We first went to Belize in 1996, right after certifying as SCUBA divers in Monterey Bay California. We fell in love with diving, and knew we would be going back to Belize. Well it took a while, but finally we went back in 2012.
We found a small non-profit, called ReefCI, founded by an Englishwoman, Polly Wood, who is passionate about reef conservation. ReefCI is based in the southernmost part of Belize, in a small town called Punta Gorda.
On Monday mornings, they load the boat with food, water, beer and people, and set off for tiny Tom Owens Caye in the southern Sapodillas. Accommodations on Tom Owens are basic, but comfortable. There’s a main house with bedrooms with small bathrooms, with rainwater collected showers, and camping toilets. We have a decent bed, French doors opening onto a balcony that runs around the house. We also have a resident gecko to eat up any unwanted insects, although there aren’t many of these. Downstairs are the common areas: lounge, dining room, kitchen, staff areas and training room.
The daily routine goes like this: wake with the sun, grab some coffee and dive gear, stumble onto the boat for the first dive. Yeah, I’m awake! Back to the island for a wonderful cooked breakfast. A little classroom time, a little nap. Back out for another dive. Perhaps we catch some fish on the way back in, for our dinner. Lunch is miraculously waiting for us when we get back! Then it’s hammock time. Later, there’s another briefing for the next dive, and out we go. If there’s no night dive, then it’s beer time, relax in the hammock before another delicious home-cooked meal, often featuring the lionfish we’ve caught that day, or perhaps some bbq barracuda.
At the end of the week, we take the boat back to Punta Gorda on the mainland, and relax in the quiet little town for a couple of days, before repeating another blissful week on the paradise known as Tom Owens Caye.
But there is a serious side to all this fun and frivolity. Lionfish, which are indigenous to the indo-pacific regions, have found their way into the Caribbean. They were believed to have been released somehow during a hurricane which hit Florida, and they’ve been multiplying fast and spreading over the years. The problem with this is, they are voracious eaters of small reef fish, and they have no known predators in the Caribbean. The reefs are beginning to show this predation and unbalance. Fortunately a number of organisations are responding, and there is a lot of work happening to educate people, and to take the lionfish out of the Caribbean by responsible spear-fishing. On most dives with ReefCI, several people take down spears and take out as many lionfish as possible. Back on shore, we dissect some and make notes on the stomach contents. They are then cleaned, the venomous spines taken off for safety, filleted and chilled and sold to local restaurants.
Here’s our video on lionfish spearing with ReefCI:
There appears to be some evidence that local predators, groupers, maybe eels and lobsters, are also beginning to eat the lionfish. Lionfish tastes great to humans, once they have been cleaned and their poisonous spines have been removed. They make great ceviche, and they’re good cooked too. The word is spreading, lionfish is becoming more available in shops and restaurants.
We’re so pleased we found ReefCI. Going diving with them is not just a dive holiday. We set transect lines and count fish and invertebrates in each section. We make notes on the health and state of the coral reef. We have checked conch for eggs, and tagged them. And we have endlessly speared lionfish. It feels good to be doing some good, as well as having lots of fun. This is a place we’ll be going back to again and again. Thanks Polly and team!
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