In truth I had never seen so many birds. We were camped on a long sand spit near the mouth of the lagoon. As the tide raced in, it swept with it millions of small, shiny fish, a dark mass moving and pulsing in the clear water. Brown pelicans, terns and gulls wheeled and dived in their thousands on both sides of the spit, until the fading of the light as the sun sank over the desert to the west.
Estero Tastiota is a large, shallow lagoon studded with mangrove islands and backed to the N and NW by even larger shrimp farms. To the WNW, a long, nearly straight, continuous beach backed by scrubby dunes and flat, open desert, stretches all the way to Punta Baja. Here, at the mouth of the lagoon, the coast runs up against the Sierra El Aguaje, and takes a sharp turn to the SSE. Our goal is to follow this rugged and rocky coast to our take-out at La Manga Dos, just N of San Carlos.
I awoke at first light to the beating of wings. I emerged from my tent to see wave after wave of pelicans, gulls, terns and cormorants as they arose from the waters of the lagoon, passing low overhead on their way to the sea. The shoreline was lined with the bodies of tiny fish, no doubt killed by the plunging of beaks and bills into their tight schools the evening before. The sandy bottom was dotted with more corpses, which were keeping the blue crabs busy, scavenging the leftovers.
Beating wings, splashing dives and the raucous cackling of terns filled the air as the feeding frenzy continued. Everywhere you looked there were birds, soaring and wheeling in the sky, passing urgently overhead, diving in the sea, taking off to dive again. Our location on a spit of sand separating the coast from the lagoon put us in the middle of the action. Never since the Serengeti Plain have I seen the mesmerizing spectacle of so many animals in one place. You couldn’t stop watching it.
As the sun rose higher, the feeding activity began to fade. We made breakfast and packed up camp. Before we were to leave the lagoon, we paddled to a nearby island, to search the shallows for clams. As most of us squidged our toes in the mud, feeling for clams, two of our party, avid birders, explored among the islands and channels. They reported seeing a flock of roseate spoonbills, some white pelicans and a variety of herons and egrets. Once we had enough clams, about 160, we decided we had enough and headed out of the lagoon, and set our course along the rocky coast.
“Tropical paradise” is a cliche because it so aptly fits the coral reefs and sandy islands of Belize. Most people never get to see such a wonderful place, rich with colourful marine life. For those of us lucky enough, we want to cherish the memories, and share our experiences with our friends. And maybe brag a bit at the office. So we bring our waterproof digital camera and take as many pictures as we can.
We sometimes forget that photography is an activity in itself. While we are busy chasing photos of every brightly-coloured fish or sublimely beautiful coral or sponge, we surrender something vital to the experience: being there. We see the underwater world through the viewfinder: a narrow and myopic view at best. Afterwards, when we review our shots, it is hard to remember at which location we took them. Our attention was so focused on the camera that we failed to see the big picture. We lose the sense of here and now, when we are bent on capturing a glimpse for viewing later.
The same thing often happens when we are paddling to a distant island. People tend to be goal-oriented. We have to be, to get anything done in our daily lives. But we carry that perspective with us on vacation, when the only goal should be to relax and have a good time. If your idea of a good time is an active holiday, rather than sitting on a beach working on your tan, you are probably very goal-oriented, and that is why you are here, with Island Expeditions, in Belize.
The four-mile paddle-sail to Long Caye is a popular activity. You can see Long Caye hanging on the horizon from the moment you leave Half Moon Caye. It is good to have a destination, but the problem is that, for many and purely out of habit, the destination becomes the purpose of the excursion. As we sail away, the island never seems to get any closer. Then suddenly it seems we are almost there. And again it seems we are not getting any closer.
We forget that the purpose is the journey, not the destination. Instead of staring at the horizon, willing it closer, our time – our vacation – would be better spent closer in. Feel the water lift and drop the boat as we ride with the waves. See the subtle changes in colour as we glide over white sand, green sea grass, or the darker patch reefs. Play with trimming the sail, to try to squeeze a little more speed out of your kayak.
To put it as a witty traveller recently said, we should commune, not commute.
This is why my stories rarely have pictures. I don’t take many, because it takes away from the experience of Being There.
But here is a picture anyway, taken by one of our friends from the Sun City Kayak Club.