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Kayaking with turtles

By Clare Fieseler

I get up before dawn and the air is wet. It always is on this one-acre of sand, with 80 or so palm trees, sitting 12 miles from land. After just one week on Carrie Bow Caye, all the pages of my paperback copy of “Euphoria” have curled in the sea-spayed air.  There is a light breeze and constant hum of waves. Fifty yards away, safety spotlights illuminate three Mexican-style skiffs moored off the island’s eastern side. Boat theft does happen out here on the Belize Barrier Reef. But what surprises us more often are sea turtle hatchings, instinctively paddling along the sand in search of the water’s edge, that appear at our feet while we work through the night in the outdoor salt-water lab.

It’s early September. One sea turtle nest, just a stone’s throw from my cabin, had already surprised us the night prior with over sixty hatchlings. All the ones that could crawl made it to the waves. I had been up late with headlamps and buckets, just making sure.

Still groggy from sleep, I force myself to concentrate on the 100 or so steps it takes to get from my cabin to the island’s old outhouse, two modest stalls at the end of a narrow, uneven dock. You can’t afford to stumble.

Kayaking in Panama

The stall wall facing the ocean only reaches waist high. I sit, pee, and watch the dawn sky turn from a dark indigo to a pinkish glow. Some stars are still visible and ocean ripples lap the pilings under my feet. No luxury resort in the Caribbean has a better bathroom experience.

But it’s hard to get a professional second opinion on this claim. There’s no tourism allowed on this island. No yelp reviews or Travel + Leisure write ups. Nothing is for sale here. Since 1973, the Smithsonian Institution has leased the island for ocean research — and only researchers can stay overnight. It’s idyllic but, believe me, it’s not a vacation.

As a visiting researcher, with average stays of 1-2 weeks, every day counts. Every hour of sun is precious for scientific diving. Martha, the cook, prepares meals from sun-up to sundown. The station managers are painting, cleaning, counting, or tinkering with the generator. I’ve never seen anyone just lying around sunbathing. Beyond an evening board game session or after-dinner beer, it’s hard to relax in paradise. 

A long day kayaking 

This research trip to Carrie Bow would be different, I told myself. I would schedule in something fun, something that would give me a fresh prospective on this place. There are no kayaks at Carrie Bow. Luckily, my Oru Coast could easily make the trip.

Scratch that. Nothing goes as planned when getting around Belize. The ten passenger puddle jumper from Belize City to the nearest land-based town Dangriga didn't unload my packed kayak at the proper destination. From Dangriga’s beachside runway, I watched the small plane with my kayak continue its journey to another small coastal town about 160 km south. But rest assured. The elaborate and culturally significant birthday cakes shipped on almost every puddle jumper flight out of Belize City, including our own, were safely delivered.

Belize is a funny place like that. But its flexible, laid-back culture means that everything, in the end, will work out. That’s something I’ve learned after 6 years doing research in and around the country.  My Oru Coast arrived a few days later, thanks of the good folks at neighboring Pelican Beach Resort. Also delivered: extra crates of Fanta and some bright turquoise paint. The main field station building, with its wide balcony and swinging hammocks, always looks like it has a fresh paint job. Everyone who spends time here — volunteer managers, cooks, devoted Smithsonian staff, and roster of frequent researchers — takes pride in keeping up the place.

Kayaking Belize

But on that pink cloudless morning, the six other island inhabitants were still asleep. I walk toward the north end, taking care to not step on any of the sea turtle nests that pocket this third of the island in late summer. I scoop up my kayak where it lays resting on the veranda of the “wet” laboratory. The night before, I had spent hours there in front of the microscope identifying tiny baby corals. But not this morning.

I slipped into the calm waters behind the reef break. This is a belly-scrapping area, shallow enough so your torso barely fits between the then finger coral below and water surface above. But gliding on top was another experience all together. The sun was finally up and I started paddling to the south, passing the handsome island on my left with calm waves breaking on an exposed reef to my right. 

The day before, I had swum around the entire island with a fellow researcher, John Tschircky, spying schools of jack, branching corals, and a few gliding rays in the deeper water just east of the reef break. We fought currents through the channel and kicked our way for almost an hour to get all the way around. In the kayak, able to avoid the channel by skirting into the shall lagoon, things were effortless. I was half way around the island in ten minutes. 

Oru in Belize

The sky turned to a crisp blue and I thought of other islands I’d circumnavigated. In 2015, I paddled almost 40 miles around Panama’a Isla Bastimientos with my Oru Coast and Oru Ambassador Becca Skinner. I was reporting assignment for National Geographic Adventure, requiring us to navigate unfriendly locals and mazes of thick mangroves. In 2013, I paddled around the entirety of Manhattan for radio, a most dodgy and wild experience.

Today marked no milestone. It was just a relaxing footnote to a productive week in paradise.

Lost in these memories, I realized that I was almost all the way around. My island family waved from the upstairs balcony, coffee mugs in hand, as I carried my boat out of the water. The usual talk of weather and water conditions perks up the mood. And, yes, everyone wanted to know just how I possibly managed to get a kayak to this tiny island. John, shirtless with a signature colorful bandana around his head, had been waiting all week to give it a try and explore the island’s “back reef.”

Someone handed me a cup of fresh coffee in exchange for my paddle. My last hectic day of research was still ahead. But the breakfast bell has not yet rung. John pushed off from the small beach near the dock. Three other researchers and I sat watching, sipping coffee, enjoying the last quiet moments in our paradise office.


Capturing turtles birth

Authors note: The Smithsonian Institution gladly offers short tours of the island and facilities year-round for non-researchers. Most visitors come form Pelican Beach Resort’s neighboring island, Southwater Caye. The resort staff can help coordinate you tour and boat transport. Tours depend on station manager availability and weather. But it’s certainly worth your time.