Adventures along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef

Anjani Ganase, Trinbagonian marine biologist, continues her weekly exploration of marine Tobago. Travel with her to Belize and Mexico where the XL Catlin Seaview Survey team surveyed the second biggest barrier reef in the world.
Follow Anjani Ganase on twitter: @AnjGanase

In 2013, I worked on an underwater coral reef mapping project called the XL Catlin Seaview Survey that allowed me to dive many reefs across the Caribbean. On one journey we explored the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, along the Yucatan Peninsula in the Western Caribbean. This reef is second to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and extremely vital to the health of the Caribbean Sea.
Belize Barrier Reef Island. Photo by Anjani Ganase


We started in Belize, the only English speaking country in Central America. I wondered how much Trinidad and Tobago might have in common with Belize. Quite a lot, as it turned out: the “creole” language, the cheesy lyrics of soca songs and the mixture of ethnicities reflected our similar histories. Belize is a sprawling country, five times the size of Trinidad and Tobago, but home to a quarter of Trinidad’s population. Much of Belize appeared to be untouched, but this wilderness hides the ancient buildings of Mayan civilization, revealed as modern man dug for materials to build its own city. We visited the Mayan ruins of Altun Ha (Rockstone Water). It was eerie climbing the steps that people used over 2000 years ago.  As I tripped over a “tricky” step, I wondered how many ancients did the same. The team walked along the pyramids, which were dedicated to the elements, fire, earth, wind and water. Making a special stop at the wind temple, we sacrificed one of our members for blue skies and calm waters on our upcoming boat trip. I think we made the right move, providing impeccably calm weather for diving in Belize.
Altun Ha (Rockstone Water), Mayan Ruins in Belize. Photo by Anjani Ganase

The Belize Barrier Reef sits about 30 km off the mainland of Belize, but we were sailing further than that, aiming to survey the atolls east of the barrier reef. First stop was Glover’s Reef. This cay is the base of a well-known marine research station. Here, we surveyed reefs that I’ve read about in many scientific articles. However, the highlight was diving the Blue Hole at Lighthouse reef to the north of Glover’s. We reached the dive site on a stormy morning. We rolled back and descended to about 30 feet, where we hovered at the edge of the hole peering over the edge into the dark abyss. We looked at each other, and as if on cue we leaped in, making acrobatic flips with our unwieldy dive gear. I felt myself free falling with arms and legs outstretched like a skydiver. As I glided slowly down the hole, I scanned the walls for curious marine life and critters. Further down, the light dimmed and we switched on torches. We went as far as our computers would allow us - the point where the cave wall gave way to an overhang, and just far enough for us to spy the bases of the massive stalactites that descended from the roof of this ancient cavern, disappearing down much deeper than we could go. The water was so still and silent, only to be broken by distance echoes of other divers who were excited by something, and this something was getting closer.

Out of the gloom a lone Caribbean reef shark cruised along the wall of the hole. It glided by without even a curious glance towards us, but this was a rare sight for us. I imagine it’s seen a lot more exciting things in this hole. Our computers began to beep and it was time to ascend towards the light and the busy reef.

When we crossed the border into Mexico, we felt a sense of excitement. Maybe it was Mexico’s reputation of tequila, music and spicy foods. At a small town on the coast, called Majahual, we caught our next ride.  This sleepy town is a narrow sand spit flanked by marsh on one side and the ocean on the other. Above water, a fog of mosquitoes constantly raided me; underwater, it was I who tailed the large schools of reef fish. Large steep spur and groove structures gave rise to narrow channels cutting through the reef shaded by massive overhanging sea fans. As we left the harbour headed to the offshore atoll – Banco Chonchorro - I looked out to sea at white caps and waves breaking along the reef. The powers of the Belizean wind gods did not extend across the border. 

Banco Cinchorro lies east of Majahual and is the final resting place of many of wrecked ships. We hired a local fisherman to guide us through the sand lagoon of this cay. With such clear waters and white sand, it was easy to see the obstructions but also easy to see where we might have been a little too close for comfort. We navigated slowly through the lagoon. We only managed one dive before the horizons darkened and storm clouds rolled in. Park rangers said there was a severe storm coming and the atoll was evacuated. With the same precautions and patience we navigated out of the lagoon, slight anxiety tugging on our chest, as there is nothing worse than being stranded in a storm. Eventually we made it out and headed north along the coast escaping the storm which swept in from the east. We looked towards the storm and saw a wave of 50 or more fishing boats speeding towards the mainland. As the boats crossed our path, our fisher guide bade us farewell and jumped ship to get back to his family.
Fisherman huts on Banco Chinchorro. Photo by Anjani Ganase

We continued to travel north, following the trade routes of the Mayans. Next stop, Tulum – site of the ruined Mayan city called Zama, City of the Dawn - which sits at the edge of the sea cliffs and was an important trading depot for the Mayans. We visited the temple and made another sacrifice for better weather for the rest of the trip. Wish granted, we continued to survey northward, with a quick stop at Cozumel before ending our adventure at Isla Mujeres – The Island of Women - a little island just off Cancun. Isla Mujeres is an island of stories both above and below water. It is home to the Manchones reef and the underwater museum, but also to many old fables. One famous story tells of a pirate named Fermin Antonio Mundaca, who fell in love with a beauty known as La Triguena (the brunette). To prove his love to her, Mundaca built the arches of La Triguena in her name. To no avail, she chose to marry someone else. Mundaca died alone. On his grave were words dedicated to her, enigmatic as the words on the famous Tobago tombstone in Plymouth: “As you are, I was. As I am, you will be".

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