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For The Love Of Fish 

When I was a young boy of six years or so, I remember my father teaching me for the first time how to tie a hook to a line.  I remember baiting the hook with a bit of sweet corn and tossing a weighted line into a cold mountain stream, high in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.  
The water was clear, and I could see the yellow little kernels swaying back and forth in the slow current.  I remember wondering how long my dad was going to make me stand there before I could drop the rod and run off to play in the woods, pretending to be superman with a towel tied around my neck as a makeshift cape.  These were things that preoccupied my young mind, and fishing, up to this point, had not once been a topic of pondering. 
My wandering imagination was quickly snapped back to reality, though when I felt something pulling on the fishing rod.  I looked into the water, and I could see a torpedo shaped creature, speckled with red, blue and yellow spots, nibbling at the corn on my line.  Without warning, the creature inhaled the entire hook, and with a flip of its tale, attempted to swim off with my bait.  Instinctively, I pulled back on the pole, setting the hook in the corner of the fish’s mouth, and the fight was on!  This was the moment that has been so crystallized in my mind ever since.  People say, “the tug is the drug,” and this is certainly my experience as well.  The feeling of the fishing line and pole coming to life all at once from the pull of a large fish on the other end floods the senses with adrenaline, and all of your focus is fixed on the battle at hand; the wrangling of a wild animal with little more than a bit of string to hold onto.
I landed that rainbow trout a few moments later, and forever my life was changed. Instead of fantasizing about having super powers, I dreamt of being attached to giant fish by a thin line.  And as I grew older, this obsession only grew in size and complexity.  By the time I was twelve years old, I had far surpassed my father in terms of skill and understanding of fish behavior.  No longer did I use a baited hook, but imitation lures became my preference.  Casting the lure out, I could retrieve it in a manner that imitated fleeing or injured baitfish which would induce the bite.  And the rush of connecting to a fish was compounded even more through this technique. 
As a teenager, my obsession expanded even more, obsessing not only on how to catch fish, but reading about them and their behavior as much as possible.  I would devour science and sporting magazines, books and encyclopedias, learning about species in the sea as well as freshwater.  I dreamt of traveling the world, on the search for exotic and enormous species.  Furthermore, my love and respect for marine life grew as well.  No longer did I want to catch and kill fish for food, but preferred to release them after catching them. I wanted to be able to learn the fish’s behavior well enough to be able to consistently induce a strike, land the fish quickly, hold it in my hands and observe it up close before releasing it.  
Today, I am thirty three years old, and ever since that day when I was six years old, my love for fishing, as well as for marine life as a whole, has never once experienced a lull.  I have lived in all four corners of the United States throughout my life, and have learned to fish in a variety of environments and for a wide assortment of species.  Salmon in the Pacific Northwest, Mackerel and Barracuda in Florida, Striped Bass and Bluefish in the Northeast, and giant Musky in the rivers of Tennessee.  
And so it was, when I discovered the opportunity to come to Belize with Frontier and work as a communications officer on a marine research project, it seemed that in many ways, all of my life experiences and love for life underwater converged into a single and perfect package.  It has been one week since I transferred from the Costa Rica project to the Belize one, and I feel that I have been on an adrenaline rollercoaster of discovery ever since.  
My first project upon arriving in Belize was to complete my PADI dive certification.  I would be lying if I said I wasn’t at all nervous at the prospect of learning to dive.  When I first began doing the training dives, I encountered a primordial urge to return to the waters surface.   And though my respect for the inherent dangers of diving and the requisite precautions for being a diver are fully intact, all of my apprehension has since disappeared and been replaced with an entirely new facet to my fish obsession!  On my first real dive, we encountered giant Barracuda, as long as I am tall, a beautiful Remora that wanted desperately to follow me everywhere we went, and three different species of sea turtle, an Olive Ridley, a Hawksbill Turtle, and a giant and ancient Loggerhead Turtle!
And in an ironic twist, learning to dive has also realized that other childhood dream of being able to fly like superman!  Achieving peak buoyancy on a dive is just like being weightless, and one is able to soar through the water, over top of coral reefs, beds of sea grass, and even the bottomless abyss.  
Now, I am finding myself wondering why I waited so long to learn to dive.  My love for water and the life that lives beneath its surface has been a driving force in my life for so long, and the chance to expand my understanding and ability to observe aquatic environments through scuba has been a life changing event, perhaps on par with that first encounter with a rainbow trout.  And add to that the unparalleled beauty and quality of Belize’s marine environments, I could not be happier with where I am right now.
My first dive certification was so rewarding, that I now have decided to undertake all the training required to become a dive master.  Being a photographer and filmmaker by trade, with an emphasis in photojournalism and documentary, I hope to be able to use this amazing opportunity with Frontier Belize to propel myself into being able to work both above and below the water.  And, it was my addiction to fish that brought me to this place, and helped instill in me this new found love for diving and working within the environment of these animals that I am so fond of.
The waters surrounding Caye Caulker, the island on which our base camp is located, are crystal clear.  The barrier reef that surrounds the island is the longest continuous stretch of coral in the world.  It is also the second largest barrier reef in the world, second only to the one in Australia.  And as is true for any coral reef, the waters here are teaming with life. The sheer number of species of reef fish is daunting, and they are so concentrated and comfortable around divers, observing and photographing them up close is no challenge. On my first snorkel expedition with the team, we encountered a group of three manatees!  These giant creatures are beyond description, but suffice it to say they are completely unique, with their hippopotamus shaped face, human-like front flippers, and their bizarrely shaped paddle tail.  Our second day out, we were swimming with dozens of nurse sharks and giant sting rays in a dive site known as Shark and Ray Alley.  
So far, the only place I’ve had time to go fishing is on the dock directly in front of our camp, but even here, the waters are full of fish!  One can watch schools of jacks, needlefish, grunts, and chubs, living right below our dock.  And barracuda regularly patrol this area too, hunting in packs or alone.  My first day on camp, I had to pull out my fishing rod and give it a try, and within thirty minutes, I had landed two barracudas and three jacks!  I released the small barracudas, but at the insistence of the rangers and staff, we cleaned and prepared the rest for lunch, which was a delicious treat.  
To be able to wake up each morning and observe schools of fish just below my feet on the dock, then head out to the reef to dive and snorkel as a job requirement, only to then head home and fish for my dinner, is all more than I could ever have hoped for.  If anyone else out there is also a fish junky, don’t go get help; just come to Belize!

By Ben Blankenship - Field Communications Officer Belize Marine Conservation 

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