The Maya Mountain Marine Corridor: Visit Belize’s Southern Coast
Few things get me out of bed before sunrise, but a private boat tour to look for wildlife is an opportunity I won’t pass up. As the sun came up one morning in southern Belize, my wife, my 11-year-old daughter, and I joined several staff from TIDE (Toledo Institute for Development and Environment) and made our way north through the Gulf of Honduras, one of the few places in the world where you can see three countries at the same time (Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras). As we cruised by offshore, we watched the highlands known as the Seven Hills – although I only counted five – rise up along the coast like a green Loch Ness Monster.
Joining my family was a trio of British conservationists who work with TIDE: Caroline Oliver (who manages TIDE’s new Ridge to Reef Expeditions), James Lord (development director), and Claire Simm (development intern and avid birder), along with Narciso, an physically imposing yet affable boat driver and TIDE ranger.
The Seven Hills are one of 12 protected areas in the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor, an ecologically rich area encompassing more than 800,000 acres and stretching from the Maya Mountains out into the Caribbean. TIDE manages roughly 20,000 acres of private reserves in this region, including the Seven Hills. The corridor is one of the best-protected parts of Belize, with roughly 75 percent of the landscape under protection, helping to safeguard 43 types of habitat and at least 50 endangered species.
The previous evening, my family had met up with Caroline and James at Asha’s Culture Kitchen, a waterfront restaurant in Punta Gorda with a great view over the Gulf of Honduras. Looking over the chalkboard menu, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to order lionfish for dinner. Prepared in a garlic sauce with vegetables, it was the most delicious seafood I’ve ever eaten and possibly the most sustainable as well.
The predatory lionfish are supposed to be roaming the reefs of the Pacific but are now taking over reefs in the Caribbean and Florida and devastating fish populations. TIDE is doing its part in the effort to control the damage; Caroline and James’ colleagues were in nearby Placencia at the annual Lobsterfest Celebration, where they helped to organize a lionfish fishing competition where more than 500 of the invasive fish were caught. Learn more about invasive lionfish in Celine Cousteau’s recent video.
Out on the water on a fiberglass “panga” (the preferred medium-sized boat for fishermen in Central America), we headed up a couple of rivers in the Port Honduras Marine Reserve to look for manatees. While we saw many birds, fish, and beautiful views, the elusive marine mammal was not in the cards for the day. Our second stop was at the ranger station at Payne Creek National Park, where TIDE is preparing to receive volunteers as part of its new Ridge to Reef Expeditions. In this program, volunteers can spend two or eight weeks participating in a new sea turtle conservation project, camera monitoring of jaguars, manatee and dolphin research, reforestation projects, and more.
Our last stop of the day was the Snake Cayes for some snorkeling. Named the healthiest reef in Belize in 2010 by the Healthy Reef Initiative, this no-take marine reserve (meaning fishing is prohibited) is now being heavily impacted by illegal fishermen coming from Guatemala and Honduras. The reef was still quite impressive, with many species of both hard and soft coral and fish to explore, including critically endangered staghorn and elkhorn corals.
After a long-day in the sun, we kicked back with James to talk about the challenges of protecting natural areas as diverse as the Maya Mountains. TIDE faces many of the same issues as local organizations around the region including poverty, cultural issues, and global challenges like climate change. In addition to managing protected areas, the organization works to promote both community development and conservation including ecotourism programs like TIDE Tours and Ridge to Reef, and has trained more than 40 local residents in tour guiding. In 15 years, TIDE has grown into a national conservation leader, helping to make this region one of the best protected in Belize.
Few places in the world offer such pristine mountain forests just miles away from coral reefs, mangroves, and uninhabited islands. With new threats to this unique place including climate change and invasive species, there is a lot of work to be done and there are great opportunities for travelers and volunteers to contribute.
By Brad Nahill – WildBlog | Stories of Wildlife Conservation Travel