Entering Belize, you are immediately confronted with assorted images of bustling marine life.
Sharks. Dolphins. Turtles. Manatees & Rays. All adorn the walls of the airport as you make your way through customs – Belize is definitely proud of its underwater kingdom! Various television screens project different tours you can participate in. It’s all very enticing.
Belize boasts the world’s second largest coral reef in the world, so it is no surprise that thousands of people flock here every year to catch a glimpse of these unique sea creatures. However, these creatures can be incredibly elusive, making it difficult to spot your favourites! This is for good reason, of course, as commercial and sport fishing constantly pose a threat to this vital ecosystem.
However, humans continue to prove our creativity, for good or for bad, as we continuously find new ways to control and exploit different habitats for our own personal gain.
This week, as a volunteer with Frontier for marine conservation, I was able to witness this firsthand at “Shark-Ray Alley.” Shark Ray Alley is a popular tourist destination, which sees Nurse sharks continually fed so that they are programmed to appear at the first sound of a propeller.
Our group ventured there to conduct surveys on how the Nurse shark’s behaviour is affected by this regular feeding from humans. We study various factors, including: the abundance, general behaviour and aggressive behaviour amongst sharks and other species of fish in the alley. We record this data in 2-minute time blocks for a total of 60 minutes. For the first half of the survey, no tourist boats appeared, and I was able to survey the fish & fauna in a more relaxed state.
Once the tourist boat arrived, however, upwards of fifteen Nurse sharks quickly appeared. They all crowded together at the side of the boat in a single mass, as they competed with each other for sardine scraps. Then, the tourists - excited for a chance to swim with sharks - dove clumsily into the water. To my horror, they immediately began to grope, stroke and hand feed the sharks and rays. As quickly as the tourists had arrived, they were gone again; as well as the sharks and rays.
Although I am sure it is an amazing experience to have the opportunity to swim with these incredible creatures, establishing these manmade habitats and routines based upon regular feeding has many detrimental effects on the local marine life. For Nurse sharks to be active during the day is already incredibly unusual behaviour, as they are naturally nocturnal. In addition to this, being handfed sardines is very detrimental for Nurse sharks, as they are not a part of their regular diet and can lead to stunted growth.
As upsetting as it was to witness, I was happy to be a part of the Frontier conservation surveys so that the we can better educate the public and advocate more eco-friendly tourism programs. By encouraging eco-friendly tourism practices, we can have a direct, beneficial impact on the marine life that lives here.
It is our responsibility - whether we are tourists or locals - to reduce our negative impact on the environment as much as possible. That way, we can continue to enjoy witnessing these incredible creatures.