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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Spotlight: Rays

Stingrays are very cool creatures. They don't look like anything else: huge wings gently propelling their large, round bodies, often with a length tail behind. Very alien, you know? I really enjoy swimming with rays. I have seen manta rays and spotted eagle rays (in Hawaii), but Belize offered my first opportunity to swim closely to the rays during the day time.

There are three species of rays that can be commonly spotted in Belize. We saw one spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari) with its distinctive white spots on a black top surface, at a distance, but didn't get a chance to photograph it. The most commonly encountered rays were horseshoe rays. These guys get quite large, up to about 8 feet across. They are very gentle and not shy, enabling us to approach them closely:






The other commonly spotted species is the southern sting ray (Dasyatis Americana). Compared to the horseshoe ray, they have more pointed wings, and have a barbed venomous tail (that is potentially dangerous, although humans are rarely harmed by them). We spotted these during the day and during our night dive at Hol Chan:




Here is a video that shows us swimming with horseshoe and southern sting rays. Very cool creatures, and I look forward to seeing them again!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Spotlight: Sharks

We've all thought about swimming with sharks...and in Belize, we actually got to try it. There are two species of shark that can be spotted in Belize. Tiger sharks should be avoided as they are known to be aggressive. We have not seen one (and I always tell my students: if you see a tiger shark, swim away!). But we have seen several nurse sharks.

Nurse sharks are easily recognized by the two dorsal fins along the back and the two catfish-like barbells on the upper lip:



We spotted several nurse sharks during our Jan 2010 trip. We would always find them along the sandy bottom, tucked into a rocky crevice, or hiding under a rocky overhang. These sharks were very mellow, enabling students to swim right up to them, which makes for a great photo, don't you think?





At Turtle Rock Island, Jim and I were snorkeling alone when he spotted a nurse shark hiding out under a rocky overhang. In true Mutual of Omaha fashion, I suggested he go try to touch it while I stay safely behind and shoot video. As he approached, the shark got spooked and swam away, making for some great video:



I hope we have similar good luck spotting and interacting with nurse sharks during our Jan 2011 trip. Stay tuned to the blog to find out!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Snorkeling practice at the YMCA

Last night was a vital test for our class: Can you swim? Can you stick your face in the water without freaking out? It seemed like a good idea to find out before we go to Belize, eh?

So off we went to the Manchester YMCA. We were met by Dick and Judy of Diver's Den Dive Shop, who made sure everyone was properly equipped and then gave us basic lessons on how to use the gear:



And then it was in the pool! Everyone did really well, quickly adapting to the new equipment, figuring how to dive, ascend, and clear the snorkel:





Then we swam practice laps around the pool, and everyone had to pass a "test" to prove they were comfortable. Everyone made a good showing.



Big thumbs up all around! Next snorkeling stop: the practice pool at Belize Marine TREC!









Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Spotlight: Turtles

Man, I love turtles. Don't you? I've seen literally hundreds of marine turtles closeup. And yet, every time I see a new one, I am just instantly drawn to it. I like to swim alongside them, to watch them gracefully wave their flippers, to observe them dipping their beaks above the surface for a breath and then plunging back downward. Finding Nemo captures their admirably mellow attitude perfectly.

I've had the good fortune to swim with wild sea turtles in St. John, Barbados, and Hawaii (where the photos below were taken):






But none of these experiences compares with the opportunities we had to interact with turtles in Belize. We observed many turtles there and I was able to get many good photos and videos.

There are 3 species of turtle that are most likely to be seen in Belize. The endangered loggerhead turtle most common. It can be distinguished by the five pairs of large scutes (big scales) that run down its back:





Less common is the endangered green sea turtle. We only spotted one of these during our Jan 2010 trip. It can be distinguished by the four pairs of scutes running down the top of the shell:



The third species, the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, was not spotted during our 2010 trip. Hopefully we'll see on in 2011!

Here is a video compilation of some of the turtle spotting in the Jan 2010 trip:


Don't you just love turtles?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Link to our course species ID web page

Here is a link to the species ID web page that I set up for this course: NEC Belize Species ID website. This website contains information on the 60 species that students must identify by sight. I hope to supplement this site with many more photos/videos from our forthcoming trip.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Some of my favorite photos from 2010

In January 2010, Professors Jim Newcomb and Eric Simon traveled to Belize to set up our future course. Below are some of my favorite photos from that trip. Enjoy!