Kayaking Around Specks in the Ocean in Belize
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

An off-the-grid camping base on Glover's Atoll of Belize offers a way to completely unplug the electronics and watch an underwater show instead.

kayaking in Belize

As my kayak cuts through the clear water, I catch fleeting glimpses of orange and yellow tropical fish when I near a coral reef. Occasionally a more vigorous one catapults up from below and flies across the surface. This is all a pleasant diversion when paddling along in open water. The black mass moving toward me, however, is vaguely unsettling as it gets closer, my "friend or foe" Cro-Magnon instincts putting me on guard. As its shape becomes clearer though it's a thing of beauty, a spotted eagle ray with a four-foot wingspan gliding right beside me then going on his way.

I'm on Glover's Atoll in Belize, a roughly oval shaped collection of tiny connected islands and rocky outcrops that goes on for 20 miles, far away from the fancy vacation resorts of Ambergris Caye. We're nearly 40 miles from the mainland out here. We're nowhere near any shipping lanes or permanent settlements. We've arrived by motorboat but are now mostly moving around on our own power, by kayak or paddleboard, adjusting our body clocks to the sun's schedule. At night we dine by the light from solar-powered batteries and gas lamps in our platform tents.

Belize sunset

Belize is a poster child for growing the economy of a sparsely populated country through tourism. Like any destination welcoming far more visitors than it has sunset in Belizeresidents, however, there are bound to be negative sentiments bandied about by both locals and visitors. It's overrun, it's spoiled, the cruise ships have ruined everything. You should have seen it in the good ole days...

I have mixed feelings about all the "progress" too, but in the end it's up to the people of Belize to decide the right mix. They do still have an admirably tiny number of chain hotels, even among the luxury resorts, and almost no chain restaurants. Through flashes of action now and then, they give more than lip service to sustainability and the environment. Most politicians and business leaders seem to inherently know this is a fragile landscape, that they are stewards of a country-long reef, a jaguar jungle, and a small land footprint threatened by rising sea levels.

For me this trip to a far-flung atoll is a chance to see the original Belize, the one that existed when one of Island Expeditions' founders Denver Willson-Rymer arrived here the same decade the country officially became independent and was smitten. "I came down here in the mid-80s from Canada looking for a way to maybe make some money in our dead winter season," he says as we meet up at their jungle camp Bocawina Resort. "We started running kayak trips around the islands and we managed to get a few more bookings each year to keep growing. There were plenty of bumps to get over and there still are, but last year we celebrated our 30-year anniversary."

Unplugged on a Tropical Island

After rappelling waterfalls and spotting parrots and aracaris at Bocawina jungle lodge, I ride into Dangriga and board the boat out to Glover's Reef Atoll. After a long ride, we pull up to a dock with a hammock and see gleaming white tents with wood decks waiting for us. The tour of the facilities by our local guide and activities director Michael doesn't take all that long. We've got shared bathrooms at the back, a kitchen where the cook Freddy reigns, a dining and drinking area, and our sleeping quarters. Nothing fancy, but we can take a shower and sleep on a mattress, so more than the basic needs are covered.

Belize pier with hammock

We can charge our devices by the solar power outlet strip, but apart from taking photos and reading, this is a time to shut the gadgets off. There's no signal out here except a weak satellite Wi-Fi one at the other end of the island at a hotel's bar. This is a place to stare at sunrises and stars instead of screens.

We spend much of our time staring at what's under the water. Most days there's some kind of snorkeling excursion, exploring different sections of the main reef making up this atoll, plus some of the 700 patch reefs in the vast area inside it. This marine reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site is a unique one, a vast open-water lagoon surrounded by a necklace of coral, with steep drop-offs not far off the reef's edge. We're well beyond the barrier reef that extends from the Riviera Maya of Mexico down through Honduras. From the air the atoll is a patch of light blue in a dark blue sea, like a fabric patch on a pair of jeans.

This area is known for its pillar coral, large stalks that extend up a meter or more. The creatures swimming around them vary a bit each time, including eels, rays, and sea turtles. Always there's an abundance of fish, from barracuda and angel fish, trigger fish and nurse sharks. Usually a huge grouper or two will swim by and elicit some soundless underwater "Ahhh"s.

Belize underwater fish

For proof that Belize stakeholders are at least trying to strike a balance between the environment and commerce, the Nassau Grouper story is good showpiece. The fish was severely threatened in the '00s as commercial overfishing was depleting stocks and disrupting spawning patterns. The Belize Fisheries Department formed a coalition with a half dozen environmental groups, NGOs, and fishing organizations to come up with an equitable solution that would stop the decline. The eventual managed access program agreement allows territorial fishing rights to small-scale local fisherman, while protecting 10% of the waters as "no take zones" where no fishing at all is allowed.

The Glover's Reef Atoll was the first testing ground for the concept, with parts of the area available for fishing and other parts off-limits—with serious fines for violations. This has meant free reign for fish watching where the snorkelers and scuba divers are, while still allowing the fishermen to continue their family businesses in other spots.

hand line fishing in Belize

Fishing by Hand Line in Belize

We get a taste of what it's like to fish these waters the first full day, when a distant storm has kicked up the waves, making it too rough for snorkeling or kayaking. In a motorboat we head out to one of the designated fishing areas with nothing but reels of fishing line, hooks, and squid for bait. I don't have very high hopes—I've been on fishing trips where most of the time was spent waiting for something to happen. On this one though, it doesn't take long after the motor is shut off before various people in the group start shouting after feeling a tug on the line.

Continue to Page 2

Read this article online at: Kayaking Around Specks in the Ocean in Belize

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2018. All rights reserved.

Also in this issue:

Books from the Author:

Buy A Better Life for Half the Price at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
E-reader versions

Buy The World's Cheapest Destinations: 26 Countries Where Your Travel Money is Worth a Fortune at your local bookstore, or get it online here:

Buy Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler's Guide to Getting More for Less at your local bookstore, or get it online here:

Sign Up