Hello, dear readers. Firstly I must apologise for being a bit behind on my posts. I’ve been away, on our belated honeymoon, soaking up the sun in beautiful Belize. It’s an amazing country, and suffice to say I had many new experiences whilst I was there.
We stayed on Ambergris Caye, an island in northern Belize that provided the inspiration for Madonna’s ‘La Isla Bonita’. Although a significant portion of the first couple of days was dedicated to lounging in hammocks and the pool, we did muster up the energy one evening to go on a conservation expedition with the American Crocodile Education Society (ACES).
ACES is a non-profit organisation that exists to research, and to educate people about, the endangered American crocodile, which is native to Belize. They also capture, tag, and relocate crocodiles who have come too close to human residences or are otherwise becoming a nuisance, and allow tourists to come along on these expeditions for US$40 as a way of raising funds.
Finding the meeting place was a bit tricky. We’d been instructed by the assistant manager of our hotel that we were to meet our guide, Chris, at Reef Village, which was just over the bridge to the north of the San Pedro, and to the left. We ended up walking straight past it and, realising that we were lost, popped into a bar to ask for directions. The American tending the bar told us it was about five minutes back the way we’d just come, and did we want a drink, given that it was still light* and we had plenty of time to get there? Why ever not? I ordered a rum and coke, whilst my husband chose a Belikin, and then some chips and salsa for good measure. After killing time by identifying the flags that decorated the bar, we trekked back the way we’d came and this time found the entrance to the pool island that was Reef Village. The entrance came with a complimentary security guard and this welcome sign;
Not to be deterred, we continued across the pier to meet the rest of our tour group at a quaint looking tiki bar.
Now whilst we had eaten our (frankly disappointing) chips and salsa, our bartender told us that he knew Chris the guide, and advised us that if we wanted to break the ice we should take along a Lighthouse beer, hand to Chris, and say “Here’s a gay beer for the Australian”. Intrigued, I had bought the beer as suggested, but, being rather more tasteful than the aforementioned salsa, omitted the homophobic slur. As Chris thanked me for the beer, it became apparent that he was in fact English rather than Australian. To date, I’m not sure whether calling him ‘the Australian’ was a Crocodile Dundee reference, or whether he too had fallen foul of the inability of some North Americans to distinguish between English and Australian accents and their insistence that ‘they sound the same’. (Note: They don’t. Not even remotely.)
There was only one other couple to the tour, a couple from Chilliwack, BC, whom we were fated to meet twice more on our vacation. Joining Chris as part of the tour was Santiago, who also worked for the sanctuary, and Vanessa, an interning veterinarian. Beers in hand, we boarded our vessel, ‘The Swamp Thing’, and set off towards the mangroves.
As we got underway, Chris told us some interesting facts about the American crocodile, including how to identify crocodiles from alligators with the help of a crocodile skull (it’s all about the visibility of the teeth). He went on to tell us about the work that ACES does, and the nifty ways in which wily crocodiles evade their traps (some crocodiles will avoid touching the chicken left as bait until its carcass is so badly rotted that it falls apart in their jaws without triggering the snare). As part of their environmental survey, Chris and Santiago look for, catch, measure and tag crocodiles spotted in the mangroves. As Chris talked and steered the boat, Santiago stood on the bow and shone a halogen lamps across the water, watching closely for the tell-tale reflection of a crocodile eye. Chris explained that the results of the most recent surveys indicated that there were far fewer crocodiles than expected in the area, which concerned the researchers at ACES.
Sadly we didn’t get to see any crocodiles in the wild; however, unbeknownst to us, there was a small croc laying in a weighted down cooler by my feet that required tagging and releasing.
He had been found in the sewers of San Pedro, and subsequently rescued by ACES. Apart from being a little undernourished, he was in reasonably good health and ready to be released into the wild. Santiago showed him to us, and invited us to stroke him. Unsurprisingly the croc was cool and smooth to the touch, and smelled a little fishy. Under Santiago’s watchful gaze, we took turns holding the crocodile and inspecting him close up.
It was time for Chris to take measurements for the survey;
Once our croc was tagged, and his measurements recorded, we were asked to name him for the survey. Having never had the honour of naming a crocodile before, and wanting to do our utmost best for posterity, we deliberated long and hard until we found a suitably distinguished moniker.
It was time for Dave to be released into the wild. Chris handed him over to Vanessa, and gave her detailed instructions on exactly how to release a crocodile and keep all your fingers in the process. The band around Dave’s snout was removed, and we watched with bated breath as Vanessa gently lowered him into the water.
Dave was now a free crocodile, and experiencing life outside the sewer for the first time in his life. Either he was momentarily stunned by his sudden good fortune, or fresh, clean water didn’t agree with him, because Dave decided the best course of action was to stick to the boat like a shadow.
Finally Dave grew tired of us, and decided to explore the mangroves. It’s been a long time since I’ve made any fervent wishes (by my count I’m still owed three ponies), but, as we watched Dave swim off, knowing the odds were against him, I silently made a wish that he would beat those odds and live a long, healthy life. If that can happen, then I’ll gladly relinquish my claim to the ponies. There probably isn’t space for them on my balcony anyway.
*Tours start in the evening once it’s dark.
VERDICT: If you find yourself in San Pedro, you simply must try to go on one of these expeditions. Chris and his team were engaging, knowledgeable, and clearly very passionate about what they do. Their honest enthusiasm shone through the entire time, and they were pretty darn friendly to boot. Plus the money made on these expeditions goes towards protecting an endangered, and often unfairly maligned species. What’s not to love about that?