Underwater Beauty

April 09, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Right now I am sitting on an Island called Blackbird Caye, part of the small, Central American country of Belize, listening to the wind howl outside my cabana. For the past two days I have been snorkeling the reef that surrounds the island and exploring the mangroves that form an incredibly important habitat inside the shelter of the reef.

I am here because my wonderful fiance surprised me with a plane ticket to accompany him on his business trip to scout locations and meet with local contacts for his upcoming student travel trip with National Geographic Student Expeditions.

Belize is an incredible little country. It has dense jungle, where large predators like the jaguar still exist and the ruins of ancient civilizations abound. It also has the second largest barrier reef in the world.

The diversity of species, both in the jungle and on the reef, is a sight to behold. Dozens of species of coral are home to hundreds of species of fish and invertebrates. Belize has done a relatively good job trying to protect some of its dwindling resources, but like any ocean nation, it is feeling the pressure of supply and demand. The tourist market is one that few people think of. Invertebrates like sea stars, sand dollars, and conch are harvested so that tourists can buy their shells as souvenirs to take home and put on the shelf to collect dust.

Now, here in Belize as well as oceans around the world, there is a new threat in town. Lionfish are taking over the reef. They are beautiful and exciting to see but they are voracious predators without a natural predator. 

Their sharp spines are covered with a potent and painful toxin that makes them a formidable opponent for any would-be predators. Without the threat of ever being eaten these beauties are multiplying quickly and pose a large threat to the other species on the reef.

Lionfish are native to Indonesia. For those of you familiar with a map, that is a very long way away from Belize. How on earth did they get to the Caribbean? Perhaps some youngsters rode into town in the ballast water of a ship. Perhaps a kind aquarium owner decided "Spike" was getting too big for the tank and was eating everyone else so rather than having sushi for dinner, they thought they would do the kind thing and release their pet into the wild to live a long and happy life.

About three and a half years ago I was in Belize for two weeks. I dove 2 to 3 times a day. I never saw a Lionfish. Now, only 3 years later, I saw 3 in the first 5 minutes of my first snorkel. Our guide out here at the Oceanic Society brings a spear with him every time we get in the water. He spears whatever Lionfish we find and bring them back for the researcher to dissect. She measures the size and weight, collects the stomach contents and takes a DNA sample. We hope that studying these animals may eventually lead to a solution.

We humans need to be careful. Every action has a reaction, and unfortunately, they are not always positive.

When it comes to the ocean and to nature in general, the best thing we can do is educate ourselves. The more we know, the easier it is to do the right thing. Education is power!

 


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