I was spread eagle in the sand. My camera housing and strobes were perfectly positioned. Now, wait. I controlled my breathing so I barely rose off the sand when I inhaled. I waited more. As minutes passed, my mind began to wander.
During my previous dive at Aquarium, my focus was on giant elephant ear sponges, delicate sea fans and the robust reef creatures that frequent the area, such as black groupers, tarpon, nurse sharks, and green and hawksbill turtles. Profuse gorgonians and brilliant, neon colors radiated from the reef, compelling me to use my film quickly. Just point, focus and shoot. Thirty-six frames gone in just a few minutes. But that's why I'm here now, waiting.
I was returning to the Belize Aggressor III to reload my camera for the next dive when I noticed movement by a small hole in the sand. As I approached, an industrious little fish seemed to be house cleaning. It would back into the hole momentarily, then reappear with something in its mouth and spit the contents away from the opening. I realized there were other such inhabitants close by and began to watch the small community. Like miniature jack-in-the-boxes, they seemed to disappear and pop up to some unheard rhythm.
I crept closer for a better view, fascinated by their work, their ability to hover vertically and their brief territorial spats. It did not take long before my presence caused the yellowhead jawfish to go into hiding. With the boat just a few fin kicks away, I decided to go macro and return to the colony on my next dive.
Rested, fed and re-equipped, I zeroed in on my quarry. I thought that I had approached cautiously - as cautiously as a lumbering, bubble-bleeding alien could, anyway - but I did not fool the jawfish. All of them exited stage right. Fortunately, I have learned over the years to be patient. I targeted one hole, carefully made myself at home, and now here I am, waiting. And waiting some more.
Fifteen minutes have elapsed. The jawfish must sense that there is no imminent danger. It is back to work, albeit cautiously. I am disappointed that it holds no eggs in its mouth (the males incubate eggs in their mouths until they are hatched), but I am still intrigued. I fire a few test frames. The flashing strobes initially scare the hell out of the poor fish, but now he ignores them.
I inch forward for a close-up. A shadow darkens my field of view and I back out. Two large eagle rays glide slowly a few feet above my head. Composure leaves me and I belch forth a gasp of bubbles to greet the rays. I know my abrupt reaction will drive them away. But instead they circle away from the bubbles and return, seemingly as intent on studying me as I am in shooting the jawfish.
I return to the jawfish, but it is gone again. That's OK, I am captivated by the eagle rays like a barracuda watching a shiny object. I slowly ascend to gain a better view. The brilliant white spots that decorate the tops of their bodies are dazzling. It is time to go back to the Aggressor for another lens change.
Reconfiguring my camera again, I am thankful that I chose a live-aboard to access the 170 miles of reef and three expansive coral atolls along Belize's eastern coast.
Here healthy coral heads adorned with sea rods, sea plumes, barrel sponges and fluorescent azure vase sponges extend endlessly. School masters, queen triggerfish, scorpionfish, green and spotted moray eels and spiny lobster are just some of the species you can encounter while searching a single coral outcropping. Schools of horse eye jacks and yellowtail snapper typically swarm under the boat.
From the mighty to the macro, the waters off Belize are a blessing for divers and underwater photographers. Now I must choose which lens to use on my next dive.
The Belize Aggressor III is a 120-foot luxury yacht that was built in 1997 specifically as a dive live-aboard. A maximum of 18 guests are given the opportunity each week to explore premium dive sites, such as Aquarium. Located on the western side of Lighthouse Reef, Aquarium is just one of more than 30 sites that are regularly visited.
Accommodations include nine double-occupancy cabins each with private heads and showers, climate controls and TV/VCRs. The salon is equipped with an entertainment center, a slide projector, screen and built-in light table. Meals are served buffet style. The dining room also offers a TV and VCR, which allows guests to watch video of the day's diving or a movie from the library.
Seven-day charters provide five and a half days of diving. When the boat returns to the Belize City port on Friday afternoon, guests have the opportunity to tour a Mayan Ruin, visit the Belize zoo or relax on board.
Guests should arrive in Belize City on the morning of their scheduled charter departure, but I recommend coming in a day or two early in order to explore some of the incredible land attractions that Belize has to offer.