by Christiana Hayward-Kourabas
Six days ago, earlyish in the morning, we packed more than anyone could possibly imagine into a Sartenejan made yacht (this included fourteen cylinders, a compressor, all diving weights, books, computers tools, and all of our individual dive gear) and set off from Sarteneja across the Corozal bay. It was beautiful sailing (with a bit of help from the motor), and the anticipation of what was to greet us was immense! The boat captain shouted old sea dog stories to us which bizarrely ranged from breast feeding to how best to cook … anything went!
We got to the Bacalar Chico and waited by the nature reserve HQ while the Expedition and Dive Managers set off through the mangroves to the other side of the reserve. They went to the Caribbean coast in a small boat, with most of the stuff brought in the sail boat. We followed a few hours later, slowly winding through the silent mangroves, with the occasional pelican, wood stork and magnificent frigate bird wheeling overhead. We then saw our first glimpse of the Azure Sea, with the breakers in the distance heralding the barrier reef.
Between the barrier reef and the shore is a huge shallow expanse of calm, crystal clear sea, which is a sky blue interspersed with dark patches of reef. We followed the jungley coast for about ten minutes until we reached two tiny wooden jetties, one broken down and falling into the sea. On almost each remaining post, were Cormorants stretching out their wings and pelicans resting. On the other jetty were our managers. Behind them our camp: a small group of little huts which instantly reminds one of the second of the three little pigs’ huts! They are, however, rather more sturdily or there is just no big bad wolf, because the wind has been whistling through them and they are still standing. Just behind the three huts is the main wooden building containing a classroom/common room/dining room with a small kitchen behind, where three local staff prepare the most extraordinarily wonderful meals.
Our days start at 0515, when we awake to get our diving gear ready. JJ is always at the end of the jetty chilling as daylight breaks. We leave when the sun rises at about 0600 and then head out towards the reef to see if we are able to dive on the outer side. As of yet, we haven’t been able to because the waves have been too fierce, however, we have had the most incredible time inside the reef, having been manta towing to get a general idea of what lies beneath us. This involves holding on to a piece of wood attached to ropes and being dragged behind the boat and then reporting the percentage cover of coral, sea grass, fish and other stuff. We then snorkel and dive in the most interesting sections.
Today was incredible, as we had a day off diving but saw a dolphin as we set off, then saw a huge Southern Stingray, an enormous Eagle Ray, Great Barracuda, Turtles and Fish of course! After breakfast, we went into the Mangroves and saw three huge, beautiful Manatees. In the afternoon we went to the point where the barrier reef meets the land. There are fossils of the coral we have been so studiously learning, we snorkelled by a patch of reef and I saw a huge Nurse Shark, which quite frankly looked slightly less than docile. In crystal clear water less than 5 foot deep, a large Nurse Shark swimming towards you can be a little alarming!
We have lectures at almost every break in our diving/snorkelling/manta towing schedule, and are learning our fish and Benthic identification. Nick, the Field Scientist is incredibly patient, clear and dogged in his determination for us to become great data collectors! We are totally cut off from civilisation here, as our camp is in a clearing cut out of the jungle. The saddest thing is the rubbish which litters the coast. The beauty of the geological miracle is blemished by the plastic waste washed ashore all along the coastline. Most of the rubbish will have gathered over the last ten or twenty years. This coast has been in the process of being formed since the beginning of time. We are doing our best to clean the beach, with the two boat captains Hilmar and Pablo helping David and I with the seemingly endless task of collecting the plastic, and bagging it up before dumping wheelbarrow loads full of sea grass in the jungle. We need more volunteers to help keep our beautiful coastline pristine, as we have a long way to go, and there is much to do!
All daytime hours are taken up with the planned activities, and the evenings by meetings and more studying, if we are awake. We fall into bed, exhausted to be lulled asleep by the wind rattling through the palms, the breakers in the distance crashing against the barrier reef and thoughts of what we have seen in the day and what we could possibly see tomorrow.
The bad bits? Lots of mosquitoes, ants, anything that bites and not enough time to take all your surroundings in.
There are too many highlights, and just when you think that it’s time for bed the amazing cooks call you to see the Racoon’s outside the classroom, eating our dinner scraps…
Our group is small, but wonderful! Al is quite simply the most perfect Dive Manager: exuberant, efficient and infectiously happy. Nick is quite barking, but brilliant! JJ whom runs the camp with military precision and a twinkle, has a rather questionable taste in music! Our boat captains are always smiling and safe, and then there are the three of us: the pioneer volunteers… the first of many!