January 24, 2010

Saturday was dedicated to conservation in Belize, both land and sea. The day began with an early morning interview with Anna Hoare, Belize Audubon Society’s dedicated executive director. Her passion for Belize’s natural wonders was inspiring, and as she talked, we learned that the conservation movement here faces many challenges and has scored some impressive successes.

For example, Anna informed us that Belize has thus far protected ‘only 14%’ of its marine areas—still far from its goal of 20%. Only 14%? If the rest of the world were as conscientious as Belize, our life-giving ocean would be 1400% better protected! Belize Audubon is one of those NGOs that are quietly making a difference, and we hope everyone who reads this will check them out and consider a gift of support: http://www.belizeaudubon.org/

By mid-morning we were headed for our first dive in Belize’s warm waters, aboard the dive boat
Good Ting with Captain Paul at the helm. Also aboard was Linda Searle of EcoMar, whose turtle tagging project is yielding valuable data about the migratory patterns and growth rates of the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle. After a 30-minute boat ride, we arrived at Gallows Point and dropped into the 82F water for a reef dive.

Reef conditions were mixed. We saw large beds of coral rubble and coral skeletons, including this formation of dead Elkhorn coral.

Then, barely 100 meters away, Kip came upon a beautiful stand of healthy Elkhorn.

Our quick assessment was that this barrier reef is stressed,
probably due to its proximity to Belize River, which drains the collected runoff of Belize City and the region. But signs of hope were abundant—including the Elkhorn we spotted, masses of Gorgonian sea fans, and of course the turtles!

The turtles were the high point of the day’s activities. Joining Linda and her two hardy volunteers, Jamani and Ernesto, we spread out in a picket line about 20 meters apart and snorkeled the reef scanning for the well-camouflaged turtles. We made one long run north along the reef in about 7-10 meters (25-35 feet). No action. Then we moved south and tried again. Within 5 minutes, two turtles were spotted simultaneously. The chase was on!

Apparently, there is no easy way to catch a Hawksbill turtle. In fact, the EcoMar team’s approach is so careful that the turtles actually have the upper hand. After a diver spots a turtle, the team converges and begins a spirited chase, taking turns diving down to the turtle, who in turn deftly eludes each diver’s grasp. After all divers are thoroughly exhausted, the turtle ascends serenely a fair distance away, takes several leisurely breaths, and promptly disappears into the deep blue. This process is then repeated multiple times.
In spite of this principle, Ernesto somehow was eventually able to gently take hold of a medium-sized adolescent female and bring her to the boat. There, the team measured her carefully, took a tiny tissue sample for DNA analysis, placed a tiny subcutaneous PIT (passive integrated transponder) tag and a flipper tag on her, christened her ‘Sylvia Earle,’ and released her. From the looks it, young Sylvia had no qualms about leaving her new friends.

By John Racanelli
Photos by Kip Evans

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