30 April 2014

Fauna

“Nature has been for me, for as long as I remember, a source of solace, inspiration, adventure, and delight, a home, a teacher, a companion.”
-- Lorraine Anderson

A reference guide (most photos here are not in other posts) & compendium of the majority of fauna I spotted in the Caribbean Sea and at the Belize Zoo. Ichthyologists: feel free to email me corrections.
Indigo Hamlet

Horse Eye Jack

(juvenile) Yellowtail Damselfish

Blue Parrotfish

another Blue Parrotfish (possibly a Midnight Parrotfish)

Queen Conch

????

Sergeant Major Damselfish

Fairy Basslet (front half blue/back half yellow on right) with tons of Striped Blenny

Nassau Grouper

Green Moray Eel

French Angelfish

Blue-striped Grunt

Striped Blenny with Blue-striped Grunts

Stoplight Parrotfish

Rainbow Parrotfish

Goliath Grouper + Horse Eye Jacks

Blue Tang a.k.a. Dory from Finding Nemo

Hogfish

Black Durgon.  Its paddle was so unique!

Great Barracuda

Spiny Lobster

Round Ray


White-spotted Eagle Ray


Blue-headed Wrasse and Smooth Trunkfish (watch the whole video, they kept reappearing)

 Loggerhead Turtle a.k.a. Crush from Finding Nemo

Nurse Shark
Scarlet Macaw

Collared Aracari Toucan

Keel-billed Toucan

Ocelot

Tapir a.k.a. Mountain Cow

Harpy Eagle

Agouti

Black Jaguar

White-lipped Peccary

Jabiru

Albino Coatimundi

Coatimundi

Red-lored Parrot 


Jaguar

Howler Monkey

Click here to see a Tayra a.k.a. Bush Dog, Morelet's Crocodile, Kinkajou, Central American Deer, Blue Crown Mot Mot, Currasow, Puma, Jaguarundi, and White-fonted Parrot

28 April 2014

Obsessions

"We need the tonic of wildness... At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.  We can never have enough of nature."
-- Henry Thoreau

Imagine the Atlantic Ocean as a barren plain & not an ocean at all.  Instead of free-flowing water, just endless, dry land.  It's hard to do isn't it, considering how vast the Atlantic is, but this was the case eons ago.  Many cenotes -- especially in Central America -- were created, which spawned karstic caves, and as the sea level rose after the last Ice Age, they were transformed into inaccessible, underwater caves.  Such is the story of the famous Blue Hole.  My second full day in Belize was slated as the voyage around which my entire itinerary was centered, yet it almost didn’t happen.

I awoke at 04:30 and rode the rickety bicycle -- complimentary from the Hummingbird Cabin -- in the dark to Belize Diving School.  Although the school provided breakfast I was too flogged to eat.  After the company told me they did not have my name on the schedule, I really lost my appetite.  When the staff had the nerve to explicitly say I was at the wrong place, I shoved the confirmation letter & PayPal receipt into their hands.  Considering the trip was only offered every other weekday (and I was due to leave Caye Caulker tomorrow), I was on the verge of tears since there was no day but today to go.  For all my preparedness, someone else's miscommunication would be my misfortune. 
Despite my paper trail, the excursion was also a no-go because there was no guide scheduled.  In desperation, I told the staff I didn't care if I had a guide -- which was true -- but this was an impasse for Belize Diving School.  See, The Great Blue Hole is an isolated wonder adrift in the tempestuous ocean.  One could simply not go wandering freely about the sea. Furthermore, Caye Caulker and its neighbor -- Ambergris -- did not offer organized snorkeling tours there.  For the determined, the only option was to tag along with SCUBA divers.

At this early hour, I was ready to turn my tears into rage. I was going to try my damndest to see the Blue Hole.  As the divers filed aboard, so did I.  I did not try to sneak onto the charter boat, I marched on like I earned my spot there because technically I did...   I had already paid the money & decided la policia a.k.a. the police would have to drag me off.

Whatever drama there was, Belize Diving School made good on their commitment to me & the charter departed the island as the sky illuminated.  With Caye Caulker's shore still in sight, the boat began to aggressively sway.  Regardless of the mode of transportation, I suffer from terrible motion sickness & was still nursing seasickness from my snorkeling excursion the day before.  I kept waiting for the rocking to subside but it never did.  In fact, it only worsened.  Nothing helped: watching the horizon, talking, Dramamine. El barco a.k.a. the boat pitched so forcefully, that belongings scattered everywhere.  Ironically, I was willing myself not to vomit when a tall trash can slid across the deck & crashed into my leg.  I closed my eyes -- first, to steady myself; second to pray that the ship didn't capsize & for a settled stomach.  Some bumps were so violent, we passengers found ourselves airborne, then slammed back into our seats with a collective groan as vertebrae compressed.  With closed eyes, I begged my boyfriend to open his & film this hellacious journey, lest no one believe my torture and the power of the ocean.

Through the endlessly massive swells, I contemplated whether I would make it to the Blue Hole without puking; whether the entire day would be a waste because I'd be so nauseous; whether I'd have to be life-flighted to mainland Belize due to my endless puking.  Perhaps the most tormenting thought was that I would have to endure this choppy water  all over again on the ride back to Caye Caulker.  The things I do for nature!
I noticed after an eternity that my body & the trash can I held were no longer being juddered, so I opened my eyes and saw a completely different scene: the morning clouds had lifted, the sun was shining, bits of land dotted the horizon and -- most importantly -- the sea was smooth.  We had entered Lighthouse Reef, home to the Blue Hole National Park & protector of its waters.  Praise God!

At first I wondered why the boat stopped, as there was no indication of our locale.  There were no other boats; no "Bienvenidos a.k.a. Welcome to the Blue Hole" sign; no park map with a "You Are Here" sticker. In fact, there was not a single land mass in sight.  Just the sky & ocean.
I was given snorkel gear & told to explore whilst the staff briefed the SCUBA divers.  There was only one rule & -- simultaneously -- precaution: do not touch the reef.  Not only was it a living organism, capable of being broken, but in the Blue Hole the reef was entirely Fire Coral.  Touch it and your skin would be irritated, red & painful.
The water shielded me with warmth from the morning air's temperature & fierce wind.  As I deviated from el barco, my fear of open water & sharks resurfaced.  The Blue Hole was 45 miles a.k.a. 71 kilometers into the Atlantic Ocean and I have a theory that as the # of miles from shore increases, so does the size and ferocity of the sea creatures.  I was the  most ill-adapted fish in this big pond & felt vulnerable in the middle of it... like Jaws' head was going to emerge from the darkness below & eat me whole at any second.  So, I swam as quick as I could toward the coral reef that formed the framework of the great Blue Hole.  Like the fish, I felt more protected near the reef because I didn't have to watch my back -- literally!
In my opinion, to really appreciate this submerged sinkhole, you have to first view its mouth.  From the coral rim, I saw the steep (110ยบ) decline. Though impressive from an aerial perspective, the eye in the middle of the ocean [that is the Blue Hole] masks its gradient of blues. Only now could I rightly imagine the terrain as it funneled to the sea floor.  Although most of me was freaked out by what lurked in the depths, my eyes were ever drawn down the Blue Hole's slopes. Encompassed by walls of earth, detached from civilization, alone in this underwater world, I was hypnotized by the blue void -- it was a siren.  Its mysteriousness called me deeper & belied its wild danger.  I don't know how long nor often I stared into the abyss, but it became an obsession (as documented by the myriad photos/videos below).  As if I focused long enough, I might actually see something on the other side of the portal.

For all my obsession with the blue void, I only managed to free-dive ten feet into it before my ears throbbed with a deafening silence and I flirted with the morbid possibility of my head imploding. 

Remember in the early morning when I announced I wanted to see the Blue Hole so much that I would go without a guide?  I meant it, but the experience was undoubtedly enhanced with one.  After  my cathartic solo exploration, I joined with the SCUBA- instructor-converted-into-snorkel-guide. We bisected the cenote & -- thanks to his trained eye -- saw a multitude of new living things, despite having snorkeled this same sea yesterday!

Boulders of Brain Coral were strewn about; bouquets of Cauliflower and Brown Tube Sponge sprouted from the ground; spindly underwater plants' reached toward the surface (& some got very close to breaking the sea's plane); plump orange anemones flowered from the sea grass; in addition to the ubiquitous sea fans more flamboyant coral was on display, some that resembled balls of pizza dough with indentations from God's fingers when He molded it; there were even furry plants & coral with white fuzz spewing from its bottom-side.

Navigating nooks of the Fire Coral were all sorts of vibrant colored fish, like the azure Parrotfish and iridescent Blue Gruntfish. I spotted a regal swimmer cloaked in black, the French Angelfish.  A brown & white striped Nassau Grouper blended in with the coral backdrop.  Some fish I had to search for -- like the salmon & pale green Rainbow Parrotfish -- since they kept to the shadows.  Others I stalked as they slinked around the perimeter of the Blue Hole & I downright chased a Black Durgon, therefore witnessing the dual, glittering ribbons around its fins & its peculiar, flapping stroke (see all the marine life up close, here).
(French Angelfish at an odd angle, center of photo)

Before my great adventure to the Blue Hole, I was worried that two back-to-back days of snorkeling would be repetitive.  How wrong I was! No longer sheltered within the Meso-American Barrier Reef & a three hour boat ride from the mainland, this was truly another world. Everything out here was more brutal and on a larger scale, such as the ocean swells that morning. The docile Nurse Sharks I touched with Carlos' Tours yesterday were replaced with cantankerous Reef Sharks that I was warned to stay away from. There weren't merely innocuous, tropical fish inhabiting these waters, but pelagic creatures like a Barracuda with razor sharp teeth -- frozen in wait -- below me. A staff member cajoled a gigantic Spiny Lobster out of a bush. Its size was freakishly astounding! Out here, guides donned neon yellow long sleeves whose eye-catching color clued me in to the dangers of this arcane world.  In this far flung locale, where homo sapiens were the minority, you wanted to stand out!

With the sun suspended higher in the sky, the boat sped away to another dive site and for the first time I was able to distinctly make out the sinkhole's appeal.  There in all its mystery & glory was The Blue Hole, a fading pupil behind me.

Off the coast of the overgrown island of Long Caye, the bright white charter shut off its engine in preparation for my final excursion.  From el barco's top deck, the fish were already luring me into the water.  Teeming with shimmery schools of fish that drove toward me for a head-on collision; the best visibility of the three SCUBA sites; chimneys of divers' bubbles. This spot was fittingly dubbed Aquarium.


Hordes of fish fluttered about, making quantifying them impossible.  Despite my neon pink bathing suit, I tried to blend in by not chasing the fish.  This time I wanted the fish to come to me so I floated in -- what skydivers refer to as -- the Mantis position.  Within ten seconds, a crowd of Sergeant Major Damselfish swarmed me; one even smacked against my hand.  The fish here were different from the Blue Hole in that they seemed much more inquisitive.  As the guide & I swam away from the boat, I noticed I had unexpectedly acquired two followers.  Since I was the caboose of the trio, I changed my course a few times to throw them off my trail, but they pursued my heels.  I don't know what about me attracted the large, gray fish but I was tickled as they accompanied me into the vast ocean.  Looking at my elongated legs (thanks to the snorkeling fins) I pretended I was The Little Mermaid, going about daily under-the-sea life with my sidekicks.

Unlike the Blue Hole -- with its distinguished slope -- Aquarium's floor simply vanished. Suddenly, the coral & plant life that spread out in every direction ceased at a wall of water.  Similar to the Blue Hole, the hues of blue darkened until they looked mixed with black & the one thing I could identify was nothingness.  I dared not swim past the drop off, over/into the much much deeper water, for fear I would be dragged somewhere abominable.  You would not dangle your appendages off a cliff, so why would I knowingly expose myself to whatever was concealed in the void?  Yet for all the terror I concocted, I still could not shake my gaze from the magnificent, mystic drop off, as if I could spot a singular location where the sea actually ended & nothing actually began.  Alas, I could not.  Before this adventure, I could not accurately define "wild".  To pinpoint it is impossible.  However, once you are in the wild, or a part of something wild, or witnessing wild flora and fauna, you just know.