This morning National Geographic Quest began the Belize season by visiting a little piece of paradise, The Laughing Bird Key. This park was created in 1991 and it covers an area of only 1,8 acres protecting astonishing coral reef. The Laughing Bird Caye was named after the laughing gull, as this used to be a nesting site for these birds. Though not many of them nest here anymore, the park is making an effort to provide a restricted nesting area to bring them back. Today we had the opportunity to snorkel and kayak in these crystal clear Waters, with an impressive reef full of life.
A beautiful morning in the tropics. It is February 11, 2018. After the nice exploration of South East Guatemala, National Geographic Quest dropped anchor back in Belize and some guests stretched with our wellness specialist Alexis up on the sundeck, while others enjoyed the early risers breakfast. This morning we went out to explore this beautiful caye, where a rainbow of tones in the water announced the beauty that we were about to discover. Dark blue, green, light blue, turquoise and light green were some of the colors of the sea in South Water Caye Marine Reserve. This protected area, established in 1996, is the second largest marine reserve in Belize, covering 117,875 acres (approximately 47,700 hectares), Its extraordinary integrity of the marine ecosystems, such as soft and hard corals, oceanic mangroves and seagrass meadows provide habitats for commercial and non-commercial species – including queen conch (strombus gigas) and lobster (panulirus argus), and this explains its rich biodiversity and why it is considered to the highest diversity of fishes in the region. From the moment we took the Zodiac rides to shore we could taste the Caribbean flavor on its coconut palm-covered beachside. And there were our local friends who we met two days earlier in Laughing Bird Caye, waiting for us to continue sharing with professionalism, knowledge and pride for the treasure that they have to show. Some people stayed ashore to relax at the white sand beach or go for a swim in the crystal color waters, and others went with our experts offshore for an enhanced snorkeling experience and they saw a logger head turtle, sea horses, lobsters and nurse sharks as well as a high variety of corals and fishes in what people described as an unforgettable exploration. After lunch onboard, we enjoyed the visit of the local Garifuna musicians, a touch of the local culture and traditions to keep our best social responsibility practices supporting the communities that we visit. In the afternoon, we went back to continue exploring and relaxing in this magnificent place followed by our cocktail hour and recap time as well as our social time at dinner. South Water Caye Marine Reserve is part of the Mesoamerican reef, stretching approximately 600 miles from the Yucatan to the Bay Islands in Honduras. The majority of the Mesoamerican Reef lies within Belize, and Lindblad – National Geographic Expeditions took us there to witness its amazing wonders in person. Another beautiful day in paradise.
At dawn we arrived to our morning destination, Pompion Caye. A lovely island loaded with palm trees was our morning destination. After receiving the safety briefing, our guests went to the get their snorkeling gear and waited patiently to be called. Our morning was full with snorkeling. While having lunch, National Geographic Quest reposition to our afternoon destination. Very shortly, we arrived to Laughing Bird Caye. This Island is known for laughing gulls that used to nest in the island. The island is also surrounded by a lovely garden of hard and soft corals. We had a great day visiting these two paradises!
Hello from South Water Caye, Belize! We woke up to calm seas and a day full of promise. Our base was at the southern end, under the shade of coconut palms and buttonwood trees. As the divers headed out, the snorkelers were already being matched up with the Splash snorkel guides and today’s adventure was underway. Kayaks and stand up paddleboards, quickly set out to explore the crystal-clear waters surrounding this island paradise. Spotted eagle rays gracefully glided through as the snorkelers made their way across the sandy bay to the turtle grass meadows and the coral reefs beyond. From the pelican’s pouch dock, we could see an osprey nest with two chicks and one of the parents, secured to the top of the thatched roof of a seaside palapa. As we watched, the other parent arrived with breakfast gripped tightly in its talons – a queen parrotfish! As the day wore on, sightings of loggerhead turtles, barracuda, Caribbean spiny lobster, numerous colorful reef fish and beautiful hard and soft corals were reported by returning snorkelers and divers. On land, palm warblers, yellow throated warblers, yellow-crowned night heron, green heron and belted kingfisher were seen by some and a school of over 200 bonefish swirled and entertained in the shallow calm seas alongside the dock. South Water Caye sits smack atop the Belize Barrier Reef and is in the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, part of the Belize Barrier Reef System World Heritage Site. After a sudden and short shower, guests enjoyed some beers and punch as the awaited the sunset. It did not disappoint and settled into the distant mountains in a blaze of orange, purple and various shades of pink, surrounded by scalloped white wispy clouds.
We had an early wake-up call when we docked at Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala. After disembarking National Geographic Quest , we boarded small boats accompanied by local Guatemalan guides. The waters of the Atlantic Ocean were surprisingly calm as we made our way towards Livingston, a town only accessible by boat but full of Garifuna culture. On the river, we enjoyed cruising through the mangroves, bird watching, and getting a glimpse into local fishing culture. At the end of the Rio Dulce, we were able to visit San Felipe of Lara Castle at the mouth of lago Izabal. A spectacular morning! As the midday sun started to wear on us, we stopped at a beautiful riverside restaurant to dine! We refueled on local dishes and, of course, local beer. Mmmm, Gallo! After lunch we eagerly made our way to Quirigua-our first taste of Maya culture! We wandered amongst the stellae and learned to interpret the ancient markings from our guides. These intricately carved stellae are currently the largest found in the Mayan world. We were able to see the ruins of the acropolis, palace, ball court, and Great Plaza. We took some moments of silence on the Acropolis to imagine lives of the past. We tried to picture the buildings fully constructed and rulers with decorative headpieces. It was great to have such a drastically different day than our day in the water in Belize yesterday. We look forward to what tomorrow holds!
Greetings from aboard the National Geographic Quest ! Today was an exciting and breezy day. Winds were from the east for most of the day and although we did get a few short showers, they interspersed with sunny skies. The Bird Tower is a big favorite and today did not disappoint. 4000 red footed booby birds were estimated to live in this colony on the last census in Dec 2017. Four thousand! The downy babies that were closely guarded by one of the parents last week, have doubled in size and are now big enough to be left alone in the nest while both parents fly off to the surrounding Caribbean Sea to find food. In the background the constant clicking, clucking and numerous sounds from the male magnificent frigatebirds escalates momentarily as a female circles slowly scoping out the candidates. She leaves, unimpressed by their efforts and inflated bright red gular pouches. At the base of the tower, the sign draws the attention of the guests as they wait to take their turn on the observation platform. But it’s not what the sign says that they are looking at but instead, it’s what is crawling on the sign – a dark brown lizard. No, wait…it’s green, it’s changing color as we’re looking at it! Allison’s anole is a species of lizard endemic to Lighthouse Reef. Another bird seen today from the Bird Tower was a beautiful white-crowned pigeon. Birders and non-birders alike walked down from the observation platform smiling and fascinated by the sounds and sights seen in the branches of the ziricote trees in the littoral forest on Half Moon Caye. At the other end of the island, on the east side and just behind the protection of the reef crest, the snorkelers were also seeing wonderful things. The favorites were the very colorful parrotfish – stoplight, princess, redfin, yellowtail and queen! Like swimming in an aquarium!
Today the crew and guests woke up to a beautiful day alongside the dock at the port of San Tomas de Castilla. Parrots squawked overhead at the dock as our Guatemalan guides eagerly awaited our disembarkation to start what turned out to be a great day. Our first leg of the journey took us to the World Heritage site of Quirigua where everyone learned about the great K’ahk Tiliw Chan Yopaat who became the ruler in 724 AD and became powerful enough to defeat the city of Copan by beheading its ruler. Wow! Of the 17 magnificent monuments in Quirigua, 10 are dedicated to K’ahk Tiliw Chan Yopaat. These sandstone stelae and zoomorphs are only seen in Quirigua. The real star of Quirigua however was undoubtedly the very iridescent turquoise-browed motmot. The second leg of today’s adventure was preceded by buffet lunch at a wonderful riverside restaurant where our guests marveled at some lovely and colorful Guatemalan textiles and many left smiling and happy with their purchases. After loading into local skiffs, the passengers traveled east towards Livingston. But first, we circled the Fort, Castillo San Felipe, getting the same view that pirates in the early 1600’s got when attempting to steal the gold stashed in Bodegas, just a short ways along Lake Izabal. The ride across Golfete gave us a view of the Montanas del Mico, over 6,000 ft. high with the tops covered by low clouds. Many great egrets in breeding plumage, neotropical cormorants and brown pelicans watched as we zipped by and the green iguanas in orange breeding color shook their dewlaps at us in defensive display. Gorgeous they were! Finally, a quick walk through Livingston, the only Garifuna Town in Guatemala and a short ride to meet the National Geographic Quest at anchor just off Livingston. A great time was had by all!
The morning was a bit blustery, but that didn’t stop us from eagerly awaiting our departure for Half-Moon Caye, one of Belize’s oldest wildlife protection sites and a declared crown bird sanctuary. Our assistant expedition leader, Adrienne, showed us her incredible patience as we yearned to immediately board the Zodiacs for the beach. After an adventurous 4-mile cruise across the brilliant blue water, we finally made it to land. (And only a little damp from the waves!) Half-Moon Caye is well-known for hosting colonies of red-footed boobies and magnificent frigatebirds, which could be seen on approach to the island. The view of the birds gliding above the palm trees was truly picturesque. Our morning consisted of walks led by our knowledgeable expedition team to view the local birds and other wildlife. We felt lucky to have encountered the spiny tailed tenosaur! Outside of bird-watching, we had the opportunity to snorkel on a stunning coral reef with beach access. Belize has the second largest barrier reef system in the world; a real treat to explore! With the variety of fish species, corals, urchins, and anemones, we collectively decided that this was the best snorkeling of the trip! Just as we entered afternoon hours, the weather turned and we experienced a heavy rainstorm (it made us truly realize the tropical temperament). We all huddled under a covering and laughed about our situation. Just as fast as it came, the storm passed, and we continued with our activities. The hot, humid weather made us thankful for the cooler of cold beer available to enjoy. As this first part of our trip came to an end, we spent the evening reminiscing about our favorite experiences and enjoying fine cocktails and dining with friends. Next stop: Guatemala!
National Geographic Quest made its way to Guatemala, the Heart of the Mayan World and former capital of the Central American Colony of Spain from the 1500 to the 1800´s. Accompanied by Guatemalan experts, we boarded our buses and headed to the magnificent site of Quiriguá. Founded approximately in the year 426 AD, Quiriguá was under the domain of Copan, Honduras until 438 AD, when the governor Kák Tiliw Chan Yo´pa got its political and economic independence. Quiriguá was a very important commercial center, established in the margin of the Motagua River, which seems to have changed its waterbed due to an earthquake. Originally it was a trade route for obsidian and jade that came from the highlands of Guatemala and was distributed from here to other cities still in the Gulf of Honduras, Belize and Peninsula de Yucatan. Home to the largest stelas ever found anywhere in the Mayan World, reaching over 25 feet heights and 65 tons of weigh, the stelas were made to commemorate victories in war, heavenly events and other important moments to the Mayans. We visited the Great Plaza, where ceremonies, commerce and rituals took place. Then, excited for having learned about this ancient culture, we drove to Nana Juana Restaurant and local music as well as a delicious Guatemalan meal and drinks welcomed us to Lake Izabal, the largest Lake in Guatemala. Mayan women weaving in situ showed us their art and we had the opportunity to buy local products and support their economy. Then we boarded our boats and headed towards San Felipe de Lara, a Castle built by the Spanish Crown in 1652 in order to protect themselves against the constant invasion of pirates. This beautiful architectural piece stands out to show part of the history of Guatemala in Colonial times. Our expedition continued through the Rio Dulce, where we explored and learned about the mangroves and were able to spot great and snowy egrets, olivaceous cormorants, northern jacanas, brown pelicans, royal terns and other species of birds that complemented the always elegant turquoise browed motmot that we had seen previously at Quiriguá. The spectacular canyon carved on limestone formations throughout the years, appeared on the way showing us a beautiful barn owl that was guarding its boundaries as well as a good number of green iguanas, ancestral creatures of the animal kingdom. Our expedition ended after going by Livingston, home to the Garifuna community, a culture born in the 1700´s, when a group of slaves escaped to Dominica and Saint Vincent and mixed up with the Caribs and gave place to an interesting group that mixed its language and traditions to create their own identity. At our social hour, we had recaps and shared our experiences of the day.
We saved the best for last! Today we arrived to Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, this is the first marine protected area in Central America and the oldest Belize wildlife protected site since it was first designated as a Bird Sanctuary in 1924. Its designation was for the protection of the red footed booby. As soon as we got to this paradisiac island we walk along one of the trails that leads to a platform where we could observe the famous red footed boobies nesting and the magnificent frigatebirds displaying their red and big gular pouch. The snorkeling was outstanding and every guest that came out of the water had great stories about all their sightings.
Today the National Geographic Quest arrived to the Moho Caye. After breakfast, guests began the exploration of this gorgeous place. Some decided to walk around the perimeter of this beautiful Caye while some others, ready with binoculars, went for a birdwatching experience. Most of us were interested in snorkeling in the surrounding coral reef. Many of the young explorers that came along with their family spent time learning how to peel coconuts as a survival skill, they also paddle-boarded and kayaked. The weather was great with a gentle breeze.
We sailed south out of Belize City during the night and many guests aboard National Geographic Quest arose early to catch the sunrise and morning stretch class in a new destination. Excitement buzzed through the air as we awoke on our first day in sunny Belize! We had our first outing at Moho Caye, a beautiful island filled with coconut palms. This was our first opportunity to splash beneath the blue waves and explore Belize’s underwater world. Belize hosts the world’s second largest barrier reef, and the world’s largest healthiest barrier reef; we feel privileged to be experiencing such wonder. We marveled the underwater beauty and especially loved viewing the parrot fish that were munching on coral, and the gracefully swimming angel fish. As we swam amongst the hard and soft corals, our minds wandered to thoughts of coral reef health worldwide. What a shame it would be to lose such important, beautiful animals. The bird-watchers enjoyed a morning of viewing a variety of species including osprey (and a nest), yellow-crown night heron, green breasted mango, mangrove warbler, white crowned pigeon, and more! Our morning seemed to fly by and before we knew it, we were on a new island-Laughing Bird Caye. This small island is the southern-most island in the central lagoon of the local barrier reef. We were happy to learn that Laughing Bird Caye is part of a national park and protected area; the vibrant reefs and laughing gulls are worth protecting. We once again had the opportunity to snorkel and we enjoyed seeing two different underwater environments in one day! Luckily for us, our fabulous local guides from Splash Dive accompanied us to our afternoon destination. Many of us saw species of fish and coral we had never seen before. For those who felt snorkeled-out, other water activities such as stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking were offered. Nothing quite says serenity like being on a paddleboard on calm, brilliantly blue water. Outside of water activities, we enjoyed a little R&R with books and hammocks on the white sand beach. And, of course, we had a cooler full of local beer to sip in the sun! Our evening winded down with short presentations about the wildlife we encountered and a leisurely dinner chatting to friends and the natural history staff. Next stop: Guatemala!