One recent guest shares her experience on an excursion to hunt the invasive lionfish.
It was in the very early morning—before dawn—that I was picked up in a 38-foot power boat by the Blue Reef Adventures team. I didn’t mind waking up for it, though. I knew what lay ahead would be worth it. After all, Polly, my guide, was a pro. The dive master had originally founded a conservation non-profit, Reef CI, in southern Belize in 2003. She started Blue Reef Adventures in 2016, running day- and week-long charters for diving and fishing with her husband (and our captain) Roland.
Out on the water, two other passengers and I were in luck. It was one of those days perfect for boating: the water was calm, the sun was bright. Boat tunes ranged from “Simply the best” to “La Bomba” and “You sexy thing.” Before I knew it, I was served a classically Belizean breakfast, with a hunger-quenching burrito and fresh fruit. Later in the day, lunch was just as delicious: stewed chicken, yellow rice and coleslaw. Belikin beer and Fanta flowed freely.
We watched for birds settling on the surface of the sea, a telltale sign of tuna underneath. Once found, we headed in their direction. Suddenly there’d be a whirring sound and you’d hear random shouts of FISH ON. Scrambling would ensue as everyone manned a reel to bring in the free lines. I myself reeled in a rather large barracuda! Then immediately afterwards it was “Lines back in!”
We did two spear fishing dives. Lionfish are the only fish you can legally spear while wearing a tank—and you’re encouraged to catch as many as possible. The invasive species has wreaked havoc across the Caribbean. The gorgeous creature comes from the waters off of India, but some escaped from South Florida aquariums during the 1980s. In the years since, their population has expanded rapidly, with lionfish now appearing throughout the Caribbean up the east coast of the United States. The predatorial lionfish eat native parrotfish, which are critical to our coral reef ecosystems. Within only a few weeks, the invasive species can decimate local fish populations, and are currently one of the biggest threats to Belize’s pristine reefs.
One of the coolest parts of the experience was when it struck me that the three divers were female. The five men aboard stayed on board while I followed the ladies into 60 feet of water to go hunting. They were intent on catching dorado (also known as mahi mahi) while we were under in the morning dive. They are the most sustainable fish to catch because of how fast they reproduce and how quickly they reach maturity. They are also, as it happens, delicious!
Of course, we were also after the lionfish, which hide in, around and under coral. Y ou have to train your eye to spot them, despite their vivid colors and iconic, sprawling shape. Once spotted though, they aren’t ones to move quickly—I only saw one get away in both dives. We speared 8 on the first dive and 9 on the second for a total of 17 in the day.
Polly carried the ZooKeeper (a large container with a one way valve) each time and we exchanged our spear with hers every time we had one to put in the container, which she expertly took charge of. The spears are three pronged with an eclectic pulse to kill the prey. You can still get stung by a lionfish after it is dead so you have to be very careful in handling them.
During the dives we also saw a loggerhead turtle resting on the sea bottom with a remore on its back. We saw two moray eels, a Queen Triggerfish, blue tangs (now forever remembered as Dory), and scrawled filefiish to name a few. And of course, so much of that Dr. Suess-like coral Belize is famous for: purple fans, green funnels, large brains!
At the end of our second dive, we were joined on our safety stop by a very interested nurse shark. Docile but determined, it kept butting up against the ZooKeeper and nearly surfaced with us after our three minutes at twenty feet. Interestingly, it obviously had a taste for Lionfish. Originally it was thought this could be a good thing—creating predators for the invasive species. Unfortunately, though the lionfish is an apex predator, and sharks and eels can only feed off already dead lionfish. So conservation groups are trying to maximize the demand for the fish onshore, in the form of sashimi, meaty fillets, and even jewelry in the marketplace.
We returned back to the marina around 5, just as the sky was starting to change with the pinkish hue of sunset. A little sunburnt and salty, I felt like a victor of sorts, with my caught fish—my conquests—aboard with me. I’d done my part to save the reef, all while enjoying myself immensely.
Conservation is one of the main pillars of Itz’ana’s Mission Driven Hospitality, and spearfishing lionfish will be a staple excursion in our tour portfolio. Guests will be able to have this experience for themselves. To cap it off, our own Chef Dean will prepare your fresh-caught lionfish in a delicious meal here at Itz’ana.
Where to Find Lionfish in Placencia:
Rumfish y Vino: This popular sushi spot features lionfish crudité on its meno
The Treasure Box: A local boutique selling beautiful, Belizean jewelry, including some made of lionfish.
Cook Lionfish by Polly Alford: Blue Reef Adventures founder and dive-leader Polly Alford has published a must-have cookbook devoted to mouthwatering lionfish recipes.