Thursday, 20 September 2012

Snorkelling with sharks, rays and turtles in Belize

Arriving in Belize was like stepping onto a completely different continent. Although archaeologically and geographically similar to the countries it borders, the impact of more recent history was obvious. With much more of a Caribbean vibe, and English replacing Spanish as the predominant language spoken to visitors, the atmosphere was quite different. After a brief stop in Belize City, we hopped on a water taxi to Ambergris Caye, one of the main islands off the coast and an ideal location for indulging in lots of watery activities.

I'd managed to snag a gorgeous beach bungalow for very little cost, and as we sank into the chairs on our deck and watched the sun dip below the crystal clear blue water on the first evening, I wasn't sure a week there would be enough. Once the sweltering temperatures dropped, the town came alive, Reggeton music drifting on the breeze and the smells of BBQ wafting over the sand. As we wandered along the shoreline, trying to decide which of the many seafood restaurants to pick, we spotted rays gliding through the seaweed in the gloom.

I knew I was going to love Belize.

We'd added the country to our itinerary primarily due to its reputation for diving and snorkeling, and it certainly didn't disappoint. However, whilst the accommodation and food is relatively cheap, anything taking place in the water most definitely is not. Snorkeling trips alone ran into the hundreds of dollars, and we had to be selective. We spent our first day hiring a two-person kayak and exploring up to the beginning of the reef, spotting more rays and trying to avoid sunburn. Seeing the huge, dark shapes of the rays under our kayak made us excited for actually going in ourselves, and we booked a multi-site snorkeling trip for the following day.

Our first stop was back at the reef, further in where the corals gleamed and fish swam in huge shoals. We were barely in the water before being surrounded both by some familiar old friends and a few new species. As we swam further, rays hugged the side of the reef and a gorgeous sea turtle searched for food, sending up clouds of sand from the floor.

After a couple of hours we moved on to the destination I was most excited about - Shark Ray Alley. As the name suggests, the area is known for hosting a large population of both sting rays and nurse sharks, who swam up to our boat as soon as we arrived. The site is the subject of controversy - the sharks and rays only maintain their huge presence there due to feeding from boat captains. Although this is always a touchy subject, and there is a huge argument (with whom I do sympathise) for no deliberate feeding of wild animals, the flip side is that the popularity of the area has resulted in greater regulations of human presence and protection of the reef as part of the national park. It's a difficult topic and not one I feel qualified to judge. However, I can't deny the thrill of jumping into the water, sharks below my feet.

The rays were much bigger than those we'd previously seen, fins gently cutting through the water and tails flicking from side to side. Sharks swam between them, graceful and elegant. When the time finally came to leave, our captain nearly had to drag me out of the water I was so reluctant to go. Since I was a child rays have been my favourite sea animal, and the opportunity to swim alongside them was every bit as magical as I'd hoped.


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