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Friday, January 19, 2018

Belize 2018

Wherein the chronicle of my latest excursion to the tropics is written.

I picked up my student Seth at the 18 wheeler and drove down to St. Louis.  When we arrived at the Embassy Suites airport hotel we found every parking lot around it that does not connect to it.  We had to make a fairly large excursion to get back to the single entrance.  There we met another student, Dylan, with whom we planned to share a room.  We had dinner at the hotel bar and enjoyed speaking with former football pro Hanik Milligan.
We got up at 3:15 a.m. and caught the shuttle to the airport to meet the rest of our group, totaling 17 and composed of 15 students, myself, and colleague Dr. Megan Boccardi. We checked in, passed security and took two short flights, first to Houston then on to Belize City.  It was sunny and hot upon deplaning, quite a contrast to the 15 below I had enjoyed at home just a couple of days previously.  We were greeted by an agent and loaded onto our bus.  We stopped at a nearby grocery store, where I was unable to buy a 6-pack of beer (I found out later this is one of their blue laws; one can only purchase singles out of the cooler).  The bus driver called in our lunch order and we stopped 45 minutes later and picked up our hot lunches to go.  Like most, I got beans and rice with chicken. It was pretty good, and cheap.
   We proceeded on through flat, scrubby tropical habitat, which gave way to more heavily forested, mountainous regions, interspersed with citrus groves and other ag lands.  Curiously, some of the orange groves were overgrown with vines, seemingly abandoned or neglected.  Also interesting were the numerous free-range chickens and dogs.  The somewhat rough bus ride of 5 hours became rougher over the last 20 minutes of heavily potholed gravel road.  I stayed awake until sunset, when I could no longer see anything out of the windows.  The gravel road to Blue Creek woke me right up.
   A veritable army of Mayan children from the village were there to greet us and offer to carry our bags.  I chose an adult male to carry my big bag, but my camera bag went on my back.  It was a muddy, rocky single track to the lodge, well worth the tip money spent on the porter.  We met our gracious station manager Byron, who showed us to our lodgings.  The male and female students had separate dorms.  Dr. Boccardi was given a nearby cabin, while I was shown to a charming treehouse, accessible only by a swinging bridge.  It was perfect, even with the large wolf spider on my wall.
   We had rice, beans and chicken for dinner.  It was delicious, in spite of the repetition of lunch.  All meals were prepared by local Mayan women Teresa and Serafina, and they were incredible cooks.  I led some of the students on a short night hike, where we saw toads, crickets, leaf-cutter ants and a big, black tarantula.  Birds I saw that day included turkey vulture, great-tailed grackle, Amazon kingfisher, a hawk and a dove, among others.
   Byron told me that he had been a zipline guide for many years and had rigged a number of ziplines.  I took the opportunity to pick his brain on the subject, particularly how they were tensioned.  He said they typically used a come-along with Bachmann knots to tension the cable, thereby avoiding putting kinks in it.  The exception was a 1500-ft cable that they tensioned with a heavy-duty chain hoist.
   I took the first of several unpleasantly cold showers on this morning, then hiked up the trail a bit before breakfast.  I saw a blue-crowned mot-mot, a hooded warbler, a common yellowthroat, a hummingbird and a bat.  Breakfast consisted of flatbread, eggs and beans.  While we were hanging about, Byron pointed out a large male iguana sunning in a tree across the river.
   We took the ethnobotany and farming hike with local Mayan guide Sylvano, who also claimed to be a shaman.  He reviewed the (often questionable) medical uses of many plants, including Jackass bitters, which I tried.  It wasn't bad at first, kind of minty, but finished with a nasty aftertaste.  He showed us a large vine from which water could be obtained and many of us had a drink.  I thought it was fine water.  He also showed us how to make roofing thatch from a palm frond.  The tour of his farm was quite interesting.  He had a nice stand of cacao trees, but the squirrels were raising havoc with his fruits.  Everyone tried the fresh cacao fruit.  He also showed us calabash, vanilla vine, and others.  I enjoyed his demonstration of tapping a rubber tree, which I'd never seen in real life.  He had a black orchid plant as well (national flower of Belize), but it wasn't in bloom.  Along the way, we saw a lineated woodpecker, various parrots and others.  When we got back to the lodge, we saw a slaty-tailed trogon that kept returning to a couple of fruiting palm trees next to the shelter.  Rita and Bobbie went kayaking.  Lunch consisted of  rice and beans, beef, pasta and banana bread. It rained a bit during lunch.
   We took a short hike upstream to begin the cave swim. We wore headlamps, life jackets and water shoes.I also wore a shortsleeve rashguard and carried the polaroid action cam. We arrived at a large cave entrance. At it's ceiling, there was a large, dead bee hive, the combs hanging from the bare rock.  We were told that it had been a problem, with many tourists being stung. Finally, the guides had built a fire to smoke it well, then blasted it with a shotgun. Just to be clear, essentially all honeybees in Belize are African (killer) bees.  It was sometimes hard swimming against the heavy current.  There were some neat limestone formations and a few bats flying around.  I had never done anything like this, and I'm sure the students hadn't either. We couldn't go as far into the cave as normally because the flow was too high.   It was easy floating out with the current.  After hiking back we swam in the creek in front of the lodge.  Some of us had a good time on the rope swing, and  I got some video of that.  Most of us swam up to the falls, which, again, was not easy in the current.
   I had a little spare time and took the camera out to photograph waterfalls, usually with a slow shutter speed to let the water look cottony.  I went back to my room to change lenses for full-flash macro. I leaned over and heard a small piece of plastic hit the floor.  When I picked it up, I found that it was the mode knob from my camera (Canon 7D).  This event was very alarming.  I tried sticking it back in and turning it, but nothing happened.  Fortunately, it was stuck in Aperture Priority mode, which I use a lot.
   That evening, I saw a large bat cross the creek.  We took a night hike up the trail toward the cave.  Specimens were thin, but we did see a tarantula, a couple of walking sticks, spiders, crickets and millipedes.  When we had gone as far as we were going to go, the guide told us to turn off our lights and be quiet.  Immediately, something flew past my head and screeched.  The prolonged quiet and profound darkness were much creepier, as it was fully overcast, and not even starlight penetrated. I learned later that many of the students were very freaked out by this episode, especially since we weren't told about it ahead of time and didn't know the purpose.  Some kept flicking their lights on periodically.  We were told that it was designed to allow us to hear owls hooting and possibly kinkajous moving about in the canopy.  I thought it was to allow more wildlife to approach closer, which we would then see when we turned our lights on.  None of those things happened.  It turned out to be just an exercise in stretching our nerves.  Upon returning, I helped Byron remove a big spider from the women's dorm. He also used a black light to find a scorpion down the trail, which was a big attraction for students.
   I walked down the trail toward the village to do some early birding. I saw great-tailed grackles, great kiskadees, hummingbirds, parrots, black-cheeked woodpecker, great egret, Amazon kingfisher, a becard, a thrush, and many others.  While I was at the edge of the village, I saw a young woman washing her clothes on a rock in a stream.  Before long, she was brushing her teeth, then stripped to her bra to wash herself.  Self-conscious of carrying binoculars and not wanting to appear creepy, I walked up the trail back to the lodge.  I got a lot of good, close photos of the trogons coming to feed on berries.  After breakfast we hiked down through the village to a downstream region of the creek to hunt iguanas.  It was on this march that on a trail through a corn field I was stung on the ankles by numerous small black ants.  Every time I would stop to take a photo, they would swarm up my shoes and sting as soon as they contacted skin.  The sting pain was insignificant, but over the next week my ankles were severely itchy and swollen.  At least I was able to photograph a couple of butterflies on this hike.  At the streamside we prepared for wading and went upstream a short distance, where the son of the guide climbed into the trees to spook iguanas into the water.  The students formed a line across the stream, but the first iguana got right past us.  Kevin grabbed the second iguana, receiving some wounds for his efforts, and Seth ended up lifting it out of the water.  The guides caught another small one by hand, as well as another big male.  While we were hanging about, I saw a blue morpho butterfly flit across the stream.  I tried to call everyone's attention to it.  I've not seen one in the wild before, in spite of several trips to the tropics.  We took multiple photos of nearly everyone holding an iguana. On the way back we saw three chachalacas fly out of a fruit tree.  Our lunch was traditional chicken caldo.
   We hiked down to the village again for the arts and crafts presentation.  Melina showed us how to prepare cacao. She roasted the beans and separated out the chaff. The students helped grind the beans. The final product, sweetened and served warm, was about the same as a hot chocolate.  She also showed us how to weave a basket from the fibers of the jipi-japa palm leaf.  Several students had a try at it.  We were also entertained by her charming children and their chickens.  I was fascinated by the construction of her thatch-roofed hut.  The timbers were round poles, locally sourced, no doubt, and bound together with vines that had been saturated in water before lashing and shrank when dry.  The walls were mostly rough-cut boards.  Hammocks for sleeping were pulled aside during the day to allow more living space.  On the way out of town the villagers had set up a craft fair with a lot of hand-made goods, such as baskets, beaded jewelry, carved calabashes, and baskets.  Prices were very reasonable.  We had a dinner of fried chicken and smashed potatoes.  The students enjoyed a wild game of spoons into the night.
   I got up and packed, putting my wet and muddy things into a trash bag.  Breakfast was pancakes, beans and eggs.  I will forever miss those beans.  We had told the locals we were leaving at 8.  They started showing up at 7 to carry our bags.  I chose Julian, a thin but stalwart 14-year-old, to carry my big bag down the trail to the village.  We stopped the bus at Lubaantun, a sprawling Mayan ruin that was apparently used as a marketplace and a stadium for ballgames.  I saw some parrots flying around, but could not identify nor photograph them.  One high point was getting a clear view of an agouti that ran across a clearing below us.  We went on to Hopkins to the Lebeha drumming center, where we heard some great percussion music, danced and ate fish and plantains.  Most of the students had a turn at pounding the plantains using a long stick and a big wooden pot.  To me, it was exactly like packing the soil around a fence post with a tamping rod, and I took right to it.  Onward we went to Dangriga, another coastal town.  We were met by one of the guides, who got our bags on one boat, while we got in another.
   It was a fairly short (45-min?) ride out to South Water Caye, and the lodge run by IZE, our outfitter.  We met Barb, the director, who gave us a short tour then showed us to our rooms.  When I pulled my wet clothes out of the trash bag, they absolutely reeked.  I hung them on the line outside to dry.  We went snorkeling right from shore off the south end of the island.  It was a nice, easy swim in fairly calm water.  We saw a nurse shark, and a big southern stingray, which swam right under me.  I also saw brain corals, soft corals, elkhorn and staghorn corals, a feather duster worm and a large hermit crab.  Interestingly, they had an underwater rack where they were growing staghorn corals.  I had a couple of beers at happy hour before dinner.  Afterward we enjoyed shining our flashlights in the shallows around the pier to see fish and invertebrates that came out at night.  This activity became our pastime every night.  Eventually, I discovered that by using my big flash I could get some decent images.  We shortly discovered some sea horses that clung to a tangle of rope hanging from the deck rail.  We also saw houndfish, bonefish, and watched an octopus move in to hide under the deck.
   After a breakfast of waffles we took the boats out west of the caye to snorkel.  The water was rough, and there weren't many fish in this locale.  I saw a rock beauty, parrot fishes, wrasses, lots of corals, and delightful ascon sponges in a variety of colors.  About halfway through my breakfast started feeling heavy in my stomach and the snorkel felt big in my mouth.  The up and down motion of the waves was beginning to make me nauseous.  Shortly afterward, I was stung in the calf by a jellyfish.  I never saw it, but it hurt much worse than the little ones that stung us in the Galapagos.  The pain began to pass and the time had come to get back in the boat.  I thought I was going to be fine, until I heard my student Abby starting to retch.  Normally, I'm not a sympathy puker, but I am vulnerable to motion sickness. I gave my breakfast to the sea over the side of the boat.  Guess I was chumming the fish.
   When we got back I took a shower, ate a benadryl and put hydrocortisone cream on my ant stings.  Feeling much revivified, I took a nap in the hammock on the deck of my cabin, which, by the way, sat among the mangroves and looked eastward over the Caribbean.  Lunch consisted of chicken empanadas.  Delicious.  I eschewed the afternoon snorkel, which being done on the fore reef endured heavy waves from the neverending Northeast Tradewinds.  I took a nap and did some photography.  Dinner was barbequed chicken.  I watched the students play volleyball.  I thought our kids would dominate, considering we had three varsity women on our side, but the locals, mostly our guides, were pretty good.  Night shining around the dock revealed a green moray (he's a regular), stingrays, squid, crabs, a lobster, polychaete worms, a sea cucumber, bonefish and a small barracuda. We saw a little squid on the surface quickly accelerate and catch a tiny fish.  One of the guides cleaned some lionfish at the pier, and the bonefish showed up to aggressively consume the remains.  Also, a huge puffer appeared, presumably with the same ideas.
After breakfast I took dramamine in preparation for snorkeling at "The Aquarium".  It did not disappoint. The coral formations were fairly shallow, allowing a good look. Conditions were calm, and no one got sick.  I saw many soft corals and sponges.  I saw a sea turtle, a spotted moray, two boxfish and two cowfish, many parrotfish, a rockfish and others.  This snorkel was, without doubt, the best of the trip.  Upon returning I took a brief outing in a sit-on-top kayak (Lifetime), followed by a short trip on a stand-up paddleboard.  It was kind of a cheap one, with no skeg, which may be why it did not track at all.  It was kind of cool paddling through a school of bonefish.  I took a little video of that.  I went birding with a couple of guys from the other group, from Sacramento City College.  We saw some warblers, including the yellow, black and white, palm, and Cape May.
  On our way out to the afternoon snorkel we saw a dolphin.  We stopped and it swam right under the boat, then breached a few times, giving us all a great view.  Snorkeling "Coral Gardens" was not bad.  The water was not too rough.  I saw several large stingrays,  We also saw two comb jellies and two regular jellyfish.  I took video of them.  Actually, I took video during all of my snorkeling, but most of the footage is very poor.
1/9  The day dawned windy and rough, so no one was in the mood for snorkeling.  I led a short nature hike starting from behind my cabin, where many tiny hermit crabs swarmed in the shallows.  I described the value of mangroves as incubators for many juvenile animals, and their role in stabilizing shorelines.  We also saw a sea urchin and fiddler crab, and I talked about coconut trees.  We walked out to the north end of the island, where the coral rubble created some shallow tide pools.  By turning over rocks, we found three species of sea urchins plus pencil urchins, a couple of species of brittle stars, chitons, conch, many snails, acorn barnacles and decorator crabs.  On the way out Kevin spotted a sea anemone.  I fed it one of the small snails as a demonstration.  Birds we saw included great-tailed grackles, brown pelicans, cormorants, and magnificent frigatebirds.  Also noted was the sea grape.
   We took the boat out to Carrie Bow Caye to get a tour of the Smithsonian Institution's research station.  It was quite nice, especially the wet lab with running sea water.  The station manager told us that the island used to be 5 acres, but it was down to about .5 acres since they cut down the mangroves.  I reminded my students of what I had said about the role of mangroves in stabilizing shorelines.  Thence we went to a small island where the frigate birds were nesting and brown boobies were hanging about.  The guide broke off some sticks and threw them in the air, where the frigates caught them and carried them back to their nests.  We looked for manatees around the Tobacco Range, but didn't see any.  We moored at Tobacco Caye and took a quick tour of the island.  We had a sobering view of fishermen cleaning conch in their boats and tossing the shells onto a giant pile.  We learned the Noni tree and a couple of others.  We returned to South Water Caye, enjoyed a couple of beers. We were given a few lobster tails for dinner, even though we had failed to find any lobsters ourselves (I had been looking hard during the snorkels).  We finally had a decent sunset.   All previous sunsets had them obscured by clouds, as were all sunrises.  I photographed the hell out of this one.
  I was reading in bed the works of J. Sheridan Le Fanu using the Kindle app on my phone when I felt an earthquake at about 9.  I fell asleep at about 9:30 but was awakened by knocking at my door at 10:30.  Barb said there had been an earthquake, and that we were under a tsunami warning.  I woke up Dr. Boccardi.  It was decided we should go to the second floor of the student dorm and don life jackets.  After I heard the earthquake was in Honduras, I figured there wasn't much of a threat because there isn't much water between the island and the mainland, so I lay down and half dozed.  In a half hour, we received the all-clear, took off our life jackets and went back to bed.  Upon my return to the states, I looked up the story and found that the earthquake had been in Honduran waters, and was magnitude 7.6.
Had I seen this map, I wouldn't have gone to sleep, I'd have shit myself.  There's a lot of water between that epicenter and Belize, our island being just off the middle coast.  This caye has no elevation, and everything on it could be easily wiped out by a decent tsunami. Here's the full story.  We sure dodged a bullet there.
   I packed early and got a little photography in before breakfast.  We loaded on the boats and hauled back to the mainland in rough water.  From there, a bus ride of a few hours returned us to the airport, where we were finally able to shop for souvenirs.  All the shops had mostly the same tourist kitsch, but that didn't stop us.  Our flight was delayed by 11 minutes, which made the layover in Houston a bit dicey.  We had to clear customs, immigration and security in a little over an hour.  I thought by the time we had gone through customs and immigration our bags would be waiting for us, but nooooooo.  We waited in agony at the baggage carousel for them to appear while the minutes ticked away.  After they finally came up, we grabbed them and ran through the airport to our gate, where our flight was already boarding.  Whew, that was a close one.  We arrived at St. Louis, said our goodbyes, then Dylan, Seth and I took the shuttle back to the hotel.  We got in our cars and headed home.

Photo albums:

Blue Creek
Iguana hunt
South Water Caye

I'll be adding some videos later.

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