Good Crocin’ Lessons from Our Neighbors Up North

The last 2 months in 2018 for the CRC were filled with a lot of croc and community work, ending with rescuing ill pelicans and sending them to our partners over at Belize Bird Rescue. However, we are ending 2018 not describing the work of the CRC in Belize, but ending it with what’s crocin’ in México. This month’s blog is written by the CRC Research Coordinator Miriam Boucher about her recent experiences in México.

I recently had the opportunity to travel through the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Star

casa cenote
Cenote Oxman in Valladolid, tourists were allowed sunscreen and within minutes the surface of the water was covered in a film of oily sunscreen residue.

struck by the North American food chains and department stores, the contrast between Belize and Mexico set in very quickly. I am used to vast expanses of 2-lane highway bordered by savannah and broadleaf forest. The perfectly paved and developed expanses of Mexico made me feel a bit like Dorothy and nowhere near Kansas. In spite of the vast difference in development, I was surprised and encouraged by the commitment to conservation I found at every location on my trip.

My first stop in Cozumel took me to the backside of the island on my rented scooter looking for the best beach spot, and wildlife. As my friend and I rounded a corner we noticed a small gathering near a guardrail and stopped to see a beautiful 3-meter American crocodile basking on the edge of a small pool. The taxi driver carrying two American women was telling them about the species and keeping them well back from the edge. More and more people stopped and all observers stayed on the road, giving the animal its space and staying back from the water’s edge. People were not alarmed by the croc and were content to observe and appreciate it for the natural wonder it is. This is something that I don’t often see in Belize. The majority of feedback we receive about crocs sightings, is often focused on fear and people wanting to be rid of the animal. On the other side, we also often see and hear of tourism activities that involve feeding and handling of crocodiles. In Belize all of these activities are illegal, but the awareness and perception of crocodiles is much less developed and more fearful. My reflections on Cozumel did not end there.

At our next stop there was a small wetland directly beside the parking lot for a big beach hangout. At the only place you could approach the water there was a big sign informing people to be cautious of crocodiles and not to approach. There was also a small chain-link fence separating the parking lot from the pond, maintaining safe space for both crocs and people. Both the sign and the fence are simple solutions to keep interactions between people and crocodiles positive and safe. In fact, signs and fences were something I saw a lot of in Mexico. There was consistent signage at archaeological sites, parks, and cenotes that warned visitors to respect the space and it’s wild inhabitants. Fences at these same sites also keep visitors from walking on turtle nesting beaches and sensitive areas for vegetation. Tourism is a huge part of livelihoods in Belize and informing visitors of how to conduct themselves while appreciating and enjoying Belize’s natural and historic wonders is critical to protecting these areas, while simultaneously could keep tour guides and operators accountable for obeying and respecting these same guidelines.

tulum sign
Sign at the Tulum Ruins providing tourists and locals alike with information on how to respect the natural and cultural heritage site.

Tour guides, operators, and park personnel play a huge role in the experience of visitors to any country. Another learning experience was during my forays to local sinkholes, or cenotes, around the Yucatan. Like the amazing Mesoamerican Barrier Reef here in Belize, cenotes are unique and often isolated ecosystems. At some of the cenotes we visited visitors could not enter the cenote without showering off or if they put sunscreen on. This was a revelation. One of the first cenotes we visited had a prominent oily film on the surface of the water, the remnants of the sunscreen coming off of hundreds of people as they jumped into the crystal clear waters. As Belize depends so heavily on its coastal ecosystems becoming more responsible for what we put on our bodies and what gets into our water is an important step to preserving these ecosystems. Belize is setting the standard in some huge ways for it’s preservation of coastal ecosystems and could definitely benefit from encouraging visitors to opt for cover-ups versus environmentally costly sunscreen.

My last revelation came outside of Tulum at the popular Casa Cenote. This cenote is not just a simple sinkhole, but a limestone channel that runs back from the main access point, and bordered by mangroves. My reason for visiting the cenote? A resident croc. I had heard of a resident croc living in the cenote and was curious about how it interacted with the hundreds of weekly visitors to the cenote. Upon arrival the staff informed us that we could not wear sunblock if we wanted to enter the cenote. After skipping the sunscreen, I asked about the croc and found out it was a 4.5-foot Morelet’s crocodile that lived at the back of the cenote. He warned me to respect the croc and to be sure not to get close or touch it. After the awesome info, we swam back into the cenote and miraculously found the croc! There he was in all his glory basking on a rock shelf. I had swam by, only a couple of meters from it, without noticing. He kept a wary eye open as people passed by, making sure people kept their distance. In the 20 minutes I watched him, 15 people swam by. Some screamed, some laughed, some stared in awe, but every single person stayed back, gave him his space, and moved on. The rocks beside him sported signs warning people to respect the croc and to stay off the rocks, ensuring visitors did not infringe on his territory. It was an amazing experience and a picture perfect example of croc coexistence. It gives me a ton of hope for what we can accomplish in Belize. From manatees, to monkeys, to crocodiles our perceptions and our behavior have great impact on the preservation of these amazing parts of Belizean life and heritage. There are simple tools and steps we can take to ensure positive coexistence with all animals, crocs in particular, and maybe we could take a few of these examples from our neighbors to the north to further coexistence with wildlife in Belize.

casa cenote croc
Casa Cenote- No sunscreen allowed to preserve this unique ecosystem, including its crocodile