Tag Archives: Belize Zoo

Day 8: Of Caves and Cages

Today started out even brighter and earlier than the rest of the days here. We had breakfast at 5am and headed out of the Chiquibul by 7am. Our first stop: ATM Cave. ATM stands for “Actun Tunichil Muknal,” which translates to “Stone Sepulcher” in an ancient Mayan dialect. You can guess what that means. The ancient Maya used this cave for ceremonies. It’s an incredible natural formation that requires a 30 minute hike, three river crossings, and a short climb down some limestone formations to reach the cave entrance from the parking area. It’s a wet cave, meaning that it is largely filled with water. The entrance lies just beyond a series of riverine pools filled with aquamarine waters and tiny darting fish. Sadly, no cameras have been allowed near the cave ever since a stupid tourist dropped their camera and damaged the remains of a human skull.

We had to jump into the frigid water and swim into the yawning mouth of the cave. Our guide, Gliss, led us through the treacherous terrain. That place was scary! I  almost slipped and landed on my already bruised butt maybe ten times. We had to wade through water for maybe an hour and scramble on slick rocks and limestone for another to reach the end. It was the first time on this entire trip during which I actually felt mildly scared for my life – sharp rocks poked out from everywhere, and some of the crawls just barely fit my body. We were in good hands with Gliss, though.

Image result for atm cave

Image result for atm cave

Neither of the above images belongs to me. First photo is of the inside of the entrance to ATM Cave, taken from www.cahalpech.com. Second photo is the view of the cave entrance from the outside, taken from Belize Escape Artist. 

At the end of the cave lies the reason for its name: human remains of 14 individuals who were ceremonially sacrificed. An almost complete female skeleton, nicknamed the Crystal Maiden, lay in the very farthest recesses of the cave. It was eerie…especially since my headlamp chose that exact moment to flicker out. I was ready to hightail it out of there by then.

This photo does not belong to me. It depicts the human skeleton found at the very back of the cave, and for which the cave is named. Photo from Cayo Island Expeditions. 

After the cave, we drove the rest of the way to the Tropical Education Center, which is where we’re staying tonight. We were given a nighttime tour of the Belize zoo, which was both fascinating and disheartening.

I could go on and on about zoos and the many mixed feelings they give me. I appreciate them because they allow me to witness wild animals that I would never be able to encounter in real life. They also serve as ambassadors to the public regarding wild animals that may be surrounded by many misconceptions by humans. For that I am grateful. But my heart breaks every single time I enter one, because not a single animal in the zoo was built to live in an enclosure. The Belize Zoo is a rescue zoo that only takes in injured or confiscated animals that would not survive in the wild, but still. I found myself almost brought to tears when we saw a jaguar, an expertly honed hunter of the jungle, reduced to a tame pet that rolled over and did somersaults to receive chicken from the zookeepers. The Belize Zoo and others like it do important work, for sure. But not all zoos are rescue zoos – many obtain their animals from poachers – and I hate the fact that zoos are necessary in the first place.

We humans really need to take a look at ourselves and the way we treat our co-inhabitants of this planet.

On the Ground and Away from Glover’s


Leaving Glover’s today was so sad that I asked if I could permanently live in the snorkel shed. I felt like I was finally getting to know everyone on the island, finding a rhythm and place there. I was even recognized by one of the staff as “the girl who scored the beautiful goal.” I’m truly going to miss the island lifestyle, especially a small island like Glover’s, and the way that everyone gets knows each other and becomes connected.

Speaking of small islands, after leaving Glover’s we visited another research station operated by the Smithsonian on a tiny speck of sand called Carrie Bow Cay. We got a tour of the facilities and a rundown of the research projects taking place on site, as well as interesting insight into the nature of toilets in the field.

Shore of Carrie Bow Cay
Boats used by researchers at Carrie Bow Cay

After that stop, we headed on toward Twin Caye. The mangrove forest there was made up of entirely of red mangrove (R. mangle) from what I could tell.

Red mangrove forest on Twin Caye
Red mangrove roots

We walked through the peat which was goopy and gross, then snorkeled around the edge of the mangroves.  The snorkel was much more enjoyable. I saw schools of small snapper, a starfish, a juvenile sting ray, sponges, and even a seahorse.

Starfish found along edge of mangroves
Juvenile stingray in sand along mangroves
Seahorse spotted on mangrove roots

Once we finally made it to Belize City, we had lunch and drove down to the Tropical Education Center (TEC) for the night. We walked some paths on the grounds before dinner and saw some Acacia ants (Pseudomyrmex sp.). After about an hour, we went to dinner then to the Belize Zoo which was such a cool experience, especially because the nocturnal animals were active. My favorite was seeing the big cats: the puma, ocelot, and jaguar. Tony the Tiger’s frosted cereal has nothing on Junior the Jaguar’s somersaults. I even got to hold a boa constrictor!

Junior the Jaguar finishing a somersault
Me holding a boa constrictor

All that excitement still hasn’t convinced me to switch from team marine to team terrestrial, though. Fair to say that a frog falling from the ceiling and almost landing in my hair, as well as having to share shower time with a moth, a beetle, and a lizard keeps me skeptical. Let’s see if the caves tomorrow have me singing a different tune.

Day 8: Authenticity (05/23/2017)

There we were, with flashlights in hand, meandering through the darkness of the Belize Zoo. The site was sprawling with tall tropical trees, including the Santa Maria tree (Calophyllum brasiliense) and the gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba), spectacular sights on their own. The Santa Maria trees, not very common and interspersed between shorter trees, had branches high up on the trunk and were some of the tallest trees at the zoo. The gumbo-limbo trees were also fairly uncommon and were shorter with bark that was peeling in fleshy-looking pinkish layers. I was unable to see any animal activity in the trees because we visited the zoo at night.

The trees were unscathed by the human activity necessary for the zoo’s survival; enclosures were constructed around established trees to preserve the integrity of the site. All of the zoo’s animals are native to Belize, and the zookeeper addressed each and every animal by name – Carlos the puma, Junior the jaguar, Maggie the frigatebird, Brutus the American crocodile.

Carlos the Puma

One could feel the zoo’s authenticity. The zoo lacked kitsch. It lacked glamour. It was about people learning about the animals of Belize.

Earlier in the day, my class departed from Glover’s Reef, our home for the past week. Partway through our boat ride to the Belize mainland, we hiked and snorkeled through the Belize mangroves. At a glance, the area would not have looked appealing, with its sediment-filled water, knotted overgrown tree roots, and an absence of colors other than browns and corrupted greens.

However, the mangrove housed a wide variety of creatures. Today’s sightings covered the whole spectrum –red cushion sea stars (Oreaster reticulatus) to sun anemones (Stichodactyla helianthus) to a seahorse (Family Syngnathidae). The red cushion sea stars were amotile and were about six-inches in diameter. The most memorable sighting was a manatee (Genus Trichechus). Although I got little more than a glimpse of shimmery gray with chestnut speckles, it felt a sense an overwhelming sense of awe being in the present of a creature as majestic as a manatee.

Ecologically, mangroves are essential to the survival of many types of animals, including coral-residing species, as the shallow waters and networks of plant materials protect growing animals from predators. Despite not being the most popular image to send home on a postcard, mangroves are a necessity for the survival of countless living things.

That is authenticity.

The transition from water to land

DAY 8 — Leaving Glover’s Reef was sad, but so far so good on land! We left Middle Caye at 8:00 am sharp and headed to Carrie Bow Caye. There we met Clyde, who is a volunteer station manager for the Smithsonian research station, who was generous enough to show us around. It was cool to see another research station, similar to the WCS facility on Middle Caye at Glover’s.

Another quick boat ride took us to Twin Caye, where we had our last romp in the water. We saw a manatee on the way, which was a fun treat. We walked through some mangrove peat among the red mangroves, which was mucky and wet, but a lot of fun. Then we suited up for a final snorkel among the mangrove roots.

There were many, many sponges growing among the roots of the mangroves. Lots of encrusting sponges grow on the roots and are able to get more nutrients that way. I saw the encrusting Orange Icing Sponge (Mycale laevis) and many other kinds of sponges, but I had some difficultly identifying them. I also saw lots of jellyfish, a juvenile spotted ray, and lots of juvenile fishes. Therese spotted and caught a tiny yellow seahorse. It was crazy to see a seahorse in real life.


We completed our journey back to TEC, saying goodbye to Javier and Adolfo. Before dinner, we squeezed in some hiking around the trails at TEC. I had a possible sweat bee sighting (Halictini tribe) but didn’t really get a good look.

The highlight of the day for me was our night tour of the Belize Zoo. It was easily the best zoo experience I have ever had. They only keep native species, and their enclosures are as close as possible to natural, untouched, Belize vegetation. Most of the animals were rescued or confiscated from people keeping them illegally and very few were captured from the wild.

I got to feed a Tapir, named Indie, which was a dream come true. I loved his little snout snuffling at and crunching on carrots and lettuce. We also saw nocturnal opossums, pacas (who happily chomped at the bananas we gave them), an ocelot, a cougar, and a jaguar named Junior who did somersaults in exchange for food. We saw a few species of owl: a spectacled owl, a barn owl, and a pygmy owl. We also saw a frigate bird, named Molly, who had lost an eye and the ability to fly. She had been fashioned little “shoes” because her feet are not used to standing so much.

At the end of the tour, we each got a chance to hold a boa constrictor. Five stars for the Belize Zoo.


Finally, an EBIO 319 alumnus (Lucretia) happened to be at TEC the same night as us. She is back in Belize this summer working with jaguars. She talked to us about her time as a TFB and then as an independent researcher during study abroad in Tanzania. It was cool to hear about what she had done, how EBIO 319 had inspired her, and what she plans to do next.

Tomorrow we have another early morning and another busy day!

Day 8: Belize Zoo Tropical Education Center

Today we left Las Cuevas Research Center and traveled to the Belize Zoo. After a long morning, we arrived at the Zoo’s Tropical Education Center. The center was really interesting because it consisted of a large property with multiple ecosystems, such as pine forests. The director of TEC warned us to watch out for wild snakes and other wildlife around the cabins, but the only wildlife that I saw were birds.

After dinner at TEC, we went for a night tour of the zoo. We only visited nocturnal animals because the guides didn’t want to disturb the diurnal animals. We got to visit two jaguars out of the 18 that the zoo has. The zoo has so many jaguars because they rescue animals that are in danger of being shot by farmers. One of the jaguars that we saw was a black jaguar named Lucky Boy who was rescued from a Belizean resort that had been abandoned. Black jaguars are extremely rare. They are the equivalent of the opposite of albino animals; they have too much melanin.

Lucky Boy (Photo creds: Lucrecia)
Lucky Boy (Photo creds: Lucrecia)

We also got to feed a tapir and saw an ocelot. The ocelot was entertaining because it wouldn’t stop growling, even when the zoo keeper fed it. The only difference was the change from a growl to a growling “nom nom nom” sound.

Because of all of the travel time, I didn’t get a chance to observe specific tree species. We passed through multiple ecosystems, and I saw many of the same species that I observed over the past week.

(Not So) Smooth Sailing

We spent our final night on land at the Belize Zoo’s Tropical Education Center, an oasis featuring hot showers (!!!) and plenty of wildlife. On my last day searching for reptiles, I was able to spot several green iguanas (Iguana iguana) and a striped basilisk (Basiliscus basiliscus) wandering near our rooms. Both iguanas were a mottled green color, likely because they were hiding amongst shrubs and trees; iguanas can change their coloration based on health, temperature, and even mood.

View of Princess Marina from the Calypso Restaurant.

From there, we began our amphibious transition at the Princess Marina in Belize City. We first sailed south over clear blue waters, protected from the open sea by Belize’s barrier reef. But the real journey began when we crossed the choppy waters of the reef crest to travel east towards Glover’s Reef Atoll. Who needs roller coasters when you have a boat in the middle of the Caribbean?

We took our first snorkel once we reached Middle Caye, the island where the research station is housed. I began looking for herbivorous fish (my taxon for the week) in the nearby patch reef and was able to find a blue tang surgeonfish (Acanthurus coeruleus) and a dusky damselfish (Stegastes fuscus). Both are common reef fish that feed on macroalgae growing on coral.

The laundry of Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve.

Now that our work for the day is done, I finally get to enjoy the ocean breeze from the comfort of a hammock under the stars. I don’t know what I was expecting here at Glover’s, but it sure wasn’t paradise.

(Nakian) May 24: Departure x Connection x Zoo

Today we left Las Cuevas Research Station to return to San Ignacio and depart to Glover’s Reef tomorrow. The departure was not so smooth as the van came 5 hours later due to miscommunication. The van was hot but spacious so not so much to complain about. As we passed the Tapir Camp and the familiar road we came through I remembered the excitement and concerns on the way to LCRS.
When we arrived at San Ignacio, I connected to the internet with my phone for the first time. It was a race of information and connection that I had forgotten for a whole week. After spending much time replying to worried messages, I found myself submerging into that waves of information and not living in the world I am sitting on. I was returning to myself before the trip I hoped to change.
Finally, we arrived at the Belize Zoo to have a night tour with nocturnal animals. With the humorous guides we saw the big cats of the rainforest that we had hoped to see ourselves in the rainforest. They were beautiful creatures and their story of how they ended up in the zoo saddened me for the ignorance and greed of men.
Also I saw leaf-cutter ants in the zoo. It seems that they are everywhere in Belize.

DSCN2420 DSCN2415

When vans are less reliable than big cat sightings

This trip has seen a variety of transportation mishaps, but today took the cake. After a final morning walk, we were all set to leave for ATM cave at 7am. However, the van was not, as it had not even left its starting point, which was hours away. So we had some nice time to talk with other group members, get a presentation out of the way, and have lunch.

Finally the van appeared around noon and drove us to Georgeville, where we were to meet our tour guides for the ATM cave. However, upon arriving at the town, it became clear that it was too late to go to ATM cave (plus the bus driver wanted to drop us off and leave), so we instead stopped for lunch at the Orange Gallery, and then headed off (with a new driver) to the Belize Zoo.

The outlook was grim
The outlook was grim

The night tour of the Belize Zoo was one of the coolest things we have done so far. We got to each feed a tapir named Indy, and see two pacas, a Morlet’s crocodile, and many other species.

However, the best part of the zoo tour for me was the cats. We got to see four of the five species of cats that inhabit Belize (the jaguarundi is diurnal and thus was not out). We met a black jaguar named Lucky Boy, a very vocal ocelot, a small puma of the Belizean variety, a margay with ankles that can rotate 180 degrees to climb down trees, and another jaguar who did tricks. The Belize Zoo is an amazingly natural place that not only rescues individual animals, but also uses these individuals as ambassadors for conservation. Their pride in their natural heritage was truly inspiring!

Lucky Boy the jaguar
Lucky Boy the jaguar

Everything Goes Wrong (pt. 2)

Mishaps and miscommunication have become somewhat regular on this trip, and today’s adventure was no exception. We were supposed to say our forlorn goodbyes to Las Cuevas and the Chiquibul at 7am this morning and set off for a day of archaeological exploration at the ATM Cave near San Ignacio. But in true TFB fashion, absolutely nothing went according to plan.

After several hours of suspense, it became evident that our van was nowhere near Las Cuevas. Instead of wasting away the morning though, we learned about the fascinating conservation issues surrounding endangered scarlet macaws in the Chiquibul and enjoyed a surprisingly tasty lunch of peanut butter and cheese sandwiches (see me for more details on said sandwich). Our trustworthy van and driver arrived only 5 hours after its scheduled arrival, and so we set off by noon for our next caving experience.

Alas, my hopes of spelunking were dashed; we skipped the ATM cave and instead enjoyed an afternoon of wifi, souvenirs, and fresh fruit juices of the Orange Gallery. Despite our misadventures, our day ended with an incredible nocturnal tour of the Belize Zoo.

Morelet’s crocodile.

Among reptiles, we were shown both a Morelet’s crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii) and an American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus). The American crocodile was substantially larger and had a much longer snout, although both were definitely creatures to avoid in the dead of night. We were also able to see a boa constrictor (Boa constrictor), which paled in comparison to the boa we saw on day 1, as well as a Central American rattlesnake (Crotalus durissus) and a yellow-jawed tommygoff (Bothrops asper). Given that we didn’t find many of these species in the forest, this was a great opportunity to see them up close.

Ocelot jumping to catch meat.

And in case the reptiles weren’t charismatic enough, we also had the chance to see the different cat species found in Belize and a Baird’s tapir. If you were wondering, a hungry ocelot sounds a bit like an angry housecat, jaguars can be trained to do somersaults, and tapirs enjoy being fed carrots.

Change of Plans

Today was another travel day, and yet again we had mishaps with vans. Our driver and van company were not properly communicated with and were 5 hours late to pick us up from Las Cuevas. Therefore, we did not get to go to the ATM Caves.

The van ride was long and hot, and the fact that we didn’t get to go to the caves made it very hard to be patient. However, we stopped for lunch at the Orange Gallery and got to cool down, eat some lunch, get some refreshing drinks, and buy some souvenirs.

View at the Orange Gallery
View at the Orange Gallery

Tonight we are staying at the Belize Zoo Lodge, and we got a fabulous tour of the zoo after dinner. Scott was very proud of us for being more scared of the leaf cutter ants than the jaguar. We got to touch a black jaguar’s paws. His name is Lucky Boy, and he was rescued from a resort.

We also played with the other jaguar (Junior) and he ran up and down the cage after us. We fed a Tapir, saw a huge American alligator, and heard an ocelot make some weird noises while jumping for treats. The ocelot was making some weird noises that sounded like it saying “nam nam nam”.

Oh, also this morning I saw 4 or 5 golden orb weavers. One of them was huge it was almost two inches in body length!

I’m very excited for our boat trip to the reef tomorrow and getting to see some amazing things there.