We left Isla Mujeres along with fellow cruisers, Steve and Christine and their two kittens on s/v Salacia, a 36ft Pearson. It was nice to have the company. We were able to photograph each other under sail and that is always a treat, from one cruiser to another , to receive such a photo. We will share the photos once we have them from Steve and Christine.
We arrived in Punta Allen on Friday 11/1 after a night of rough sailing due to confused seas, meaning; wind and waves converging and different currents coming together and at times wind against the current, making us spend several hours yawing - rolling side to side and hobby horsing fore and aft - not a comfortable point of sail. But heh - we are tough Scandinavians and as the saying goes, “It could be vorse, yah?”
Fortunately as dawn came the seas settled down allowing us to make safe passage through Niccheban Reef into Punta Allen and the Bahia de la Ascencion . Once inside the reef we set our course for an anchorage off the point of the Culebra Cays, a set of Cays located west of the reef but on the eastern edge of the Bay. Things were looking pretty good until we sailed through a scum line of garbage, and other unappetizing debris, at the time wondering and commenting, “Where did it all come from?” We continued on and found a good anchoring spot hoping for a calm night ahead and a good nights sleep.
In the meantime, for our afternoon excursion, we decided to snorkel from Leap to the beautiful white picturesque sandbar and beach on Culebra. We headed for the sandbar swimming over a grassy bottom and the visibility was terrible, you couldn’t see but a few inches ahead or down. I only saw the tail end of one fish, a barracuda, and Charlie did not see any fish. The sandbar we had hoped to explore turned out to be quicksand like, as in, if you walked in it, you sunk to your knees and beyond, and it was extremely difficult to pull yourself out. Fortunately we were at the grassy edge and could secure a hold and leverage ourselves out of the muck. Needless to say that ended the strolling portion of our excursion. We snorkeled back to Leap, again no fish sightings, but did see a halocline zone ,signs of fresh water intrusion, perhaps from springs but most likely freshwater runoff which is part of the reason for poor visibility. We prepared dinner, and relaxed watching the sunset as it set over a calm bay promising a peaceful nights rest.
Note: Here are some highlights about this area taken from Capt. Freya Rauscher’s “ Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast“.
Punta Allen is a small village, home to a fishing co-op. The fishing and lobstering here, and in the surrounding area is now monitored by the Sian Ki’ Biosphere Reserve, a tropical rainforest region of 1.3 million acres, Mexico’s largest Reserve.
Apparently, the year prior to the Reserves’ founding the fisherman harvested 65 tons, yes tons, of lobster tails during that 8 month season, which the fishing co-op here shipped to US markets.
The Reserve not only protects the water and aquatic life but also 1000 plus plant. species and 350 bird species as well as endangered animals. (We do not know for sure what year the Reserve was founded, perhaps 2006)
Based on what we have seen in Mexico so far, a Reserve is needed, otherwise the fishing/lobstering industry, along with the apparent US demand for the products, would not self regulate their resources.
Like so many natural resources around the globe, the insatiable human palate - and not just for food - would keep recreating an Easter Island scenario.
Today the four of us headed out for a snorkeling excursion on the Niccheban Reef. We hoisted our anchors and set course for the inside of the western face of the reef where we would spend the day, and the night, if the seas and winds remained calm. Upon arrival the water was clear and the visibility 30‘, looking promising for a good days snorkeling. Charlie was in first and began the exploration of surrounding coral heads.
The reef is dying . There is very little live hard coral and not much in the way of sea fans. We saw several species of colorful reef fish but nothing in the way of food fish. Groupers and snapper of any variety were nonexistent. Even though the reef was far from pristine it was still some of the best snorkeling we experienced in Mexico, until the tide changed.
We also found two lobster traps that the locals use. The traps are 3’ X 6’ft slab of 3 inch concrete with supports on three sides to raise it off the bottom a few inches. The lobsters congregate inside allowing the fisherman to gaff them by hand leaving the young and egg bearing females.
The highlight of the day was seeing a Manatee, and most importantly, one without propeller scars across its back, like so many we have seen while snorkeling in Florida. We were very careful not to disturb but rather swim along nearby and observe. Manatees are very agile in the water and with one flick of the tail they move out and we didn’t want to frighten him/her away.
When the tide changed the halocline and debris line moved in and once the brackish water and its associated scum line arrived visibility dropped to near zero. Along with plastic debris of all sorts, we found human waste floating in the debris. Making it impossible to see anything, not to mention disgusting to be in, we had a long, blind swim back to our boats against the current. Not an enjoyable swim but a good workout and deserving of a rum punch as we settled into the comfort of Leaps’ cockpit.
We rafted the boats together for awhile and made plans for the next couple of days cruising. After the meeting we split off set anchor and spent the night inside the reef. Remember it was supposed to be calm?
During the night the winds clocked around and picked up speed and by daybreak were blowing strong, and of course, not in the direction we needed for sailing south. So we four decided to pull up anchor and move away from the reef. We headed back to Culebra and Salacia went into Punta Allen hoping for wifi to get weather updates. Christine had knocked her head on the sail down and the kittens had gotten seasick, and they were having engine troubles, so, they were not in any hurry to get back out in rough seas, and frankly neither were we. It is hard on the boat and the rigging and well, us too.
Nestled in behind the point of the Culebra Cays we had a very nice anchorage. Hard to believe that just 5 miles away, outside the reef, the ocean was roiling and tossing about.
Karen beginning laundry
We stayed there until dawn on Tuesday 11/5 then hoisted anchor and headed south. In the meantime the long range forecast for wind had turned to good sailing for Tuesday and Wednesday, but then no wind beginning on Thursday. It is with that information that the four of us decided to go with the wind and skip Bahia del Espiritu Santo and head for San Pedro, Belize, an overnight sail.
The winds upon leaving Punta Allen were great for our next leg, coming out of the East sliding to ESE and back to ENE blowing 10-15 knots enabling us to sail along at 5.5-6knots. A good day and night for sail.
Dawn on 11/5 - Salacia in the rainbow behind us
Arrived San Pedro, Belize 10am, dropped anchor with our Belize courtesy flag flying and the quarantine flag flying below. When arriving in port the quarantine flag tells the authorities we have not yet cleared in. The Captain goes ashore and meets with the respective officials to complete all the paperwork then back to the boat, the quarantine flag comes down and all is well, and now the crew can disembark.
We waited for Salacia as she was not far behind. Steve radioed the authorities and set up an appointment for 1:00pm to clear in. We readied the dinghy and Charlie picked up Steve and the two of them headed into San Pedro to do the paperwork and pay the fees. We had heard that Belize was expensive so I (Charlie) was apprehensive and on my guard. I really wanted to dive and explore the reefs but cost was a determining factor.
Upon entering the customs office I began my inquiries as to cost. Nothing was posted and I had a vague feeling that the fees were based on what they could get away with. I let my boat buddy Steve start the process since he was staying in Belize no matter what. When the immigration officer put Steve’s fee in his wallet, a rather fat wallet at that, and refused to produce a receipt for payment, my alarm bells started ringing. Instead of finishing my check in - under the guise of needing to go to the bank to get money for the fees - I visited the remaining 3 officials to get their charges.
All told, it was going to cost $50 for immigration, $45 for customs, $40 for Health and $90 for Port Captain plus $5 per day per person payable upon departure from Belize.
For 12 days that totaled another $120. On top of that, if you want to visit any of the National Parks there is a $5 to $10/ per day per person entrance fee. So the max fee for visiting the reefs could have cost us another $240 making the visit somewhere in the vicinity of $585.00. These fees are all in US dollars. Since Belize is 2 to 1 the numbers in Belize currency is $1170.00. A sum not to be trifled with on our limited budget. Once the calculations were complete I elected not to enter the country and informed the Port Captain that I would be leaving Belize and continuing on. That’s when things got nasty. The Port Captain, (who quoted my boat buddy a fee $30 below my quote for a boat which was 2 feet shorter), was outraged.
He claimed that since I had landed on Belizian soil I must pay the fee. I explained that if the fees had been published I would not have even bothered to stop in Belize. Furthermore, since I had decided not to clear in and would leave immediately, I had no obligation to pay any fees. I hadn’t been in harbor for any other purpose than to clear customs and since that wasn’t going to happen I would sail off into the sunset. At that point the Port Captain had me detained and put under armed guard. He was really pissed he wasn’t going to make his monthly income off of me. He made several threatening overtures and spoke with great animation on the phone, in some dialect I didn’t understand, to someone, maybe to no one - how would I know if he even dialed anyone - but, he made a great show of it. Not wanting to be shipped off to some third world jail or Belize City, I kept my cool and remained seated and calm. At least I hoped I appeared calm. Inside I was boiling. After better than an hour the guard got up and started to leave. Reminding him that his mission was to escort me back to Leap, the office staff responded that that was not his mission, that indeed he was there to protect the staff from me. (I really didn’t know I looked that fearsome but I guess standing a foot taller than everyone around me, a false assumption might be made. The Great Viking Warrior! LOL! )
There was some banter around the room regarding my possible criminal behavior of not paying the bribe and it was agreed that I had broken no law. Several calls were placed to the now absent Port Captain and he finally released me, without escort, I might add. The customs office wished me fair winds and safe passage, - Like, no hard feelings ok buddy?
Arriving at the dinghy and noting my boat buddy was back on his boat ( he had ridden in with me and back to his boat with the Port Captain) I swung by to say goodbye. The Port Captain apparently was on a boat returning to the dock when he spotted my dingy headed out and proceeded to escort me back to my boat. Now maybe he was happy, he got to be the tough guy after all.
We radioed our cruising buddies on the way out of the reef and set sail in perfect conditions for Utila.
Things were about to change.