It’s not officially called Whale Vomit Island, yet it is the literal translation of Ambergris Caye, which has long intrigued me, not only because of its unusual name, but it’s proximity to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest reef system on our watery planet. I’m amused to find the meaning of ambergris is a solid, waxy mass of an unpleasant smelling substance emanating from the occasional sperm whale with intestinal issues, and depending on which scientific account you read, ambergris is either disgorged from the whale’s mouth or out the other end. So this piece of land could very well be “Whale Poop Island”. Either way, the Belize Board of Tourism probably hadn’t set up shop during the naming process.
Even weirder, when one stumbles upon a chunk of said whale barf, a rarity indeed, it fetches huge sums by perfume makers. Ambergris is highly sought after as a fixative to help perfumy scents last longer. Hmmmm, “Darling, what are you wearing, it smells divine?” “Oh, a little Chanel with a splash of cetacean upchuck.”
I do love a place where the premier mode of transportation is water taxi or golf cart. Being a boater, I far prefer buzzing over the water while watching frisky dolphins and rays, yet the laidback charm of land is the lack of actual vehicles, only a handful of cars and trucks are interspersed with a plethora of gas powered carts. The pace of traffic is governed by the speed of oh, about 15 miles per hour.
Exploring north of bustling little San Pedro, the only town on Ambergris Caye, the intrepid traveler can scoot along on hardpacked sand roads with plenty of bumps, ravines and holes to make you hold on to your rum drinks. One afternoon as I happily bounced along in my rental cart, I slowed down to avoid what I though was a large piece of black PVC pipe, until it started slithering! Research tells me this was a large tree boa, and yes there are constrictors too.
Tranquility Bay lies twelve miles north of town and indeed tranquil. The ribbons of turquoise waters dance enticingly as the reef lies close to land up here, enticing snorkelers and divers. In 1996 the reef was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Belizeans work hard to protect their eco-system from illegal fishers and other damage. Scuba divers and snorkelers are required to go with professional guides and learn about protocol of touching nothing and leaving behind only bubbles.
Where else would a boatload of seemingly sane snorkelers eagerly don masks and slide from a boat into the water after the Captain shouts “Sharks!” Fanatically enamored with sharks, I plop in to find myself eye to eye with several nurse sharks who couldn’t be less interested in me as they scramble to feed on fish that one of the dive operators is chumming. We are on Hol Chan Marine Reserve, off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye. Not quite sure how I feel about the shark’s policy of “Will work for fish”, they have been programmed for years prior, as local fishermen would stop here to clean their catch and discard what they didn’t want. At least there are no more fishermen, and I am happy to pay a Marine Reserve fee to the folks on a floating marine station who monitor 24/7 for illegal activities.
Members of the Belize chapter of Oceana (oceana.org), WWF (worldwildlife.org) and concerned Belizeans fought hard to convince government leaders to prevent impending oil exploration near the treasured reef. In 2017 Belize became the first country in the world to implement an indefinite moratorium on all oil exploration activities in their territorial waters. Good on you Belize!
The creatures of the sea would applaud you if they could, as they number approximately 1,400 different species thriving in the reef system. Belize is a small country with a big heart. There is so much nature to explore here, along with ancient Mayan civilizations, jungle jaguar reserves, cave explorations and the multitude of offshore islands, some untouched by humans and wonderfully remote.
If the thought of swimming next to a shark scares you, it’s a far scarier scenario to imagine sharks, whales and dolphins becoming deaf and stunned from seismic blasting from ships searching for oil. Just imagine the amount of ambergris a terrified sperm whale would hurl after being blasted in his pristine environment. Thank you Belize for caring, for fighting for the sea. I will happily return and recommend your natural treasures.