‘No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem’. ‘Go Slow’. They’re signs you see around Caye (pronounced Key) Caulker, one of the most well-known of the Cayes (islands) off the coast of Belize, and that laid-back Caribbean attitude, combined with the fact that it’s cheap and close to Belize City, is why I ended up there for New Year. And, after eating my own body weight in turkey over Christmas and having eaten virtually no other carbohydrates except rice since I arrived, and not having had any other meat except poultry, going to a popular tourist destination like the Cayes also means I can pig out on exotic ‘foreign’ food. Like chips. And pizza. Plus, it’s lobster season until February, so now’s the perfect time to enjoy the spiny delicacies of the sea.
Caye Caulker is a popular backpacker destination (especially with Canadians, it seems – they must be escaping the frigid winter back home), so the accommodation and tours and restaurants are cheap, the bars are plentiful, and the whole island is much more low-key than some of the more developed resorts in the country. There’s hardly any dogs, no cars, and one tiny airstrip. And not much to do apart from swing in a hammock, lie on the beach, go snorkelling or diving, eat seafood, and drink rum. Perfect.
I didn’t dive as I have an ear infection, but I made up for it by snorkelling with sharks and watching manatees. The snorkelling was done at Shark Ray Alley, which is part of Hol Chan Marine Reserve, near the Northern Cayes, and that reserve is part of the world’s second-largest barrier reef, which stretches the length of Belize’s coastline and into Honduras. Shark Ray Alley, as the name suggests, is where nurse sharks and stingrays congregate – the area was originally used as a place where local fishermen gutted and cleaned their catch, and the animals attracted there have now become a tourist attraction. The creatures are now so used to being fed there, that they swim right up to the boat as soon as it arrives and are already there when the tourists jump in. Now I’m all for a bit of excitement and a thrilling frisson of danger, but it’s quite disconcerting to look down into the water from the safety of the boat and see a pack of circling sharks and stingrays, and then hear the boat captain say to everyone, ‘Jump in and have fun’! And it’s even more disconcerting to jump in and find yourself immediately surrounded by these creatures. I’ve seen Jaws. And I remember what happened to The Crocodile Hunter. As it turns out, my fears were unfounded – the animals seemed almost tame (you can stroke and pet them as they swim past) and the boat captain was in the water as well, and, more importantly, he was the one with the food. Because, in order to guarantee the tourists a good time and live up to their expectations, the tour operators and boat owners have to keep their attractions coming back. So, every time a tour boat appears, the animals get fed. It makes for great photographs, as tourists hold sharks in their arms like giant toothy aquatic babies, and stroke stingrays bellies as they glide past, and you certainly get much closer to them than you would in a normal animal-watching situation, but it does lend the whole experience a tinge of falseness – you might be interacting with these animals in their natural environment, but their behaviour is anything but natural, and it’s a little like being at the zoo or the safari park. But, having said that, for a tourist it doesn’t lessen the thrill one bit, and it’s amazing to be in the water being jostled and bumped by these incredible creatures (at least until the next boat turns up and they all bugger off for their next meal), and I’ll be going again before I leave the country. And I’ll be taking an underwater camera next time.
For a more ethically-conscious tour experience, there’s manatee-watching. No jumping in the water with these creatures, and no feeding them either, in fact there’s no getting-very-close-to-them at all. Strict guidelines are in place to protect these endangered animals and their environment, around Swallow Caye. Apparently, they’re not very good at detecting low-frequency sounds, which makes them particularly vulnerable to collisions with motor boats. And, judging from the fact that we hit one at high speed on the boat journey from Belize City to Caye Caulker on my first day, I can vouch for that! These fat mammals (they look a little like a walrus and they’re also known as sea cows, which gives you an idea of how svelte they are) are distantly related to elephants, and, like them, they’re herbivores and they eat a huge amount of vegetation every day, grazing mostly on yummy sea grass. They also produce a prodigious amount of droppings and an almost constant stream of flatulence – apparently the best way to spot them is to look out for floating excrement and bubbling surface water. Nice. Manatees and similar creatures are what sailors were calling sirens and mermaids for hundreds of years; in fact the manatee belongs to an animal group called Sirenia, named after those warbling beauties of the sea. Although why anyone would mistake one for a singing woman with a hypnotic voice is beyond me. And they don’t look much like Daryl Hannah in ‘Splash’ either. Perhaps the sailors had spent so much time at sea they’d forgotten what women look like, or maybe they were just really into fat, bald chicks with wrinkly skin and no teeth. We managed to see a few while we were out in the boat, but, like whale-watching, it takes both time and patience, and, even when you see one, the majority of the animal is under the water, so what you do see is a head or a back or a tail as the manatee surfaces, breathes, and then dives down again. And, if you’re me, and are constantly looking the wrong way when the captain spots something and tells everyone, by the time you turn around and look where everyone’s gawping and pointing their cameras, the bloody thing’s disappeared. And, after a while, the manatees have had enough of all this attention and have retired to the safety of the mangroves, where it’s almost impossible to get the boat into. Then it’s time to leave these gentle giants of the sea to their grass-eating, pooping and farting.