we actually try to avoid them because they harbor stinging hydroids. Those stinging creatures are the reason fishermen come home with tiny “bug bites” all over their ankles if they don’t wear ankle-high booties. When swimming through the meadows, you need to make sure you are far enough away from the blades of grass themselves, because you will get “zinged” all over your neck (and legs if you are not wearing a dive skin). In the past, we weren’t that fond of the seagrass because of these reasons. But we will look at this plant with new respect now!

stingray in seagrass

[Photos by John Holder}

cheap-flights-to-belize

In the age of internet everyone is now booking their own air travel tickets. We recommend this, as the airlines don’t pay travel agents enough to make it worth their while to try all the tricks to get you a better deal. As you know, there is a lot of free advice on how best to do this, from information on what day of the week to travel to which airline offers the best fares. Since it’s profitable to become an expert on this subject, you might find this article from the NY Times interesting. Of special note are the links to specialized travel sites such as Google Flights and others that will compare fares and send you alerts on sales, etc. The best piece of advice from this article is to start shopping for fares early, but don’t commit to a fare right away.

passport

We find that many international travelers do not pay much attention to their passports, especially the renewal dates. As a result, it is increasingly common for us to see people scrambling at the last minute to try and renew their passports just before the trip they planned months in advance. This article from the NY Times might be of interest: it is an alert from the US Passport Service about an impending rush of passport renewals they are expecting this year due to a program started 10 years ago which encouraged many people to obtain a passport. Now these passports are all due for renewal at the same time, and the Passport Office is advising everyone that there will be delays in obtaining new passports.

In looking back through some old pictures from our archives, Lucy came across some awesome shots of Glover’s Atoll taken by satellite, including some of the Yucatan peninsula from some different angles which highlight just how beautiful Belize’s barrier reef and atolls are from space. The spectacular color of the water inside the atolls are caused by the sand bottom of the shallow areas which are composed of bright white coral sand. The clear water then allows a deep penetration of sunlight which reflects back, much as sun does on snow.

One can also notice how the barrier reef and atolls are located in line with each other, which is due to their location on under-sea ridges that are parallel to the coast. Although these atolls are magnificent when you visit them, they are equally stunning when seen from space!

We have already commented in a previous blog post about the developing El Nino weather pattern that is affecting the climate patterns across the Caribbean. The primary effect El Nino is having is to alter the upper level wind strength and that has been suppressing hurricane development in the Caribbean. So far there has not been a single hurricane in the entire Caribbean, which is very unusual since we are currently at the peak of the storm season.

Although this is good news for us at Slickrock and others with island properties in Belize, the El Nino has also been responsible for a devastating drought that has covered almost all of Central America, including Belize. The storm season is also the rainy season, and the rains have also been suppressed by the same weather phenomenon that has reduced the hurricane threat. Sept, Oct, and Nov. are actually the peak of the rainy season, but so far only meager amounts of precipitation have fallen.

Belize drought

The agriculture industry of Belize has been severely affected by the drought, as can be read about in this recent Channel 5 Belize article.

Uncrowded conditions in Belize
Uncrowded conditions in Belize

Ever since we opened our kite school on the island, our kite instructors have always marveled at how open and uncrowded our location is. We have a 2-mile stretch of sand flats that is coral free and only waist to chest deep, perfect for our instructors to teach students the basics of kiteboarding. The learning process requires a lot of space for students since they initially have little control and spend a lot of time dragging across the wind while learning to control the kite. And once up on the board, beginners need even more room to run across the water while learning how to steer the board. All this requires a lot of open space since students initially have little control.

I am a beginner kiteboarder, having learned the sport at our island in Belize. So I was used to the free open spaces on our sand flats, where there were literally no other kites on the water. Now I am at Hood River in Oregon, where I spend a lot of time in the summer for windsurfing. Kiteboarding is very big here these days, and I have been out a lot on a kite practicing my skills. However, kiteboarding here is a whole new ballgame with the huge crowds out on the water, and everyone has to constantly be aware of all the other kites since a tangle with another kite is the ultimate disaster! It is not that tough for experts but for us beginners there are a lot of close calls. Check out this short video to see what I mean!

Crowded conditions at The Gorge
Crowded conditions at The Gorge

Now I understand what our instructors are talking about on the island; we are truly lucky to have a private, uncrowded location in which to kiteboard!

belize cruise ship

There is big news in Belize’s tourism sector today, Carnival Cruise Lines has announced it is scaling back its stops in Belize this year by 14 boats. This is not a huge number considering Belize receives 350 stops per year between all the various cruise ship lines, but it is significant as the first cutting back in stops by a cruise ship line. The tourism sector is worried that more may follow from other companies.

The reason for the decrease in visits is Carnival complains that Belize does not offer enough quality experiences for cruise ship passengers, and that it is enormously expensive for the company and its passengers to do anything in Belize. The tours offered to its guests are actually doing well and passengers do rate them highly, but they are unusually expensive when compared to activities at other destinations. But the main complaint is that for passengers not wanting an expensive tour, Belize City itself just has little to offer and does not live up to the standards experienced at other ports of call. And the government of Belize has failed to act on the numerous complaints and requests by Carnival to upgrade its facilities, primarily by building a real docking facility rather than relying on expensive shuttle boats to transport guests to land.

Additionally, Norwegian Cruise Lines, one the biggest companies that stop in Belize, will soon have their own private port of call facility ready at Harvest Caye in southern Belize. This will further cut back on the number of ships stopping at Belize City, and will greatly affect the tourism commerce in this area.

Artist's rendition of Dicaprio's "eco-resort"
Artist’s rendition of Dicaprio’s “eco-resort”

Leonado Dicaprio bought an island in Belize several years ago with the idea to eventually build an eco-resort on the property. A recent New York Times article describes the plan, and construction is slated to begin soon with a projected opening in 2018. Di Caprio’s idea is to make it a ‘true’ eco resort, not just in name but in practice with guests’ participation. For instance, guests will not be permitted to bring plastic water bottles onto the island. (Editor’s comment: Now that’s a true eco-resort if I ever saw one!) All non native vegetation will be removed, and natural mangrove forests re-constituted. He claims that the over-the-water cabins will not impact the island (what about the creatures in the water?), and will be designed to allow coral reefs to grow around them to encourage a new marine ecosystem to develop. This is just one more example of the many high-end developments that are moving into Belize that will claim anything to gain investors and visitors.

Belize snorkel
Snorkeling near our Belize island

I recently returned from a trip to Maui where I was able to snorkel several times during my visit. While it was great to see new species of coral and fish, I was struck by how much better the diving and reefs are at our Glover’s Reef island in Belize. I had always imagined Hawaii and most of the Pacific to have much better reef ecosystems that we commonly see in Belize, but I found the opposite to be true. I know that many areas in the Pacific enjoy phenomenal coral reefs and abundant marine life, but my observation is that Hawaii is not one of them.

What most amazed me was the lack fish we saw. In Belize we commonly see thousands of fish on every snorkel we take, but on the reefs around Maui we probably saw less than a hundred per session. This may have been because we picked areas that simply didn’t have abundant fish life, but I suspect that overfishing and pollution from the heavily populated land areas have caused the marine life to suffer. Out at Glover’s Reef we are protected from overfishing and far from the mainland.

gun boat from Guatemala
Guatemalan gunboat at Glover’s Reef

Last week there was big news out at Glover’s Reef, a Guatemalan naval gunboat crashed on the atoll’s ring reed between our island and nearby Middle Caye. The patrol boat was passing by the reef with another vessel on their way to Mexico when its steering apparently broke down, and it then drifted onto the reef. It was grounded there for about 4 days before another Guatemalan boat was able to pull it off, which the accompanying boat was initially unable to do. Reports indicate that no live coral was damaged, but this is being investigated.

Relations between Guatemala and Belize are currently rather tense due to incursions by Guatemalans into Belizean territory for illegal logging, and a more recent incident at the southern border where a Belizean Coast Guard patrol was forced out of Belizean territory by a Guatemalan patrol. Guatemala has been acting aggressively towards Belize with these incidents due to a long standing border dispute that reaches back to a treaty signed in 1857. The OAS (Organization of American States) has been smoothing over these disputes with diplomatic meetings, but Guatemala continues to disregard its agreements with these continuing incidents.

So the grounding of the naval gunboat has been construed by some Belizeans as another direct threat to Belizean sovereignty, although it does appear that there was a legitimate excuse for the grounding of this gunboat.