Teal waters playfully wink at a cloudless sky behind the young man. He’s standing at the rear of a small white fishing boat, his arms spread like the frigates gliding the ocean breezes above our heads. His dark hair is shaved close on the sides with a dozen long blonde-tipped woven ends dancing above his head.
“This is my office,” he says. “No walls, no limits.”
He is twenty-three years old, completed high school and college, and makes his living in the waters off the small Central American country of Belize. While English is his primary language, his words roll rhythmically, not unlike our boat in gentle morning waters.
Tall, muscular, with a smile as bright as the sun reflecting on the water around us, he is at home.
“My father is a fisherman, too,” he says. “I grew up with this as my life. Now I do the same, and I love it.”
He and his friend, another young man with an equal love for the water and islands, are taking a few of us snorkeling on Belize’s barrier reef, the second-largest in the world.
Before anyone can get in the water, he makes sure we understand how precious he and this countryman regard the reef.
“Not only is this a beautiful natural habitat for fish and other life, but it also protects our land from big from storms. If large waves crash into the reef, by the time they reach the mainland, they are much smaller, less dangerous. We need our reef to survive.”
Storms are very real to the young man. Later he tells me of surviving his first hurricane at the age of four.
“I remember my dad was out on the water protecting boats for people, and my mother and I were back in the house as the storm came ashore. She was leaning up against a window to keep it from breaking, and I look up and see the roof peeling off and flying away.”
He’s experienced several other hurricanes, some larger, some smaller, but understanding the delicate balance of man and nature is a life and death relationship for him. The waters, reef, and marine life are woven together like the Hangman’s knot on the end of a fishing line. And for he and others, managing the balance is a responsibility they must deliver for future generations.
As our boat moves closer near the white sand coastline, he points to the gaps exist where landowners fight a losing battle with beach erosion.
“Developers are removing the mangroves along the water,” he says, his arm pointing a waterfront retaining wall under construction. “The roots were kept the sand from eroding all these years. Now, without the roots and bushes to keep the sand in place, coastlines wash away with storms.”
It is then I see a new world, one where material possessions are secondary, and managing nature is primary. For here, balance is one of life and death and their way of life.