Travel Journal: Paddling Belize
A family sea kayaking adventure belies the importance of setting down roots
Photos courtesy Heidi Berend
At the dock on Belize’s tiny Carrie Bow island, Florida State University scientist Janie Wulf emerges from the water after snorkeling for sponges. She’s one of 100 scientists per year who come to the Smithsonian marine research station to study everything from corals and mangroves to sand worms and in Wulf’s case, sponges.
Caretakers Greg and Joanne Dreamer, who summer in Montana and base here six weeks a year, greet us on shore. With short-cropped grey hair and a Marilyn Monroe mole on her cheek, Joanne welcomes us while Greg gets back to painting a wooden door on saw horses. “He also tests out the hammocks every day,” Joanne says. “He says he’d hate to see a scientist get hurt on one.”
Joanne gives us the two-cent tour of the two-story facility, the sole building on the less-than-an-acre island. A bunk room sleeps up to six scientists at a time, a lab harbors counters, tubs and sea water spigots for collecting samples, and a library and hammock-lined porch command the upstairs. Belizean cook Jasmine serves meals buffet style on a table outside.Fifty yards away, waves crash on the second largest barrier reef in the world, which extends 1,200 miles from Mexico to Honduras. It’s why we’re here on a six-day sea kayak trip with Island Expeditions, staying at different lodges on different islands en route. Tonight, we’re on our final night at International Zoological Expeditions’ lodge on South Water Cay, a two-mile paddle away.
Carrie Bow used to be closer to the reef. But in the 1940s, its Belizean owners took out its mangroves to get rid of the bugs. It worked, but it also got rid of something else — the island’s foundation and protection. Without the mangroves’ roots to trap sediment, the island has shrunk from 2.5 acres to its current two-thirds of an acre. But that hasn’t diminished its scientific importance.
A member of our group’s attention span is also shrinking. “Well, we have to get back,” says Hans, a Coloradoan on the trip with his wife, Heidi, and 18-year-old daughter Sabina. “We have to hit our final happy hour sunset on the dock.”
Arriving at the Belize International Airport five days earlier, we piled in a van for the Tropical Education Center next to the Belize Zoo. After a night tour brought out jaguars Junior and Lucky Boy, a 400-pound crocodile named Brutus and the Jurassic Park screech of howler monkeys, we drove the darting Hummingbird Highway through the Mayan Mountains to Belmopan, the new capital after Hurricane Hattie destroyed Belize City in 1971.
In Dangriga, the northernmost territory of the non-slave Garifuna people, we met our Belizean guides, Omar and Kimike, for 45-minute motorboat to Tobacco Cay. A 5-acre Eden appeared as we rounded the island’s northeast corner.
“Whoa, that’s where we’re staying?” gushed my daughter Brooke. “Awesome.”
Six cabanas rested on stilts, with hammock-lined porches over the water — our sea kayak basecamp for the next two nights. Conch-lined pathways led through the sand to each hut, where we settled in before a horn-like shell blare signaled a lunch of fresh fish, fruit and banana cake.
Later, we met under a coconut tree for a safety talk from a shirtless Kimike, whose muscly arms exposed two, time-worn tattoos, “Shack,” his father’s nickname, and “Shaw,” for his mother. Another ran across his six-pack.
Rule number one, he said, looking up: Don’t sit under coconut trees. Two: Wear sandals to avoid toe-stubbing. Three: Drink plenty of water. Then it was off to the palm-lined beach where we outfitted our sea kayaks. After a quick wet exit practice, we set out for the reef a mile away.
Huge spotted eagle rays soared beneath our hulls every stroke of the way. Turning around at the northern end of the South Cay Marine Preserve, the largest of nine in the country, we rode swells back to the island, sitting like an oasis in the setting sun.
Our over-the-water hammock session was interrupted by the blowing of the conch again, this time signaling a dinner of garlic-infused fresh shrimp and snapper. At one of the island’s two bars that night, we met a Norwegian named Simon, who offered to take Hans fly-fishing for permit at 6 a.m. A few Belikin beers later, the lap of water, breeze through our windows and crashing waves of the reef let slumber take its hold.
Over a breakfast of fresh banana pancakes and papaya, I thumbed through Paul Humann’s quintessential “Reef Fish” to polish up for the day’s sea kayak snorkel. Most of the fish we’d see could be categorized into one of 12 families, from manta rays, sea turtles and nurse sharks to angels and surgeons, which pop switchblades from their sides to stab predators. I’d also watch for the hermaphroditic bluefish and parrot fish, which, after adolescence, give up their bling to become male, as well as tiny gobi fish, darting damsels and “gang of tangs,” that ride herd like the mafia. Then come the butterflies, with fake eyes on their rears, and bluehead wrasses, which pride themselves on getting groomed by smaller fish.
Paddling out through patches of different-colored water —dark swaths indicating sea grass and aquamarine signaling sand —we paralleled the reef before anchoring, donning our snorkels and cannonballing out. Instantly, we saw everything in the book and more, even the carwash fish cleaning the tonsils of a larger predator.
That night, we dined on four lion fish Kimike hooked while snorkeling. It’s an invasive species, brought over from Asia, prompting locals to wear T-shirts reading: “Save a reef, eat a lionfish.” Then we chilled with dockside libations at sunset, small-talking a family from Dangriga getting ready to motorboat home after a Sunday picnic.
In the morning, we got a sailing lesson from buff-chested Omar. We’d unfurl them around the tip of the island, he said, and then run a broad reach parallel to the reef to South Water Caye, eight miles away. We’d also “barnacle,” grabbing onto each other for stability, like a human outrigger.
With that, the wild blue yonder and our next cabanas beckoned, as long as we ruddered left to avoid getting pushed downwind. Happily whiling away the miles sans paddle, slowly South Water Cay came into view over the peak of our sail. Rounding its leeward side, we dropped sail and paddled in to a palm-lined, emerald-watered beach — the hamlet of International Zoological Expeditions (IZE), our home for the next three nights.
The company traces back to herpetology grad student Frederick Dodd, who stopped in Belize in his Ford Econoline van en route to studying snakes in Venezuela. He never made it farther south, discovering South Water Cay — a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest marine reserve in the country. There, he built his marine biology station for educational travel.
Lugging our gear past a volleyball net strung between two palms, we found our rooms, connected by a communal deck facing east through a maze of red mangroves toward the breeze and waves crashing on the reef. At our dockside lunch, bonefish prowled the waters below, gobbling fishermen’s scraps, while pelicans dove for bait fish. At sunset, I solo paddled around the island, only to be thwarted by the reef on the far end.
Tiki torches lined the path to the dining room, where a feast of fresh snapper and spicy onions marinated by Kimike’s aunt awaited. There, we also learned the lodge’s wi-fi password: “lionfish.” Later, Omar macheted palm fronds for a beachside bonfire, where our guitar strums played to the cadence of waves.
In the morning, Hans’ family and my daughter Brooke and I took a motorboat to go scuba diving. Corals resembling giant Mayan urns rose up from the ocean floor, while Star Wars-sized manta rays soared above fleets of nurse sharks. It was hard not to feel like Damon in The Martian.Later, we took stand-up paddleboards out, gaining a better vantage of the bonefish and using the SUPs to paddle up to the dockside bar for a round of Belikins. In the afternoon, Omar led an “Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Coconuts” talk, explaining how to climb for them, husk them and tap their milk. He ground their meat in a hand grinder for sunset hors d’oeuvres while watching dolphins from the dock.
The winds died just in time the next day for us to paddle five miles to Billy Hawk Cay, stopping to snorkel a mangrove-lined channel en route. You wouldn’t think there’d be much marine life there, but there was, hidden in their roots like Horton’s visit to Whoville, from massive contracting feather dusters to darting damsel fish. It was easy to see how their twisted, submerged trunks hold the islands together.
Next, we headed south to Billy Hawk, a popular spot for kayak campers. Hans’ daughter Sabina screeched when a bait fish flew into her cockpit. After fresh conch soup, we tested four side-by-side hammocks under a palapa on the dock. Food coma conquered, it was off to the twin Bread and Butter cays for the trip’s best snorkeling — a world as full of marine life as our stomachs were seafood.
Later that afternoon, we land at Carrie Bow and learn about what we saw. Even our teenage daughters have gained a new appreciation of all things marine.
We gain more that night, when Kimike takes us on a night snorkel, which is highlighted by a cartoonish puffer fish bloating into a face-swelling bluff. We call it and pass it around to touch. Snorkeling back to shore, feeling James Bondish through the beams of our waterproof flashlights, I notice the sand particles suspended in the channel’s current. Whether you’re an island like Carrie Bow or a family like ours kayaking, you need roots, I realize, to build a foundation.
If You Go: Island Expeditions offers several inn-to-inn and basecamp sea kayaking packages in Belize (its trips can also be booked with stand-up paddleboards). It can also facilitate rentals and itineraries for private expeditions. Book your final night’s stay at the 12-room Bocawina Lodge (www.bocawina.com), where you can hike to and swim at Bocawina and Antelope Falls, dine at its Wild Fig Restaurant and soar through the jungle on the longest zip-line in the country. Info: www.islandexpeditions.com
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