Gio is clearly having a lot of fun, but he’s also ridding the reef of a dangerous invader. Native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, lionfish were released into the Atlantic in the 1980s — most likely by Florida aquarium owners who tired of feeding the voracious creatures. Since then, these orange-and red-striped devils have colonized coastal waters from Rhode Island to South America, devastating local fish populations wherever they go.
In Belize, they’re making a meal of the tropical fish that tourists like me fly hundreds of miles to see. So, to protect the marine ecosystem and their own livelihoods, fishermen and dive professionals began hunting lionfish in 2002, Gio tells me once we’re back on the boat. “There was a bounty then,” he says. “Fifty dollars a fish.” Even with a price on their heads, the lionfish continued their invasion. “We need tourists to spear lionfish, and we really need people to start eating them,” Gio says.
When I’d booked my ticket to Belize, hunting and eating poisonous fish hadn’t been on the top of my to-do list. My plan was to laze around on a quiet beach with a frozen drink and take a leisurely look at the undersea scenery. Topside in Belize, I found plenty of laid-back charm. But beneath the ocean’s surface, I discovered a world of fearsome creatures engaged in a fierce battle for survival — and I got pulled into the melee myself.
Swimming with sharks
My home base for the week, Placencia, is a charming fishing village three hours from the capital, Belize City. Soon after arriving, my travel companion and I discover that the town’s real main street isn’t the recently paved road, but a narrow sidewalk that sets off near the public beach, wanders past sparsely populated cafes, and barges right through people’s back yards. In the afternoon heat, we see only a smattering of sunburned tourists on the sidewalk, but as the sun sets, the town’s melange of residents gathers to loiter and gossip.
After failed attempts at eavesdropping — most Placencians speak Kriol, a musical mix of English, West African and Native American languages — we gravitate to the friendly buzz at the Barefoot Bar, a brightly painted pavilion where several patrons are, in fact, barefoot, and at least one appears to be sharing a drink with his pet iguana.
After a long day of traveling, I want to spend the next day exploring no farther than the 10 feet between my beach bungalow and the sea. Fate, however, has other plans. Whale sharks are migrating down the coast, and we can’t miss the opportunity to see the biggest fish in the sea.