Perfect beach views – but at what cost?

After our adventure in the Belizean rainforest, my college 360 group took an exhilarating 40-minute ride to South Water Caye in a tiny, motorized dinghy. Sometimes the boat would hit a wave too hard and the front of the boat would fly up and violently come crashing back down.  If you sat on the sides, you got soaked!

As soon as we landed, I instantly fell in love with the island.  It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen.  The island came complete with a dining area (with wifi conveniently provided), sleeping huts, and a bar by the water.

Also, more cats.

Honestly, I was in paradise.  However, it wasn’t all fun and games on the island. We had a lot of work to do surveying fish populations along the mangrove beaches.

The purpose of our trip to the island was to study the effects of mangrove cutting on coastal fish populations.  Mangroves play vital roles as nurseries for many species of fish, and we determined that cutting back mangrove trees for that “perfect beach view” seriously hurt these fish populations.  Without branches and roots to hide under, fish are easy prey for hungry birds and predators.

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While mangroves might block your picturesque view of the sunset, they protect numerous fish species that both animals and humans can hunt for food.  Not only that, but without mangroves, these islands would be completely gone in a few years!  As you can see in the picture above, mangrove roots are abundant and act as strong foundations that hold sand in place.  Without them, erosion washes sand away and shrinks the island until it is no more.

One day, we visited an island close to South Water Caye, and it was not a pretty sight.  The island’s owner was paying the price for destroying the mangrove trees.  He cut down mangroves for tourist-friendly beachfront property.  Now, he has to ship in sand and dirt to fill back the beaches that are eroding away.  So, sure, you can have those nice beach views – but they come at a steep cost.

Instead of cutting down mangroves, pruning was a somewhat effective alternative. Pruning the mangrove branches allows fish to have shelter and prevents erosion while giving tourists a better view of the ocean.

A highlight of this part of the 360 trip was snorkeling.  We had two amazing guides who took us on several trips out to coral reefs and along mangrove coasts.  It took a while to get used to breathing through a tube, but I had the time of my life diving down as close as I could to see the coral and colorful fish below us.

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Nerd alert – Photo by C. Bauer

I even made it to the cover of the alumnae magazine! You can’t see my face, of course, but hey, at least now my forehead is famous.

As a swimmer, I’m happiest when I’m in the water.  Snorkeling along the tropical reefs next to the island was by far one of the greatest things I’ve ever done.  When deciding what makes people happy, people are often asked, “If nothing else was a factor – money, family, time, location – what would you do with your life?”.  When asking myself that same question, I always find myself drawn back to my experience researching the waters of South Water Caye.  It would combine my love of the water, the outdoors, and studying plants.  One day, I hope to return to Belize to continue researching tropical plants… with daily snorkeling trips, of course.

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