Cichlid Room Companion

Articles

Expedition To Quintana Roo And Rio Moho

By , 1984. printer
Published
Ross Socolof, 1995

Classification: Distribution and conservation, Central and North America.

'Cichlasoma' bocourti

Today's descendants of the Mayan Indians are still burning their Milpas (corn plots) according to the instructions given more than 1500 years ago by their Mayan priests. Slash and burn early in April, plant your Milpa two weeks later. Nothing has changed in fifteen centuries. In fact, this was the only form of pollution at that time. Today, the thick smoke in early April rising from hundreds and hundreds of burning Milpas made visibility flying into Central America very difficult. Our first stop was Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in route to Belize City. The airport was almost obscured by the smoke from the burning.

We landed safely at our next stop, which was Belize City and Russ Norris was waiting for us when we landed. This started what promised to be a very exciting expedition. Years ago I learned that four is the ideal number on a trip of this type. Less is fine; more, never! Did you ever try to fit five bodies into a four-passenger plane, fill two rooms with five bodies and four single beds, and comfortably fill a small car or a normal size booth in a restaurant? It doesn't work.

Russell Norris who is the Tropical Fish hobby in Belize, was the first person I contacted some months before the trip became a fact. When I decided to try to make this trip, Russ and I discussed it in general, and agreed that it made sense. We fixed a target date and then discussed the possibility of inviting two other people to join us. A mutual suggestion, which was immediately agreed upon, was to invite H.O. (Dr. Harry O. Specht), a veteran of our 1972 trip into the Mosquito Coast of Spanish Honduras. H.O. is a life long hobbyist, an experienced fish collector, fish breeder, and naturalist. He masquerades as a staid, respected, and successful physician in Sarasota, Florida. He agreed to come provided we didn't go back to the Nicaraguan border (which never was our intention). Our group was completed when "Red" Nichols immediately accepted our invitation. Red is another fish keeper, fish hobbyist, inventor, and entrepreneur. His cover of respectability is that of owner of Jungle Laboratories. Red Nichols has been my friend for a long, long time. His contributions to the successful keeping of tropical fish by virtue of his many inventions and formulations has made him one of the most important people in our industry. It looked like a great trip. The most important thing is compatible people. Our expectations had materialized. We were now embarked on what we expected to be a memorable experience.

Once on the ground we sped through Belizian customs, loaded our gear in record time into Russ' truck, and headed for town. Halfway there we stopped, turned around, and went back to the airport. This was our first "memorable experience." I had forgotten one box! It was exactly where I had left it. Russ's wife, Dalilah, was waiting for us at their home. We gladly accepted her generous offer to put us up in the Norris home while we were on our trip. The rest of this first day was spent finalizing our plans. We had three major trips to make, and realized we only had time for two. Russ Norris had previously checked out that part of the Peten in Guatemala where we wanted to collect. The area is still too unsettled to move around uninhibited. We tabled that trip for a later date. We had unfinished work to do in Quintana Roo at the Laguna de Bacalar and in the nearby Cenote Azul. Both of these bodies of water are just north of Chetumal in the Yucatan peninsula. A new road north in Belize made it only a six hour drive. We planned to spend three days in México, then to return to Belize City for a day or two to collect in the area between Belmopan and Stann Creek. Next would come the major part of the trip which would be south toward the Guatemalan border. We were going to try to get into the Moho River drainage and try to locate 'Cichlasoma' bocourti and other exciting fish.

Ross Socolof, Russ Norris, Red Nichols and Harry Specht Ross Socolof photo to the left. Russ Norris, Red Nichols and Harry Specht picture to the Right. Photo by Ross Socolof.

Di Norris was up early and prepared a sensational Belizian breakfast. We ate enough to last us all day long. Fresh papaya and pineapple, fresh baked tortillas, refried beans, homemade preserves, eggs, local cheese, and her wonderfully brewed fresh coffee. We had one additional chore before leaving on our trip north. After a heated election, and with three of us holding him down, Red Nichols was unanimously elected "treasurer." We each gave our new treasurer two hundred dollars and the treasurer pays for everything. This system works. Russ' truck was overdue for an overhaul, but he figured we would have no difficulties. We packed and left for México right after breakfast. No less than an hour later on the new highway north we had truck trouble. The radiator began to leak and overheat. We stopped by a stream and fixed that up easily enough, although we had serious difficulty restarting the motor.

The next days were a repeat of this scenario. A great deal of additional anxiety was added each time, wondering if we would get the truck started. Each time we managed, but just barely. We drove as directly as possible, stopping only in Orange Walk for cold Belizian beer and soft drinks. We went through Corozal Town and then to and through the border on the Belizian side. On the Mexican side we had no difficulty with customs and soon were on our way toward the Cenote Azul.

Russell and I remembered a really great restaurant that we had stumbled on there two years ago. The food had been exceptional. The experience stuck firmly and fondly in our memories. We were anxious to return so we promised H.O. and Red a meal that they would never forget. We detoured slightly before going to the Cenote to drive to, and about, the Laguna de Bacalar until we found an area to work the next day. We returned to the Cenote for lunch. The tame peccary and black spider monkey were still there. They roamed freely amongst the tables in the same friendly manner we remembered from the stop two years earlier. This restaurant specializes in wild game and fresh seafood. Collectively we ordered fresh lobster, wild peccary, beefsteak, and large shrimps, and the restaurant lived up to expectations. While the kitchen prepared the food, I set two fish traps that I had brought with me. One was a normal minnow trap made with 30 mm hardware cloth (instead of the normal 60 mm size). The other was an all plastic barrel trap. The traps were baited with dry dog food that I had carried with me for that purpose.

After eating, we changed into our swimming gear. The next three hours were spent observing, photographing, and collecting fish. The Cenote Azul is a very large and deep Yucatan Cenote. This Cenote is almost three hundred feet deep at the deepest-point. It is almost perfectly circular in shape. It has a diameter of some three hundred yards which makes it quite large. Adjacent to this body of water is the southern end of the Laguna de Bacalar, which is a narrow and long fresh-water lake. Though Bacalar is close to the sea, it is completely fresh water, and measures about forty eight kilometers long. There are considerable problems with the proper taxonomy of the cichlids in both of these bodies of water. Our objective was to first capture and then to take good color pictures of the adult Thorichthys that are found in both of these bodies of water. Identifications previously made are being reviewed. A revision of the entire Thorichthys group is now being undertaken under the direction of Dr. Robert R. Miller at the University of Michigan. Hopefully, we would be able to help him in his work by supplying some of the missing pieces to the puzzle. Thorichthys affinis has been identified from both of these bodies of water. The problem is whether it is the same fish as the Thorichthys affinis found in Lake Peten Itza or another fish. The alternative possibility is that none of these fish are valid species. Both groups are separated by several hundred kilometers. Preserved specimens were not needed although many were made. The Lake Peten Thorichthys affinis is a deep yellow in all the areas where Thorichthys meeki is red. Just what colors in life the Cenote and the Laguna Thorichthys affine had must be determined.

The Cenote Azul is ideal for fish watching. Water is cool and clear. The visitors in the areas near the restaurant feed the fish almost constantly. Fish are always found in large numbers in that area. The dominant fish in the Cenote is Paratheraps synspilum. Approximately ninety five percent of the cichlid fauna is Paratheraps synspilum. In addition, we found 'Cichlasoma' uropthalmus, 'Cichlasoma' salvini, Petenia splendida, Archocentrus spilurus, and the Thorichthys. It is really eerie swimming in apparently bottomless water. There is great visibility around you until you duck your head and look down. The blackness is frightening. It made us all very uncomfortable. Red and Harry both were taking pictures using their underwater photographic systems. I periodically checked the two traps, emptied them, re-baited them and reset them. They worked well although they did not trap a great variety of fish. I would suggest that the minnow trap be utilized rather than the plastic one. It only trapped some slight degree better but is easier to handle and is not as fragile as a plastic trap. Before we left, Russ Norris dove deep and captured part of a spawn of the target Thorichthys. While we had not planned on bringing any back, we kept these and eventually managed to get them back to Florida. Fred Krause of Milwaukee, an exceptionally competent fish keeper, has these fish now. He is raising them and will attempt to spawn them.

The Cenote is absolutely impossible to seine. The adult Thorichthys we were able to photograph were all taken by Russ Norris who used a small spear gun. The colors were mostly in-between the red Thorichthys meeki and the yellow Peten Thorichthys affine. In addition to the cichlids, we found Poecilia mexicana mollies of large size, Gambusia yucatana, and Gambusia sexradiata. The latter is a very attractive fish. Gobiomorus dormitator, and small silversides completed the list. I am positive that there are other species of fish in Cenote Azul. Without being able to seine and, as we never use Rotenone, it is not possible to properly sample a body of water of this nature.

It was a very full and a very exciting day. We managed to get the truck started and then drove into Chetumal. We found a very elegant hotel and checked in. As anticipated, we found the American dollar worth more than six times what it had been worth two years earlier. Prices in the area had barely doubled. This makes México the bargain vacation spot in the hemisphere. Our rooms would have cost us fifty to one hundred dollars each in the United States. We spent only fourteen dollars for a double room with two beds in Chetumal! After cleaning up we went to a restaurant that Russ Norris strongly recommended. He had been telling us about this wonderful restaurant ever since we left Belize. We wined and dined like Mayan princes for less than five dollars each. The meal would have cost five to eight times that at home. Russ certainly was right. A welcome respite, since it had been a long day.

As usual we were up very early the next day and headed back to Laguna de Bacalar. Bacalar looks like a marine estuary and, in fact, is also known as the "Lake of Painted Waters." The water, however, is not as crystal clear as it appears from above. There is little plant life and heavy precipitates of calcium with the water being extremely hard and alkaline. Fish watching, however, is excellent. We arrived before nine a.m. and were in the water immediately. The fish fauna is similar to, yet different from, the Cenote. There was a serious question in all of our minds as to whether or not both bodies of water might be connected. We think not, but we all do agree that they have been connected at some time, but not in recent years. Bacalar had a much wider variety of fish species. There are Tarpon and Astyanax aeneus in Bacalar and evidently none in the Cenote. The dominant cichlid is not Paratheraps synspilum in the Laguna but is our target fish (Thorichthys affine?). In the Laguna we recorded all of the same cichlids and added Parachromis friedrichthali. Amphilophus robertsoni was conspicuous by its absence. We also found Floridichthys barbouri, Cyprinodon artifrons, Astyanax aeneus, Strongylura notata, Garmanella pulcher, Poecilia mexicana, Gambusia yucatana, Gambusia sexradiata, Gobiomorus dormitator, and Dormitator maculatus. Russell also sighted (deep) several Rhamdia catfish. Further offshore we saw Tarpon and silversides. This list is unquestionably incomplete. Everywhere there are large masses of a small (less than 2.5 centimeters) colonial clam. These clams are difficult to handle. In fact, I bled badly from two finger slashes after an attempt to remove and preserve a clump as a sample. Many empty Ampularia snail shells of moderate size were found. No live animals were found although Red and H.O. searched diligently for them. Russ Norris produced a total of fourteen large adult Thorichthys affine (10 to 12 centimeters) for photographing. He again utilized the small spear gun. Red stayed busy and shot roll after roll of underwater film. Harry and I did the photography when we weren't busy sampling with hand nets and seines. Harry Specht's description of his overall impression of the Thorichthys follows: "Maximum length four and one half inches (11.42 cm.). Pale grey-blue bodies with faint barring. Bright spotting on the operculum. As the Glottal and Pharyngeal areas are of the most interest, the most time was spent examining these colors. The range is from pale yellowish to a salmon orange color." There is wide variation in this coloration. None of the fish were as yellow as the Thorichthys affinis (illustrated) taken years ago from Lake Peten. No fish are as red as Thorichthys meeki. All of the juvenile fish are colorless. We are agreed that all fish from both of these bodies of water are poorly colored as compared to others of the same species collected in other areas. We loaded the truck and then prepared for one last collection to be made at the Cenote.

I guess the flat tire was another "memorable experience." Two hours elapsed between discovery and getting the flat repaired. We were running behind schedule and there still was more work to do at the Cenote. Actually, no one ever decided if the work consisted of collecting fish or indulging in one last meal there. Our plan was to drive back to Belize City that evening as the truck was getting us all increasingly nervous. We would arrive very late at night. It also meant skipping a scheduled stop at the Progresso Lagoon in northern Belize. Dr. James Thomerson had reported a "blue" 'Cichlasoma' salvini from that location but we had to leave that for another trip. The one stop we did make on the way back was at a stream where we hoped to collect Rhamdia guatemalensis catfish. These were needed to rework some taxonomic problems with that fish. It was dark when we arrived at that point. The stream was low, the water hot, and the fish were dying from a combination of stresses. This situation is often encountered at this time of the year in small shallow bodies of water. We did manage a dozen live, but very weak Rhamdia catfish. Eventually, four of these found their way back to my hatchery in Florida. The rest of the return trip to Belize was tiring and unexciting. Russ Norris is an iron man. As usual he did all of the driving. I, on the other hand, can't even remember getting back to Russ' house! Everyone slept soundly and we awoke refreshed for what promised to be some interesting collecting in the central part of the country.

Daylight in Belize is preceded by a loud and raucous announcement. Belizian Roosters are reputed to have been the original source for the charge that they "could waken the dead." Believe it! Still groggy from the marathon drive back from Quintana Roo the previous night it took no less than the mighty Belizian Roosters to awaken us. Stumbling around the aroma of one of Di Norris' breakfasts got us moving in high gear. We three quickly dressed and charged into the Norris' dining room. During the meal we reviewed our plans and set our timetable for the balance of our stay. Russ' truck must go into the shop. He would, that morning, make arrangements for transportation the rest of the day. A vehicle also would be rented for the four-day trip to Punta Gorda. Harry, Red, and I would collect in Belize City that morning.

Paratheraps synspillus Paratheraps synspillus speared in Cenote azul, Quintana Roo, México. Photo by Ross Socolof.
Amphilophus robertsoni Amphilophus robertsoni, in the aquarium. Photo by Ross Socolof.
Chuco intermedium Chuco intermedium from northern belize in the aquarium. Photo by Ross Socolof.
'Cichlasoma' salvini 'Cichlasoma' salvini in the aquarium. Fish and Photo by Ross Socolof.

Poecilia orri, the Mangrove Molly, was the fish we were after. It had been introduced once in 1972 but any existing strains in the United States had been contaminated. The A.L.A. (American Livebearer Association) membership was anxious to obtain live specimens. The fish has only been found in the immediate area of Belize City and on the Island of Roatan off the coast of Spanish Honduras. This is a very strange distribution pattern. It does well in brackish water but we have never found it north or south of the city of Belize. Collecting could only be done with hand nets. Two stout 30 centimeters nets worked toward each other was most productive. Harry Specht and Red Nichols did the collecting. I carried the collecting buckets, preservative, and assisted in the screaming! Drainage ditches in Belize are similar to most drainage ditches on good sized cities in the tropics. While not contaminated with raw sewage, they contain everything else imaginable. They are also usually great places to collect tropical fish. Collecting in Belize is right at the top of the list. Both P. mexicanus and Mangrove Mollies were found. In order to be sure not to make a mistake we only took adult Mangrove mollies. The only other fish we kept alive were wild platyfish (X. maculatus) and Phallicthys fairweatheri. Mike Wilson wanted these. There apparently are two races of P. fairweatheri. Mike Wilson and Jim Langhammer are interested in sorting it out. P. fairweatheri looks like its close relative P. amates (Merry widow) from Guatemala. Merry widows are lovely marked and an attractive fish. Their erect fins give them a perky appearance. P. fairweatheri has similar characteristics, but if it were three times prettier it would still only be approaching dull and drab!

Red next caught a breeding pair of Jack Dempseys ('Cichlasoma' octofasciatum) that almost wrenched the net out of his hand. They were very large and robust, beautiful specimens. In addition, they collected Rivulus tenuis, Rhamdia catfish, Gambusia luma, 'Cichlasoma' uropthalmus, Parachromis friedrichshali, Thorichthys meeki, Gobiomorus dormitator, and Dormitator maculatus. I almost caught a (?) specimen of Eleotris amblyopsis, an interesting fish. It left my net on the fly, bounced once at my feet, and landed like an aerial torpedo into the ditch. I think it was half way to México before I collected my wits for another try at it.

We returned to Russ' home and put the live specimens in the holding tanks. We had, at this point, a spawn of the Cenote Azul's Thorichthys affine, Amphilophus robertsoni, and Rhamdia guatamalensis and now added the Mangrove Mollies and P. fairweatheri to the collection. Russ had provided us with ten all-glass aquariums (he makes his own) to store the fish as we collected them. Everything looked fine. We then packed for the trip to Mullins River, sixteen kilometers north of Dangila (formerly Stanns Creek). As usual, we would drive to the farthest point and collect back. We anticipated two or three other stops on the return trip. Russ' brother-in-law, Joe Mena, had given us the use of his truck and driver for the day. It was a most generous gesture. Our rental vehicle would be ready the next morning. It promised to be a long and enjoyable day. Joe and Edith Mena live in the capital city of Belmopan which was half way between Mullins River and Belize City. Joe and Edith Mena had invited all of us to a large party that night at their home. Their close friend had been appointed Ambassador to Great Britain, this was to be his farewell party. Di and her sister Hilda would meet us there where we would be able to clean up and change our clothes. We would all return to Belize late that night. Rudolph was our driver's name, and we were on our way before noon for the 135 km trip. He took off flying. Russ explained that Rudolph had driven this route commercially for years and was completely familiar with the road. It was not too bad until we left Belmopan and had to negotiate some really bad, blind goose neck turns. The speed seemed to increase. We were all bug eyed and tense. Red and I were in the back seat. As we careened crazily around a sharp turn in full flight we saw a horse charging down the narrow dirt road riderless. It was headed straight for us. We tried to scream while Rudolph fought to get the truck slowed down and under control. We missed that horse with only centimeters separating us from disaster. I looked down at Red Nichols hands and had a crazy thought. This prompted unexpected and uncontrollable hysteria. When I finally stopped laughing I explained that looking at Red's hands all I could see were his "white knuckles." Red Nichols got renamed for the rest of the trip.

Thorichthys meeki is uncommon in southern half of Belize and disappear completely before the Guatemalan border where Thorichthys aureus is found

The four hour drive took an hour and a half. Mullins River was a disappointment and we did not stay long. It is tea colored with a firm sandy bottom. We did not find Chuco intermedium which was one of our target fish for that day. We caught a beautiful spawn of two centimeters Paratheraps synspilus and saved some to take back. The water must have had some salt content as we caught a Lutjanus species (snapper) there. The first Belonesox belizanus of the trip was taken along with Amphilophus robertsoni, Petenia splendida, Archocentrus spilurus, 'Cichlasoma' salvini, plus various gobies, mollies, and gambusia. Thorichthys meeki was not taken since they are uncommon in southern half of Belize and disappear completely before the Guatamalan border where Thorichthys aureus is found.

We packed up and headed back toward Princess Margaret's Creek which would take us within 24 kilometers of Belmopan. Russ Norris had told me many times about this location. This is where he got his giant green swordtails (X. helleri). I badly wanted to reintroduce a good strain into the hobby. Existing strains have been inbred for more than at least thirty years and, more likely for fifty. The normal practice of culling the largest fish for sale and then returning the residue to the pond has, over the years, developed a race of mostly stunted fish with a large percentage of early developing males. These never grow to acceptable sizes. A good wild strain was badly needed and I hoped to bring it back.

Our initial look at Princess Margaret's Creek was totally disappointing. The water was less than 45 cm. deep. The clear water moved fast over large rocks. If fish were there we would not be able to catch any. Russ reassured us that several hundred yards south there was a small area that was collectable. Using face masks and flippers we laid flat in the shallow waters and immediately saw the beautiful large wild green swordtails. I was particularly pleased to see that a small percentage of the wild fish had black spots and blotches on their bodies. With Russ showing the way we found an area about one hundred meters in length with a 1.2 meters deep shelf on one side. It was no more than three meters wide before the depth dropped to 30 cm. By swimming slowly along the rock and clay wall we had a wonderful opportunity to see the fish. We found our first Heterandria bimaculatus here. This is a very large (10 cm. females and 5 cm. males) livebearer. Amphilophus robertsoni and 'Cichlasoma' octofasciatum (Jack Dempseys) were also here. One beautifully colored pair of 'Cichlasoma' salvini guarded a spawn that had to be close to one thousand fry! The fish were huge! Archocentrus spilurus was the most common cichlid but the livebearers dominated the population. The race of P. mexicanus mollies while not the largest were certainly the prettiest. There were many extraordinarily colored males. The only practical way to collect was with the seine. We never did manage to capture any of the mollies with the bright yellow dorsals and blue black bodies. We did see one gigantic almost all-yellow male molly. The fins were bright yellow. It had little of the normal slate blue body colors. We caught it and it was all of ten centimeters in length. It has since found its way to Ames, Iowa, and Dr. Joanne Norton is using it to try to further improve existing hybrid strains of mollies.

About this time Harry Specht sighted a male swordtail with a large percentage of red in its body. The hunt was on. We all thrashed around fruitlessly trying to catch it. Later, Harry smiled and said he was happy he did not catch the fish. It would provide him with a reason to return to this lovely spot. We took about 35 less than half grown wild swords with us. Thirteen of these were the spotted and blotched types. Just a very few of the fully-grown adults were taken.

The fish have since this time been reproduced in Florida. Several thousand have been gifted to the larger commercial producers in Florida (Tim Hennessy, Howard Groff, and Wayne Tanner). This race of X. helleri has so far produced absolutely no early developing males. It can, and should be, crossed back into the colored hybrid varieties to improve their size. (I think it is already being done.) Additional fish are available for any other commercial producer who wants to have them, there is no charge. The only request is that their existing strains be eliminated.

Our next stop was less than five kilometers away back toward Belmopan. Not only were Chuco intermedium there but they were the dominant (and almost only) cichlid in residence. We saw only Archocentrus spilurus. Collecting was not just difficult, it was impossible. That is always the pattern with Chuco intermedium. I have known the fish for 15 years now and have never found it in a spot where it could be easily collected. We spent some time trying to find a spawning pair as these provide the best opportunity to collect specimens. Juveniles were what we wanted to obtain.

Finding none, we left for The Blue Hole, our last stop. This turned out to be a sinkhole of less than 100 feet in diameter at the water. Actually, the hole was large but the water was only at the very bottom where it quickly disappeared into a series of underground caves. The water was no more than six feet deep. We had to work our way down more than one hundred feet to reach the water. 1t was a beautiful sight overgrown with lush tropical foilage. Many birds and butterflies filled the air. The only fish we saw were Chuco intermedium. The water was clear and proved to be surprisingly cool. No one entered the water, we all simply observed the fish. There were two adult pairs of Chuco intermedium with fry. There was no cover on the sandy bottom. The fish slowly glided and herded their young putting on a beautiful show for us.

Chuco intermedium has no really outstanding colors. The body flanks are marked with a perfect "T" shape that dominates their entire body. The breeding pairs exhibited no unusual coloration which is, at times, strikingly different with Central American cichlids. Although we wanted the fry to take back, catching them would be a real problem as the slightest distraction would spook them back into the cave mouth some 3 meters distant.

Russ volunteered to make the attempt. Equipped with our two largest and widest mesh (moves faster) nets he slipped into the water with face mask, flippers, and snorkel. He worked slowly behind the fish blocking them from the cave mouth. It seemed an eternity before he was in a position to make his strike. There would be no second chance. Then * complete success * and we had our young! They are now in Milwaukee with Fred Krause. He should have young available later if nothing goes amiss. That was it for the day. Wet, dirty, tired, and bedraggled we headed for Joe Mena's home in Belmopan.

Edith Mena was waiting for us and even though she expected more than fifty guests in less than 2 hours, she found time to settle us down, give us hot coffee, cold drinks and a snack, and then direct us to her two guest bathrooms. We quickly revived and, after bathing and changing were ready for the party.

The evening was just great. I particularly enjoyed the time I spent getting reacquainted with Russ' parents who I had not seen in years. The guests included some fascinating people. We met British officers just back from the Falklands war, United Nations people, local officials and as we certainly were strange creatures (who ever heard of grown men running around catching fish too small to eat?), we had some great conversations. As our fish and gear were stored behind the party area we waited until everyone left and then, after Di and her sister Hilda had helped clean up a bit, we must have driven back to Belize City and gone to sleep. I have no memory of this at all as I was totally wiped out by then.

By the time we woke the next morning Russ had already left to pick up the rental truck. Harry, Red, and I worked with the fish collection as we would be gone for the next four days. The fish had to be made as secure as possible as they would be mostly unattended in our absence. The orange male molly, green swordtails, and spawn of Chuco intermedium, as well as everything else, was apparently in good shape. The tanks were all siphoned and refilled. I always medicate preventatively (formaldehyde, tetracycline, malachite green) for two days and then change the water. Red and I walked across the street and we managed to get enough live food (mostly cyclops) to leave it in the tanks. He had the only handkerchief, which he rigged inside a net. We fed the live food after they had a chance to eat the flake food previously fed.

Finally, we got all of our gear together. The plan was to drive straight through and try to arrive at Punta Gorda before dark. This is at terminus of the Southern Highway. The road is dirt from Dangriga (Stann Creek town) all the way to Punta Gorda, a hard but interesting drive. I had never made it before as the two previous trips to Punta Gorda had been made by light plane. Shortly before noon we were on our way.

We left Belize City just at noon and the trip to the southernmost part of Belize was underway. Our only stop would be at Belmopan where we could fill the tank with gas. There is no available gasoline on the road until its terminus at Punta Gorda where you run out of road. The Guatemalan border is about 56 kilometers further but there is no road to reach it. The road is paved until Stann Creek Town but, from that point the last sixty percent of the trip is over a graded dirt road. It is seldom heavily traveled and easily passable in the dry season. Later, when the rains come, it is often impassable to anything excepting four wheel drive vehicles and dual tired trucks. Russ, Dr. Albert Klee, and I had collected the area as long ago as 1970 and then again in 1972. We had only traveled there by small plane so I was anxious to see the overland route.

Road to Nimli Punit One truck * stuck * in the way to Nimli Punit. Photo by Ross Socolof.
Nimli Punit, Belize An expoxed wall in Nimli Punit, Belize. Photo by Ross Socolof.
The Golden creek, Belize The Golden creek, Belize. Photo by Ross Socolof.

We stopped for a while to collect in Stann Creek. It has been postulated that this stream is a definite faunal break and we had been asked to try to confirm it. This was the last place south where Paratheraps synspilus and Chuco intermedium had been collected. They are replaced by similar looking, but very different fish just south of this area namely and respectively Vieja maculicauda and Chuco godmani. We did a thorough job and confirmed the faunal break to our satisfaction. The Stann Creek area of Belize is mostly settled by Carib Indian stock. They have recently petitioned the Government to give the area its original Carib names so, officially, Stann Creek Town is "Dangriga."

From this point south the road is passable but always rough. It is well-graded but still the ruts are stomach wrenching. The Russ Norris theory states that, "At exactly 77 kph you can skim the tops of the ruts in a planing motion." Getting to 77 kph is just like a jet pilot breaking through the sound barrier! The buffeting is rough and then it suddenly smoothes out when you breach the "Belizian road rut barrier." We now observed a wonderful assortment of wild life including coati-mundis and foxes crossing the road. Huge chachalacas, which are a Central American version of our wild turkey, were easily seen alongside the road. In the air we saw many parrots, toucans, and several large macaws. In 1970, and again in 1972, we visited an enchanted stream appropriately called Golden Creek. I had been thinking of this spot ever since. The idea of revisiting it was very exciting since I imagine most people have favorite spots and this one is mine. My emotions were mixed as we approached the area. I wanted to get there and, at the same time, I was afraid I would find it despoiled. When we reached it we slowed down long enough to assure ourselves it was still pristine. We would spend a full day in the area later in the trip.

It darkened fast as night approached and it was black when we rolled into Punta Gorda. This is a very small town with no street lighting so it was difficult to orient ourselves. There is only one main street and, as it is but three blocks in length, a short walk enabled us to find the Miramar Hotel. It was now a restaurant and sported a fancy neon sign but was no longer a hotel! It was easily the most impressive building in town. The only choice remaining was a place across the road where Harry and Red negotiated for rooms. We ended up with two of the four rooms at a cost of $3.00 each per night. Fortunately, the water was still on (it ran for an hour only each evening) so I started sorting my notes while the others bathed. I got into the shower, lathered myself completely and relaxed. At about that time, while trying to classify the various green growths on the walls, the water stopped. I had soap everywhere but my mouth, which I proceeded to use! They let me scream for minutes before Russ brought me five gallons of rainwater to get me out of my predicament.

We all headed across the road to the Miramar. They had an unbelievable menu which was a combination Chinese and Belizian as was the proprietor, a friendly gentleman named Alexander Keung. The beer and cokes were cold. The camaraderie was great. We spent hours and hours planning our routes and studying our maps. We had a wealth of material to assist us, most of it provided by Dr. Robert R. Miller and Dr. James Thomerson, both experts on not only the area but the fish fauna. Thomerson had collected the area previously and had helped program us to direct us toward certain areas to help solve remaining unanswered questions about the area. The next day would be the most important of the trip since we had three priorities to attempt. First, we wanted to find and bring back Thorichthys aureus. This is the fish Albert Klee, Russ, and I first found in 1970. It has outstanding colors and is a different fish from the one imported several years ago from Germany as Thorichthys aureus. This is the fish that quickly became popular as the "Super Meeki." Apparently it was difficult to breed outside of Florida where it would pool breed. In 1972, I brought back Chuco godmani. I was not able to reproduce it and my meager stock disappeared. I was anxious to get it and try it again, The last and probably least likely task would be to try to locate a certain cichlid known as 'Cichlasoma' bocourti. I suspected this was the mystery fish that Russ Norris had found on an Indian boys fish string eight years ago and photographed. The picture was in black and white and the only thing I knew is that it looked like no Central American cichlid I had ever seen. If time permitted we were also going to try to find an abandoned rice operation where a unique looking livebearer named Carlhubbsia stewarti had been collected. I have never seen a picture of the fish. I did see one old male specimen alive in Belize City at Russ Norris' home years ago. It reminded me of the Phalichthys amates (Merry Widow) that we had found in Spanish Honduras. It has a striking vertical barring and grows much larger.

We planned an early start and all we had to do was fill up with gas (we were on empty when we arrived) and try to find the dirt trail that would take us to the Moho River. Everyone was up with the sun. We bolted down a fast breakfast, charged into the truck, and were off into Mayan Indian country and the Rio Moho. In our excitement we forgot to get gasoline. This brilliant ploy was not discovered until we had found an improved trail that seemed passable leading to the Mayan Indian village of Santa Ana on the Moho River. A scream of Holy something or other by Russ alerted us to the problem. A return trip (with crossed fingers) for gasoline was critical -- we were in real jungle at the time. I asked to be dropped off so I could wander into the bush on one of numerous visible game trails to observe the scene and, hopefully, photograph something of interest. Harry decided to join me. We marked the spot and Russ and Red left to make the attempt to get back to the gas station before they ran dry.

Although Harry and I both got our legs badly torn by thorns, we had a wonderful and exciting hour long walk. We observed and photographed many interesting botanical growths. This included a bizarre looking orchid-like plant that Peter Tsang in Australia has identified as Tilandsia bulbosa. I accidentally found, and photographed, a very strange and well-camouflaged stick insect. There were huge Bombax or Kapoc trees. This is called "Ceiba" here and is the Mayan's sacred tree. The presence of the huge wild fig trees called "Amate" meant we were close to water. This is a real Fig (Ficus) and hosts unbelievable growth of exotic plants and animals. Some time ago a documentary was made just on the teeming life of the Amate. I showed Harry a little green skink type lizard that is known as "Pica sombra", This is the infamous "Shadow Biter." The Mayan Indians believe that if your shadow falls on a "Pica sombra" the last one to reach water dies. This, of course, is pure rubbish. I stumbled backwards rather than test it! The Cassia, or Bull Thorn, bushes were everywhere. Great care had to be taken not to get stabbed. The large sharp dual horns make a terrible wound. If that were not enough the horns are hollow and host fierce biting fire ants. This double feature makes them really bad news.

Time passed so quickly we could not believe it when we heard the truck. They had made it without mishap. We proceeded to the end of the road and entered a lovely c1ean Mayan town on the Moho River. Everything there, I think, was almost exactly like it was l500 years ago. The people were all extremely courteous and helpful. We got within a hundred yards of the river and walked down to investigate. A fisherman by the name of James was (fortunately for us) there in his beautifully constructed dugout. Red subsequently learned that James manufactures these boats. He told Red that he makes three or four each year. He selects a large Cottonwood and cuts it down. He then "finds" the boat in the log and, with charcoal, draws the outline. Working alone with primitive too1s he "uncovers" the boat. He spends one month and one week, as he put it, on each boat. It was still early in the day. We hired him for thirty dollars to transport us up the river. I had already seen a huge Vieja maculicauda and felt the other target fish were nearby.

We were twenty nine kilometers from the sea and the water seemed to be completely fresh. Very few parrots were in the area as most of them stayed closer to the coast. Both crocodiles and alligators were there and on the trip upstream, we saw many turtles and birds. The trees were loaded with orchids and Bromeliads. Harry and I were left in a promising spot while Russ, Red, and James moved about to try to spear larger fish. In all, we spent five hours there. The area that Harry and I worked was clear and, except in the middle of the stream, slow moving. Ten feet would be the deepest spot found. The Moho River at that point is not more than one hundred feet wide. I was delighted to immediately find both Chuco godmani and Thorichthys aureus.

In fact, we found a tremendous variety of fish. The high point of the day was when James speared an entirely new fish. It apparently was a cichlid and the only thing we figured it could be was "Cichlasoma bocourti" (subsequent examination of the preserved specimen by Dr. R.R. Miller confirmed this). As the photographs taken at the time show, it is an extremely attractive fish and was the only specimen seen or captured. Its range is south into country that is, at the moment, inhospitable. Hopefully, subsequent trips will capture enough fish to introduce it into the hobby. A different type of large (up to 10 centimeters) Cornucopia shaped snail was common. It was different as it had large knobby ridges. The Mayans call it the fresh-water Conch. They collect them and then boil them. The small end is broken off with a hammer. The meat is blown out and forms a regular part of their diet. I have never understood why these snails have never been introduced into the hobby. I have never taken them back as I have never been able to learn if they were permitted entrance into the United States or not. While collecting and examining these auger-shaped snails in about 45 centimeters of water I saw, and easily netted, a huge fresh-water pipe fish. It was the first one I ever collected in Central America. I stumbled over to Harry Specht and showed it to him. We immediately looked for more and quickly caught another specimen. However, that was it. We found no others, although we looked for them. Later, while seining for small cichlids to carry out alive, I anticipated catching more. The two fish we captured turned out to be a mature pair and were close to fifty centimeters long. They have since be identified as Oostethus brachyurus. They evidently have a wide range, but are uncommon in all areas.

Our collective observations included capture, or positive sightings of several brackish water fishes such as Needle fish, Crevalle Jacks, and an 20 cm. Snook. As salt water sinks there is a good chance (even though we were 29 kilometers from the sea) that there still was a tidal surge that carried a small stream of brackish water up this far along the central and bottom part of the Moho River. This would account for the larger than expected presence of brackish water fish. We found also Belonesox, Gambusia luna, large P. mexicanus mollies, Silversides up to 7.5 cm. long, and Russ ran into a large school of 1.2 cm. specimens in mid-stream. Astyanax were common. The lovely small Mayan tetra Hyphesobrycon compressus was there as well as huge (up to 30 cm.) Brycon guatamalensis. There were a total of six species of cichlids. Besides those already mentioned, there were 'Cichlasoma' salvini, Archocentrus spilurus, and Vieja maculicauda. Russ saw an extremely large Dormitator maculatus that was more than 38 centimeters in length. A very attractive mother-of-pearl clam was common to the area. The bottom was mostly limestone rocks and boulders. Many large trees were down which made fish sightings easy. The latter are difficult when the stream is bare or just rock strewn. A local industry has grown up around the presence of sand in certain parts of the upper rivers. There is a shortage of concrete sand and a yard of it hauled into Punta Gorda by boat was worth twenty dollars Belize ($10.00 U.S.)

Before we left the area we used the boat to locate an area where we could seine for specimens. This was accomplished more easily than we thought and, after carefully selecting 1.2 and 2.0 cm. length fish; we packed them and headed back to town.

It was still fairly early in the afternoon and we decided to try to locate the ruins of the Mayan town of Lubaantan. This is not a major site. If proper excavating was done it might turn out to be of great significance. Dr. Thomas Gann and Hedges Smith had actually purchased it in its entirety back in 1924 after its discovery. The adventures they had are described in a book I stumbled on several years ago called "Mystery Cities." They found the area and took considerable artifacts back to England. These people had done whatever excavating and clearing that had been done there almost 85 years ago. We spent a delightful couple of hours exploring these quite extensive ruins. An extremely large Amphitheater is on the site that has been calculated to seat between five and ten thousand people. The stone work is intricate and extensive. There is not a soul anywhere near the ruins. It is an eerie experience to visit these huge and deadly still areas. There is a very definite feeling of an unseen presence about you. We all felt it. There are no stone carvings or stelae on the site as those found were removed by the original exploiters.

We were now an hour from Punta Gorda and returned there to bathe and rest. Red got quite excited when he discovered that the wallpaper pattern in his room moved every time he snapped his fingers. He did borrow some bug spray, which evidently did nothing more than antagonize the roaches! He later told Russ and I that what he tried to do was drive his wallpaper exhibit into our room. Why we had none could not be explained. We reflected on our accomplishments at dinner while planning the next days collecting. Russ told us how he manufactured his own aquarium equipment since nothing to facilitate fish keeping is available in Belize. Red told us the fascinating story about how he sent Hans Peter to Hong Kong back in 1968 to try to buy the molds for the manufacture of the original Hovlid undergravel filters which had been in limbo when the successor to Hovlid had gone out of business. He still has the molds and they are still producing his great undergravel filters.

The evening ended when we got Harry Specht to admit that the 'Cichlasoma' bocourti we had captured was a pretty fish "even though it was a cichlid!"

The previous day, as we returned to Punta Gorda from the Moho River, we spotted a small freshly painted sign that displayed an arrow and the words "Nimli Punit." Russ Norris remembered reading about a newly worked Mayan Ruin and realized that we had stumbled on the location although it was supposed to be inaccessible. Naturally, Red Nichols was driving at the time. We turned in and headed uphill only to quickly realize that the road was not passable.

Today we were headed toward an abandoned rice station where a rare livebearer named Carlhubbsia stewarti had been collected. Russ was driving and again we passed the Nimli Punit sign and Russ turned in gritting his teeth saying he thought we could make it. (However, it turned out to be a totally impossible situation, as Russ admitted later.) At the moment he was charging uphill. We lurched, skidded, screeched, bounced, and jerked back and forth for almost a mile. We stopped only when we ran up high and dry on a boulder, perched at a crazy angle. Red Nichols got out to check the damage and fell down. I followed after him, taking note of the angle from the clue he gave me. We decided it would be best to leave the truck to cool down and try to hike in on foot. The area quickly got quiet and cool as the trees grew to great heights, silent sentinels for a disappeared culture. The shade was sufficient to prevent any heavy undergrowth so the trail was easy to navigate. Nothing had been done to unearth the ruins. The silence almost screamed at us. Huge Bird's Nest Ferns grew amongst the mounds. A crude thatched hut had been erected to cover two remarkable Stelae, huge stones that had been intricately carved. The largest was fully twenty feet in length and easily a third longer than any we had ever seen. The other was about twelve feet long and perhaps five feet wide. A four foot panel depicting a very important personage (as indicated by the head gear and adornments) was throwing what we all felt was corn kernels into a brazier with fire shooting from it. Two other people were also throwing corn into the fire. All of it was surrounded by foot square glyphs. There were five or six other Stelae in the area and, hopefully, Belize will one day work these ruins as they have in México, Guatemala and Spanish Honduras. We stayed for several hours. Red found some wild peppers, which Russ cautioned him against trying, they are called Bird Peppers and Red had to sample them. He survived, but just barely! He decided they were called Bird Peppers as with one bite you flew.

Poecilia orri, the mangrove Molly Poecilia orri, the mangrove Molly, now reintroduced into the hobby. Photo by Ross Socolof.
Xiphophorus helleri Adult male wild green swordtail Xiphophorus helleri from Margaret's creek, now being produced by the Florida fish Farmers. Photo by Ross Socolof.
Belonesox belicianus Belonesox belicianus head shot showing the really fierce set of teeth. Photo by Ross Socolof.

We piled back into the truck having enjoyed the experience at Nimli Punit. Russ backed up all the way down the hill, as there was no turning around. We drove for about eight miles and found what looked like a canal shaped pond at the abandoned rice station. It looked promising and, as Harry Specht and Russ got the gear sorted, I walked into the water across the road with two hand nets for a preview. Ninety centimeters from the bank I was on a hard bottom in seventy five centimeters of black ooze with only fifteen centimeters of water. Waiting to be hauled out I swung the nets about and did manage to catch a 'Cichlasoma' salvini and several Gambusia sexlineata. This, without moving my legs.

We walked up to the North end of the pond and Russ and I entered the water with the seine. Specht was cheering and Red was laughing. I wanted back out of the awful mess but Russ shamed me into staying. The only saving grace was that the bottom was hard and, as long as I could reach it, I hoped I would survive. The situation did not improve although it could not have gotten worse.

We wallowed away from the shore and headed toward the promising distant bank (3 meters away) gamely dragging the seine. Russ is very buoyant and he bobbed up and down like a cork. I couldn't make up my mind whether the stench of the pond or the feel of it was worse. The water was never more than a foot above the mud and I was in up to my shoulders. I silently hoped the seine would be empty so we could quit this nonsense. Finally, with the seine still intact and most of the glop (which Russ calls black cold cream) having oozed through the mesh we were ashore. Incredibly, the seine was loaded with an amazing number and variety of fish. In retrospect I cannot ever recall getting a more varied collection with one seine haul. Our excitement was enough to get Harry Specht into the glop and over to help us. Red Nichols just stared at us in disbelief and elected to photograph the scene. The collection was very different from what we had collected at the Rio Moho which was less than 15 kilometers away from this site. For example, we had our first Belonesox belizanus. A really colorful Thorichthys meeki surprised us all as we thought we were out of its range. We only caught the one specimen during the entire trip to this most southern part of Belize.

We had a large number of large wild green swords. These were all without any of the usual black spotting. Although we seined another ten times after this, we never caught another green swordtail, yet we must have had 25 or so in the first haul. Things like this always make you wonder what you have missed and this even when you feel you have sampled everything.

The only other livebearers were a good population of P. mexicanus mollies. There were Astyanax in the haul but not in huge numbers. Hyphessobrycon milleri were present in small numbers. There are two types of Rhamdia sp. catfish in Belize and both were in the seine. This is Rhamdia guatamalensis and Rhamdia laticauda. Besides the 'Cichlasoma' salvini and the one Thorichthys meeki, we had Amphilophus robertsoni, 'Cichlasoma' octofasciatum (the Jack Dempsey), and Archocenthrus spilurus. We thought the list complete with one single specimen of Dormitator maculatus (the sleeper Goby). It was an amazing haul from such an inhospitable environment, but no Carlhubbsia stewarti, and the latter was what had drawn us to this foul place.

We prepared to reseine the area with Harry Specht volunteering to replace me. I guess my feelings about this paradise had made an impression. Just then Russ swooped down and picked up a half grown and unmistakable specimen of Carlhubbsia stuarti! Following this initial catch we managed a total of twenty-three specimen of Carlhubbsia stewarti. The fish is in the hobby now and while it will never rival the fancy hybrid livebearers, its always erect fins and pleasing green striped body should make it very popular.

Russ and I struggled back all the way across the river of glop and Harry Specht decided to outsmart us and avoid it by circling around to the far end. While we watched this intrepid collector (who just looks smarter than we do), Red managed to catch a great series of pictures of a hapless Specht enmeshed in a combination of black ooze and saw grass. We three were all so busy laughing at him that it wasn't until later that we realized that it might have been his final day of seining. Expiring in "quicksand" has a dramatic ring to it but checking out in "quickmuck" is only gross!

Nichols suddenly realized that he was still semi-pristine while we three were covered with black gumbo and a really ripe stench. He ran for the truck and, as he had the keys, he locked himself in the cab. He drove, and remained uncontaminated, until he found a small clear stream where we could strip and clean ourselves.

It was well into the heat of the day and we were all exhausted. We decided to leave some test collecting undone. We turned around and headed back for Punta Gorda. We now had live specimens of Carlhubbsia stewarti and Amphilophus robertsoni to add to the Thorichthys aureus and Chuco godmani we had collected the day before. Eventually, all of these made it back to the United States alive. Most have since reproduced.

Before we left that day Red Nichols had gone into business for himself. He contracted with the hotel's cleaning lady to wash his laundry! When he told us, we all just stared at him in open-mouthed disbelief. Never before had we been with a person who did laundry. Up to that point we all thought you just left the wet and dirty clothes in a pile in the back of the truck. When they dried you put them back on. If they didn't dry, you put them back on anyway! Years ago, Fran Hanan had told me that Red had been stolen by Gypsies as a child and was really royalty and not a Californian. Doing laundry proved she must be right. When we drove into the parking area the laundry lines were festooned with a colorful display of Ross Socolof's, Russ Norris', and Harry Specht's clothing. There was my plastic raincoat (who washes plastic raincoats?) all my previously untouched clean clothing along with Harry and Russ' clean clothing. It took days for us to get our socks resorted again. It was really neat. We had our dirty clothes in the previously described pile in the back of the truck. Red had his dirty clothing all piled in the middle of the room. The cleaning lady had to walk around his clothes to get to our clean ones. He did not have a single piece of clothing washed. We all had a good laugh with Red laughing the loudest.

Tomorrow we would be going to Golden Creek. This would be our last day. Waiting for the water to go on so we could bathe before eating, we sat and watched a truly spectacular show. At dusk in Punta Gorda the huge Man of War birds (Frigata magnifiscence) leave their dizzy heights to ride the thermals where the sea hits the land. They all fly south to some unknown roosting area. None of us had ever seen any of these large off-shore birds in quantity before. In the hour we sat waiting, at least one thousand of them passed us. Each and every one headed in the same direction. We had a filling and interesting meal (you never are quite sure what you are eating) and, over coffee, Russ Norris gave us the common Belizian names of some of the fish we had seen so much of in the previous days. Cockabelly brim are Archocentrus spilurus; Mountain tuba are Chuco intermedium; Red Gill was Thorichthys meeki; Bilum are Astyanax aeneus; Machaca are Brycon guatamalensis; and Bay Snook are the Petenia splendida.

We filled the car with gas, and ourselves with a huge breakfast, and then headed to an area called the Mafredi Swamp. We sampled several places and did not come up with anything different than we did in the previous day's collecting. Shortly before noon we headed for Golden Creek where we would collect and then have some lunch which we had bought at the little village of San Antonio. We unloaded our gear and, before we entered the water, we put the warm drinks in the cool water near a small waterfall and the box of food in a cool spot. Most people think of Belize in terms of Belize City which I will admit can, in parts, be pretty grim. Golden Creek, in Belize, has got to be one of the most beautiful, peaceful, and, at the same time, exciting places in the world. There are never any bugs at this time of the year. Two scarlet Tanangers flew across the water as I swam upstream through a small cut alongside the first small waterfall and entered a pool about 2.4 meters on the other side. I spotted some huge schooling Rhamdia catfish that, in the crystal clear water, looked like marine sharks. I saw a beautiful pair of 'Cichlasoma' salvini on a spawn which was something Harry Specht wanted to photograph. I backed out to alert him and found he was studying a strange phenomena that consisted of upwards of two hundred butterflies (Russ later identified six species). All had landed, were landing, or had just flown up from an area no more than thirty centimeters square.

There was some sort of an attractant on what appeared to be a normal looking patch that was identical to the rest of the bank. Deciding to come back to the butterflies later, he followed me to the spot where I targeted the pair for him. I left him and headed upstream. Russ was already out of sight and Red was working on the opposite shore. The stream was no more than five meters wide at the widest point and, although it didn't look it because of the clarity of the water, it was about three and a half meters deep in mid-stream. I discovered this when I made a casual dive and ran out of gas, to look at a large fish that was under a section of fallen timber. It turned out to be a marine snapper of the genus Lutjanus that Dr. R.R. Miller had identified for me years ago. This was only the second time I had found one in pure fresh water (we were about thirteen kilometers from the sea). Vieja maculacauda were present, but not in the huge numbers we had seen when we first found the fish and reintroduced it to the hobby back in 1971. I did find about a dozen huge adults almost motionless in deep shadow on the underside of a huge fallen tree. I have never seen an adult Black Belt Cichlid (Vieja maculacauda) in the open and only found them, like these, in deep shadow. They are magnificent. I have raised many of them and in a variety of conditions. None ever can approximate the colors of the wild fish.

I spotted an old friend and what was a mystery fish for Russ and I for years. This was an Atherinid that deserves a common name but has none. It is Agonostomus monticola. It grows to at least thirty centimeters. It only reminds one of a trout as its behavior and appearance are convincingly Salmonid. More than once, I have caught and tried to bring specimens back alive but to no avail. It had been in Germany one time, but was never bred. I wish there was a good color picture of this beauty but I have never taken one or seen one. The body is deep brown, black, golden for the most part and with a definite overall greenish sheen. The fins are reddish. It is a beauty that deserves more attention in the future. I found Russ and waved him over to get a look at the Agonostomus, which he had already seen. It is never common although it has a wide range through Central America.

Russ and I spent the next hour or so together slowly swimming and studying the fish. Thorichthys aureus were there. We could not find Chuco godmani although they were originally collected there in 1971. The dominant cichlid was Archocentrus spilurus which we had all taken to calling Cockabelly brim after Russ had educated us the previous night. Astyanax aeneus were common. Getting right up into the shallows (fifteen centimeters) we found beautiful green swordtails, Gambusia luma, and in slightly deeper water, many large and colorful Mexican mollies (Poecilia mexicana). We found several large Belonesox belizanus and both of the common gobioid fish (Dormitator maculatus and Gobiomorus dormitator). No one ever saw Heterandria bimaculatus although it had been there years ago. Red Nichols found the empty carapace of a large (almost 10 centimeters) fresh-water Crab. None were found alive. The auger shaped snails were common but never more than 2.5 centimeters or so in length, which may make them a third species. (The others all grow to about ten centimeters.) Hyphessobrycon compressus were in beautiful schools. Russ keeps them in his huge eight hundred liters display aquarium in his living room. They are really a very pretty, mostly unknown, and unappreciated "tetra."

Three enchanted hours had turned us all almost blue. We gathered to watch the butterfly show and have lunch. Russ told Red all about the mostly naked and bizarre Gumbo Limbo trees which were in view. There were two of the Mayan's sacred tree which is known as Ceiba or, more commonly, the Kapoc Tree. They were huge and festooned with an unbelievable growth of orchids, bromeliads, ferns and other plants. No one even attempted to catch a fish. This was really unusual. We had all so completely immersed ourselves in this piscatorial paradise that we never even thought about it.

The nets and seines remained dry while we tried to figure out what was attracting the butterflies to the one area. I have discussed this with other people and I still have no idea.

It was with reluctance that we finally left the area. It was a fitting end to what had been a wonderful trip to Punta Gorda. Harry and Red (our financial managers) settled the bill before we went to bed. We were off on our return to Belize City as day broke. We would make a stop at Princess Margaret's Creek near Belmopan City to collect several more specimens of the giant race of spotted green swordtails. We were back by four in the afternoon. Di Norris was already making preparations for a Creole feast that night. We had lost Amphilophus robertsoni during our absence, although the other fish were all in good shape. We had one last day remaining before we flew back to the United States which would give us a chance to get to Mussel Creek about an hour and a half drive away and try to collect some additional Amphilopus robertsoni. We had time for a real bath (hot water) and our first real shave in many days. Relaxed and mellow we were ready for a great meal. Our anticipation was fulfilled and we ate like people who had not had any real food in days (true enough). Homemade ice cream and fresh Cashew fruit made an unusual and tasty desert. Di and Russ explained the intricacies of eating Cashews. The tree is native to the area. In April and May the fruit is ready. The familiar kidney shaped nut develops on the bottom of a globular shaped fruit. The fruit is eaten raw. It is called Cashew Apple and is rather fleshy and astringent but very palatable. The nuts must be properly roasted. They are extremely poisonous if not prepared properly before they are eaten. The bark called Cashew Gum, is also used medicinally.

We slept quite late and then left for Mussel Creek. The collecting there is usually good and easy. It turned out to be good but not easy. The banks were unusually slick and Harry and Russ who did most of the collecting worked hard at it. Red and I did some photography in the surrounding bush and also did get some good fish pictures. With the needed Amphilophus robertsoni in hand, except for a very profitable (for Di Norris' collection) stop to gather wild Orchids we made our way back to Belize. A fine meal at a local Chinese restaurant finished the day and we got back in time to get clothing sorted and start packing. I was up at five and went down to the fish room under the house to pack the fish. Harry Specht joined me shortly. We had everything packed and ready by seven a.m. We got everything into three Styrofoam boxes, splitting up many items to provide a safety margin. I think we had sixteen bags. Russ had taken an oxygen cylinder from his battery factory and this, plus some clinoptolite buffers Red Nichols had provided, got the fish back with a total of only three dead fish.

John and Fran Hanan met us at the Miami Airport and took Red with them for an overnight visit before his return to his Jungle Laboratories in Texas the next day. Harry and I picked up the car and headed back to Sarasota and Brandenton with the live fish. We had lost two hours getting back to Eastern Standard time. It was getting dark fast. We had the fish all put away, preventatively medicated, and spread out by ten p.m. Harry said that it was the best trip we ever made and what about next year? Believe it or not, at that point, we started planning. We certainly wanted to go farther south to the Sarstoon River for live 'Cichlasoma' bocourti we would need a boat for that but we would manage. How about getting back into Spanish Honduras and getting Alfaro hubri again and the giant race of red tailed liberty mollies? Then if things had calmed down we could try for 'Cichlasoma' popenoi and also Chuco microthalmus and, if time permitted, we could try to get to...

Citation

Socolof, Ross. (June 30, 1998). "Expedition To Quintana Roo And Rio Moho". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on December 16, 2018, from: https://www.cichlidae.com/article.php?id=96.

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