During my time with the Belize frontier conservation team, I have been made aware of a multitude of issues affecting the marine life here; however, the most incredible day I have experienced here yet has also been the most eye-opening and heart breaking in many ways.
That morning, we had set off to survey the Caribbean spiny lobsters. Considering the popularity of lobster dishes in the Caribbean, I was surprised by the difficulty we had in spotting them on the reef, encountering only six (about 1 per person on the search). It was unusual, but the day continued, and I put it out of my mind. After the lobster search, we did a manatee search, and I finally got to encounter my first (and only) manatee of the trip so far. It has long been my dream to see these beautiful animals in the wild, so this moment was quite overwhelming and magical to me.
Having had time to reflect since this experience, the reality of the rarity of these animals - and the reasons as to why they are rare - have sunk in. The wildlife here is struggling to compete with the rapid development occurring across the island of Caye Caulker, and seems, sadly, to be losing. Every day on the island, new docks are appearing, mangroves are being burned and sea grass is being torn up for dredging. The manatees depend on seagrass for feeding, and the lobster population is being overfished at such an unsustainable rate that the population could be at risk of entirely disappearing. I have seen more lobster tails and carcasses whilst monitoring docks than I have seen living lobsters. I have seen many posters advertising manatee tours and witnessed many manatee tour boats, yet have only seen one manatee in three weeks, despite numerous searches.
During my short time here, I have seen a dramatic change in the ecosystems and landscape, with dredges appearing around the north area of Caye Caulker as it succumbs to the same developmental pressures witnessed on the south.
Not only the manatees, but all marine life here, depend on the seagrass, the mangroves and the coral reef for feeding, growing, resting and ultimately survival. The destruction of these is having a catastrophic impact on the marine ecosystems and is going largely unnoticed or disregarded. That same evening, I was lucky enough to have an encounter with two bottlenose dolphins off a dock at the north of Caye Caulker. Whilst it was completely breathtaking, I am now only able to think of the habitats these animals will likely lose, and the difficulties these animals will now face, wondering if these individuals will survive - and if so, how long they will be able to cope in this ever-changing environment.
As magical as all my marine encounters have been, they should not merely fantasies. If these beautiful animals are to survive, these habitats need immediate protection. If nothing is done, if people are not conscious with their treatment of marine life, there will no longer be any marine life at all.