In less than a minute I had crossed Laughing Bird Caye National Park, a tiny sliver of sand, coconut palm trees and a tangle of mangrove along the Belize Barrier Reef in the Caribbean Sea.
But as beautiful as this sandy spit of less than 2 acres is, the beauty extends and amplifies to more than 10,000 acres once you dip under the surface. While dive-bombing pelicans in search of fishy meals and ospreys gliding on the air currents are the main above-water attractions, dive into the warm Caribbean waters and you'll find coral gardens about which flit angelfish, barricuda, sergeant majors and blue tangs, and which serve as home for lobsters and other crustaceans.
Just about 12 miles off the coast of Placencia, Belize, the small island is a unique geological outcropping popular with snorkelers and scuba divers. The uniqueness stems from the caye being part of a faro -- "a ringed reef consisting of an outer rim that encloses an inner lagoon and inner reefs," notes a website run by Naturalight Productions, LTD.
The caye takes its name from the Laughing Gull that once nested here in large numbers before heading elsewhere due to the increasing human presence. These days pelicans seem to be the main feathered resident, perching on trees or bobbing on the ocean's surface when not diving for a mouthful of minnows.
We had come for a day of snorkeling, leaving Placencia around 9 a.m. Once at Laughingbird, we listened to a short presentation by a ranger who explained the park's history: It was designated a park in 1996, and that same year was included with the entire Belize Barrier Reef (the largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere) when it was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
For the next several hours, we explored the shallow waters around the caye, spotting swaying sea fans, darting schools of fish, elegant anglefish and luminesce green parrotfish. At one point our guide spotted a huge lobster lurking in one coral outcrop. Elsewhere we saw a lone trumpetfish milling about one coral patch, while barricudas appeared from time to time.
Fire coral was common, and there also was some staghorn and elkhorn corals, the later two of which are considered "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. Some of the elkhorn in the waters around Laughingbird Caye were part of a restoration project in the past decade and appear to be doing well.
Between our morning and afternoon snorkeling, we retreated to the shade of the palms and had lunch on one of the picnic tables scattered about the island.
The only downside to this trip was the surprising amount of trash that has accumulated on the small island. There was a pile of burned vegetation (apparently downed palm trees and fronds that), standing concrete grill structures in varying states of condition, and bits and pieces of plastic at the surf line.
While the rangers who come and go every day supposedly pick up trash during their stay, they obviously could use help from the day trippers.
To reach the caye, check with boat tour operators in Placencia.