January 27, 2010

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Today was dedicated to the habitats of Hol Chan Marine Reserve. We began with an early dive among the mangrove forests that provide a nursery to most of the fish and invertebrate species that make up the barrier reef ecosystem. Snorkeling silently through a shallow mangrove creek, we spied snappers, angelfish, grunts, shrimps and a solitary batfish, whose pectoral fins act like tiny arms as he scoots along the nutrient-rich muddy bottom.

Mangroves are extremely important to the health of tropical ecosystems, serving many critical functions. In addition to their role as a breeding ground for reef species, they provide shelter to juveniles of many species, protect shorelines from storm surge and erosion, and filter sediments and nutrients from the land that would otherwise harm the reef.

In spite of legal protections, Ambergris Caye’s mangroves are disappearing to coastal development and shoreline armoring. Fortunately, Hol Chan’s protected area includes a large mangrove forest complex–home to tens of thousands of birds like this nesting reddish egret.

We donned our tanks and swam seaward to the next habitat, the turtle grass beds. Right on cue, a perfect little green sea turtle appeared! Following along, we marveled at how effortlessly she propelled herself through the shallow, warm waters. Below, tiny crabs and shrimp clung to the wide-bladed seagrass below as glass minnows darted in and out.

As we approached the reef cut habitat, we encountered waves of black margate, yellowtail snapper, Cubera snappers, schoolmasters and Bermuda chub. A large southern stingray sat covered in the channel’s white sand, his golden eyes following us warily as we drifted by. In a cavern at the base of the channel reef, we spied a huge rainbow parrotfish, whose oversized eyes and buck teeth made him look like a character straight from the computer graphics geeks at Pixar Studios. We could only imagine how absurd we looked to him—all silly appendages, gangly gadgets and trailing a plume of bubbles.

Eventually we came to the fore reef, a place of intense action where offshore waves encounter the shallow reef and crash in a welter of foam. From below, among stands of Elkhorn coral and fields of waving gorgonian sea fans, the whitewater overhead looked like fast moving clouds in a liquid sky. Between each wave, parrotfish, triggers and minute wrasses darted between formations of great star corals, brain corals, warty sea rods, rose lace corals and at least a hundred more species. It was a feast of color and life.

After a sumptuous lunch of apples and peanut butter, we headed offshore for a final dive among the “tongue and groove” outer reef, whose grand spurs of coral reach up some 30 meters (100 feet) from the sand channels that separate them. We were very pleased to see abundant groupers—black, Nassau and tiger—some quite boldly approaching us as if to say, “you can visit our neighborhood, but don’t mess with us.” We were inclined to honor this rule.Stopping below a massif of pillar corals, I watched a 1-meter black grouper pull up, hover and wait patiently as a small army of cleaner wrasses flitted about, snacking on parasites around his gills. This went on for at least three minutes: grouper hovering, wrasses working diligently, sunbeams dancing over the scene. And as he swam off, if I didn’t know better, I’d have sworn that grouper looked positively pleased with himself…like a guy who’d just gotten a fresh haircut and a shave, perhaps? Nah.

Our air running low and the light fading, we surfaced to join our dive boat, where our dedicated crew Rafael and Mario patiently waited on a wildly pitching sea. After securing our gear, Rafa coaxed the boat through the reef channel to the calmer backwaters of the lagoon, then headed for home. But even our ride home had a treat in store: a quick dive with a large loggerhead turtle with whom a pod of dolphins were “playing.” Our dive guide informed us that dolphins often do this in the lagoon, at times even holding turtles down as they try to reach the surface to breathe.
After a few minutes, the dolphins moved on and the loggerhead, relieved of the burden of being their plaything, remained serenly on the bottom as we dove down to pay our respects.
As so ends our brief but enlightening diving visit to Ambergris Caye and its remarkable Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

Tomorrow, we return to the Mainland to head for Belize’s capitol, Belmopan, and the launch of the University of Belize’s new Environmental Research Institute facility.

Written by John Racanelli
Photography by Kip F. Evans
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