Natural Selection: Belize's AtollsA hawksbill glides gracefully past.
Oh, man, you did ask for this. You wanted to see a different side of Belize, sift through its secrets and do things other divers don't. So much for granted wishes.
The LED of your watch glows 1:05 a.m. and the wind has creamed your tent. A few hours ago, it stood as pretty as a castle in the diamond-dust sand of Half Moon Caye. Now the wind has pinned one wall to the ground, shrink-wrapping your legs to the air mattress inside like chicken parts to styrofoam. If it weren't for the fronds hissing overhead, you would hear the tanks clanking on the boat. At least it’s not raining.
“You OK in there?”
It's Rahn Richards, a Pennsylvania state trooper and divemaster-in-training whose own tent just pancaked in the gale. Helpful middle-age dad with a buzz cut. Earlier in the day, you'd been thankful for his buddy-upmanship wall diving down to about 86 feet off Turneffe and Lighthouse Reef, two of Belize’s three atolls and one of the many things that makes this place special. You swam with loggerhead turtles and watched eagle rays glide on spotted black wings below you. Back on the boat, Rahn would swap out your tanks while you dabbed seawater from your eyes and chewed on pineapple chunks. He's outside now, which can only mean one thing: He is more miserable than you.
“Holding down the fort,” you reply over the snap of the fly. “You?”
“Well, uh, yeah, you know,” he says. “Our tent's wrecked.”
“Do you want to pile into here with me?” you offer, ridiculously.
“Naw, that's OK. We're going to move out of the wind, maybe behind that ranger shack.”
Half Moon Caye, a two-hour boat ride southeast of Caye Caulker, is a protected natural monument with red-footed boobies and white sand that rangers actually clean with a rake. Camping here makes for easy access to the Blue Hole and other sites along the outer atolls, places that are still being explored. The wind’s gone schizo, though, so Rahn’s strategy seems doubtful.
“And the others?” you ask. “They upright?”
But, honestly, things aren't that bad, and you're in no real danger. How long has it been since you had a real adventure, anyway? Not that you want too many surprises on a vacation, but some dive trips can be so, well, formulaic. Eat. Dive. Snack. Dive. Eat. Is it bedtime yet? This trip — this moment — has gone so far beyond your expectations that it already has made the lifetime highlight reel. This is why you travel to dive: Let’s face it, you feel alive.
At last the wind begins to die. Maybe you’ll get some sleep after all.
Or not. By 3 a.m. it’s raining so hard the tent is in a heap and you’re running for the boat.
Ah, Belize. Even without the driving rain the place seeps into your skin. Easy going, English-speaking, the country can seduce you even in a gale.
Divers have it particularly good here: Countless cayes, three of the Caribbean’s four atolls, and the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, second only in size to the Great. It runs along Belize’s entire 187-mile-long coast, giving you wall dives, drift dives, terraces, swim-throughs, rays, turtles and whale sharks. Here you’ll find 65 of the Caribbean’s 70 coral species and 320 of its 500 varieties of fish. Charles Darwin called it remarkable.
Belize is tiny, little more than a Tic-Tac under the tongue of the Yucatan, but there are hundreds if not thousands of dive sites. Your plan is brilliant in its simplicity: Start in the south, go north, see what makes the reel. First stop: Placencia.
Patty Ramirez’s hands are warm and soft when she grabs yours and leads you into her dive shop, Splash, a hurricane-proof fortress perched on a wedge of reclaimed land. A 30-minute flight south of Belize City, Placenica has about 750 people and is otherwise known as mellowville. There’s one main road and one main sidewalk, which are actually separated from each other by a few rows of colorful houses. There’s punta rock at the Barefoot Bar, a busy soccer field, and a lovely veranda at Wendy’s Restaurant for picking through pie-size quesadillas. At Splash, CNN is on the TV and divers are loading tanks and weights into a 38-foot Pelican, the Princess Pam Pam, prepping for a night dive you plan to join.
Glovers Reef, the smallest of Belize’s three atolls and one of eight marine reserves, resides well inside the Princess’s domain and offers sites like Aquarium, Grouper Gulch and Manta Wall. You can snorkel near South Silk Caye — a tropical cliche of itself — where hawksbills and southern rays glide inches over your head. Come spring and early summer, whale sharks make their only appearance in Belize south of here. There are nurse sharks, spotted drums and enough goofy green tube sponges to form a Dr. Seuss boom band. Surface intervals are more like castaway fantasies played out with cold drinks and tasteful bungalows. Over the next few days you’ll monitor your gauges down to about 85 feet in 81-degree water that beginner diver Stephanie Johnson from Calgary calls “holy s**t clear.”
But now the sun is going down and Patty is introducing you to divemaster Prince Gongora and Capt. Warren Garbutt, both 33 and friendly. Soon you’re motoring past mangroves under fleshy rain clouds sagging in a purple sky. When Warren kills the engines near Laughing Bird Caye — a faro reef and the country’s only marine national park — Prince gives the briefing: 60 feet, we’ll circle back, here’s a backup light. There’s been a no-take policy here for years, so things get big.
How big? One giant-stride later, Prince is waving his beam around something stuck to the coral. It’s bloated, fulvous and reluctantly shiny.
“Sea trash,” you think, looking for the net and cursing an unscrupulous fisherman. But then it begins to move — a lobster so big you mistook it for a buoy.
FINNING THE RAGGED EDGE
Even at a sprint you’re soaked when you reach the boat. You curl up on a bench and watch a thick tongue of rain lick the upper deck. The log you threw on the tent in its final throes should keep what’s left of it from blowing off to Africa, you hope.
Things are calmer by first light. The sky’s a grubby nickel, and a supercell of frigates and boobies builds eerily over a littoral forest to the west, a nesting area and the reason Half Moon Caye was protected even before Belize was Belize. In your bleary haze, it’s hard to remember how you got here.
About 18 hours ago you left Splash for the single-engine hop from Placencia to stop No. 2, Caye Caulker, an island about 20 miles northeast of Belize City. Chip Petersen, 32, fetched you at the landing strip in a golf cart. He and his 27-year-old wife, Dani, own and run Belize Diving Services out of a bright blue building next to a small beach they built. Chip shakes your hand with the ropy fingers of a sailor, which he is, mermaid tat and all.
If Placencia was chill, Caye Caulker is an estranged sister. Three main thoroughfares —Front, Middle and Back — are sandy alleys cut into 18 blocks crawling with bikes and carts. Everything converges at an inlet on the north end of town. Beyond that, it’s off-the-grid wild.
Chip and Dani manage a tight, professional ship, but it’s obvious both would rather be winging it, piloting their 46-foot Newton out to Turneffe and Lighthouse Reef atolls a few hours southeast to do more exploratory diving. It’s out there, finning along the ragged edge, that they find their calling. “There is enough out here to keep me entertained for a decade,” Chip says. The camping trip was an experiment to show you some of that.
Eventually everyone emerges from soggy tents and Dani cracks open crates of bagels, yogurt, and juices for breakfast. A rough night isn’t stopping anyone from diving, so Rahn and divemaster Walter Roy Williams, a longhaired ladykiller, get to work readying the tanks. It’ll be a four-dive day, starting with the Blue Hole.
From an airplane the collapsed, submerged cave looks like a dark ache pressing into the sea. Punch through the thermocline, sink 130 feet into Hi-C soup, and you find huge stalactites, three sharks and — that’s it today. Chip brought you here because you begged him to. “It’s the most boring dive you have to do,” he shrugs.
Things pick up dramatically when you drop to 90 feet at a site Chip jokingly dubs a “Chip Petersen Original.” Huge Nassau groupers drift by like suitcases at baggage claim. Diving Half Moon Caye Wall, Gordon Kirkwood, a 57-year-old expat retiree, geologist and marine-life aficionado, spots a turtle he thinks he’s never seen before. “Maybe a Ridley?” he says. Schools of jacks and chubs pour over vase sponges mounted to a knobby plinth of coral at Silver Caves Wall. The water’s so clear you could all be suspended in crystal.
By 8 p.m., the rain’s gone and you’re back on Caye Caulker, too exhausted to go anywhere but bed. You jam your salty legs between tight sheets and focus on the hum of the air conditioner. You’re swimming with turtles again before everything goes black.
LIFE IN THE FAST LANE
The next morning you drift up through the last few feet of sleep and do your safety stop, just barely opening your eyes. The sunlight cuts through your lashes in brilliant tesserae. It is in fact day, and time to come up.
As quickly as you arrived, Chip is dropping you back off at the landing strip, this time for an 11-mile flight north to Ambergris Caye, your final stop.
When you arrive, San Pedro — the only town on Ambergris — feels like a pocket-size Bangkok without the curry. It’s by far the biggest place you’ve been: at least 11,000 people packed on a 25-square-mile lobe dangling off the ear of Mexico’s Xcalak Peninsula. The throaty racket of hundreds of golf carts and real cars bounces off streets that are paved and have stop signs. There are political rallies, electronics shops and posters announcing Thursday’s “Chicken Drop,” a gambling game featuring a nervous chicken that poos on numbers. “It’s the big city,” Chip had mused.
That means convenient, too. A young man takes your bag at the airport and walks you to the SunBreeze hotel just off the tarmac. The room’s not ready yet, so you root out your wet gear and make for the beach out back. The sand is still cool; a guy selling gorgeous rays and dolphins carved from ziricote wood says you should feel how smooth they are. You don’t. A boat is leaving Belize Dive Connection in 15 minutes and you still haven’t eaten.
Avimael Castillo helps you and your pastry aboard the 48-foot Papa Joe a few minutes later. His hands seem too delicate for a boat captain, his ebony hair sucked into a thick pony tail. A dozen divers fidget with masks and computers as he pilots the boat through one of the few weaknesses in the barrier reef. Here in the north the coral is less than one mile out, giving you easy access to dozens of sites within minutes of the dock. Avimael cuts the engines and down you go.
You get in six dives and a snorkeling trip over the next two days, falling into a familiar routine. There are exceptions. At Esmeralda, dive master Kirk Mayen uses sardine chum to attract sharks, rays and eels, and you watch an idiot try to bump noses with a southern ray. Cool, but too Sea World when there’s a big reef right there.
Tackle Box Canyon gets a “Great! Best dive here!” in your logbook. The spur-and=-groove corals reveal deep, narrow canyons that plummet to about 85 feet. You swim through tunnels barely bigger than a doorway and spy on nurse sharks dozing under sponges. A sharpnose puffer blinks its dainty eyes at you — is it flirting? — before three eagle rays cruise by and steal the show.
The night before you leave, you do what you always do and take a walk down the beach. You find a palm to sit under, to sift and process. Plancencia, Caye Caulker, here. If you had to pick just one, could you? Would you bring your kid? Could that really have been a Ridley?
An egret as light as the snow you’ll go home to lands in black water. It stands perfectly still, even in the breeze. A cover band at a nearby bar rolls into Peaceful Easy Feeling, and you chuckle at the refrain’s timely cheesiness.
“Yes,” you answer yourself, and go back to watching the bird.