Seven women learn there's much more to a dive trip than diving. They and Belize -- will never be the same.
Jen is the resident biologist at Lamanai Outpost Lodge, and she's here to collect data on the reproducing population of crocs in Belize's New River Lagoon. Tonight, we seven women are her assistants.
She snares a five-footer and pulls it onto the bow, then duct-tapes its mouth shut. The rest of us take turns holding it its skin is astonishingly dry, soft and smooth as Jen measures and weighs it, determines it's male and locates the implanted chip that reveals our croc has been in this position before. "You want to name him?" she asks.
"GreGory D." I shout out, then spell: "Capital G, r, e, capital G, o, r, y, capital D. For Girls Gone Diving!"
The name sticks. After all, here we are, holding a croc in the moonlight on our last night in Belize. There is no better mascot for the week of adventures we've shared.
Girls Gone Diving began at a backyard dinner party when a friend spoke of her early scuba experience: an impatient dive master, an advanced destination and a photographer-husband who proved an inattentive buddy. She'd never taken to diving imagine that. Then I met Sara on a flight to Mexico. We clicked right away. She's a diver the dabbling-while-on-vacation variety, and always with a boyfriend who'd deal with the gear. But Sara didn't feel like a diver in her own right, confident with her equipment and self-reliant in the water. These two women inspired me; I wanted to transform each of them into a Diver, the kind who plans her next dive trip while on a dive trip.
I extend an invitation and Sara jumps, immediately booking vacation time from her engineering job at Lockheed Martin. My sister Erin, a divemaster, is game, making arrangements to be away from her jobs as a lead project manager and as a single mom. She extends an olive branch to Crystal, who is essentially Erin's daughter's stepmother. Crystal recognizes the gesture and signs up for her PADI Open Water course right away. I add to the mix photographer and veteran diver Tanya Burnett, who is perfect for this trip in every way. Tanya invites experienced diver Mary, who is taking time off between consulting gigs to dive every chance she gets (she and Tanya met while diving in the Galapagos). And last is my mom, Carol, who this past summer, at the age of 66, became a certified diver so she could join her daughters. As for me, I get an off-campus pass from my cubicle in Magazine Land to go do what most people think I do all the time dive. The common denominators among those in our group: enthusiasm and an appreciation for wine. I ask each person to bring two of her favorite bottles to share.
Figuring out where to go was just as important as identifying who would go. I wanted these women to have adventures they'd never imagined. Belize instantly came to mind: It's a safe country where English is spoken, yet it feels utterly foreign. The charming and little-developed Ambergris Caye is a mere giant-stride to dive sites up and down the second-longest barrier reef in the world. We'd have our choice of dive sites that are easy enough for beginners but varied enough to interest advanced divers. We could dive three times a day and still have time to hang at a simple beachfront hotel, hopscotch through happy hour in golf carts and go exploring on our own. For mainland attractions, I recalled my own jungle hikes and river excursions during which I'd encountered troops of howler monkeys, iguanas basking in the sun and crocs resting on riverbanks at night not to mention the mysterious Maya ruins. Belize had once rocked my world; I suspected it might rock my companions'.
Thanks to Tropic Air's convenient and affordable in-country flights, we could spend five days on Ambergris Caye diving, one night in a low-key beach town on the mainland and still spend a few nights in the jungle.
**Wooing Crystal **
Ours is the only boat bobbing in the inky darkness at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. The waves breaking 100 yards away on Belize's famous barrier reef are silver in the moonlight a decidedly different scene from the last time I was here, several years ago.
That was the day I overcame my fear of wearing a mask and breathing through a snorkel; the day I felt the soft fleshiness of a stingray's wing as it glided between my outstretched hands. That was the day a Belizean guide named Juni opened the underwater world to me, ultimately bringing me to this moment, on this boat, with this gang of six other adventuresses keen to experience their own firsts.
Crystal, a beautiful blond veterinarian, is visibly shaking. Today's the first time she's used her freshly minted C-card, having completed her check-out dives in La Jolla the weekend before. In the spirit of our adventure and after the day of great diving we've already had she's game for her first night dive. This site is shallow, rarely exceeding 25 feet, and her buddy is Erin, who gets as stoked turning new divers on to the sport as she does actually doing it. In fact, it was she who persuaded me to trade up my snorkel for a second stage. It was she who invited me on my first dive trip. Crystal is in good hands.
From the moment we enter, I know this is special. I shouldn't be surprised, considering the fact that I've seen this channel packed with marine life before. The first thing I notice is the unusual texture of the sand. I hold still and stare. A dome-shaped eye looks back. I sweep my light slowly side to side, then in front of and behind me. It's a slumber party of stingrays, their wings overlapping one another. I hover over one brute so expansive that I envision eight people (10, in my old New York apartment) pulling chairs around for a dinner party.
If it weren't for the competition a pack of hunting squid, a delicate octo dancing clear of its den, a crab devouring its lobster dinner, a giant parrotfish (I had no idea they could be so big) tucked motionless under a ledge, prowling tarpon, a curious grouper and a free-swimming moray eel I could have passed the entire hour-long dive enraptured by the motionless rays.
Crystal is triumphant, even though the iron grip she applied to Erin's hand throughout the dive earns her the nickname Remora. She's a woman who loves animals, and the number of critters in her universe has just multiplied exponentially.
On the boat ride back, we spot Mars for the first time. Its red glow sears the night sky, as it will throughout our visit. Mars, Erin tells us, won't be seen at this intensity again in our lifetimes.
Flying With Turtles
Piling our dive gear on a golf cart for a short jaunt down the beach isn't a bad way to start the day, even if it means saying goodbye to our guys at PADI resort Aqua Dives. My boot-camp approach requires us to sample different dive operators. I want our newbies to face many variables: a varying number of divers as well as different boats, gear setups, entrances, water exits and crew.
Ramon's Village Resort is a big operation, a PADI Gold Palm IDC with an excellent reputation, yet it manages to maintain a personal, owner-operated feel. Again, we have our own boat and a crew who ask enough questions to map out a unique day, including a surface interval spent snorkeling at Shark Ray Alley, ripe with people-friendly throngs of nurse sharks, rays and jacks.
Grouper are common on the reefs in Belize, and at a site called Small Mouth a single Nassau grouper joins us, tagging along for the entire dive like a friendly neighborhood dog. Each time I take a head count, the mutt is always there instead of seven divers, we're eight.
Hol Chan Canyons is similar to Small Mouth an 80-foot dive on a series of dramatic canyons, the tops encrusted with healthy coral and sponge life. But the marine life is even better here. A pack of grouper (they really are so dog-like that "pack" feels most appropriate) repeatedly appear. A single hawksbill joins us; together we swim close above the coral and then fly over the abyss until we "land" on the other side. Our game wears me out just as a duo of spotted eagle rays swoop onto the scene two kites catching an updraft in the blue, triangular wings outstretched and long tails trailing behind. They circle us once, twice, vanish and then reappear. Tanya and Mary, both of whom always have a digital camera at the ready, are lucky they aren't shooting on film they'd run out in a matter of minutes.
We're jubilant back at the dock, and I watch Sara (and everyone, come to think of it), pack up her gear like a pro no more leaving it to a guy. Now it's time to put our golf carts to good use, with an excursion up-island to Captain Morgan's, the luxe bungalow resort known as the location of the men's camp on the reality show Temptation Island. Once we've zigzagged through the bustling village of San Pedro, where we're staying, we cross the water-filled cut on the island aboard a hand-pulled ferry (along with locals carrying fishing buckets, kids on bikes and mothers with babies) then drive another 45 minutes on a potholed road, stopping along the way to pick red hibiscus blossoms for our hair. The drinks at Captain Morgan's border on cliché candy-colored and fishbowl-sized, adorned with rainbow-striped umbrellas which makes us love them even more. At dusk we head back to San Pedro with fireflies lighting our path.
Sharks and Boobies
The Blue Hole excursion is the signature trip at PADI resort Amigos Del Mar (located at the Maya Princess Hotel). Judging by how long the crew's been with the resort our guide Edgar has been with the company for over a decade it's no wonder that they have the day choreographed to perfection. It starts when they pick us up at the dock of our hotel, the Sunbreeze, at 5:45 a.m. and ends in the same place 12 hours, three dives and uncountable boobies later. ("What's a girls' trip without the boobies," we'd joked while admiring the red-footed variety with feathers.)
Dived specifically to see the giant stalactites that begin at around 120 feet, the Blue Hole is one of the world's great natural-history exhibits; the massive geologic features are a testament to a time when the cave stood above sea level. Marine life is notably absent though or so it seems.
After reaching depth at 130 feet and cruising our way around the stalactites, our nine-minute no-deco limit is up and it's time to begin our ascent. There's not a lot to see a sheer wall devoid of growth on one side and the murky blue on the other. But as we reach between 90 and 80 feet, movement catches my eye reef sharks are circling in the blue! Big ones, too, I note as I lose track counting at 30. I glide in beside my mom and gently take her arm, pointing out the sharks and holding firm, ensuring she doesn't bolt. But she's as fascinated as I am, comforted by the fact that no one is stressed. Throughout the two safety stops, the sharks patrol the surface above us (apparently the boats act as a dinner bell). Once everyone is safely on board, the sharks compete with the seabirds for fish parts tossed out by the crew all in all, a spectacular show.
We go on to dive two sites off Half Moon Caye Wall on Lighthouse Reef, one of only four atolls in all of the Caribbean. The color here is terrific: giant orange barrel sponges, azure vase sponges, floods of mercurial silversides and thumbnail-size angels, drums and butterflyfish flutter about like confetti. A dozen barracuda hold tight in the current, tucked at a site where two walls come together like an elbow. They seem to be watching something. I turn and follow their gaze: First I see an eagle ray, and then a single reef shark. This rocks! I think, before telepathically imploring the ray to get the hell away, and fast.
This is pristine live-aboard country, and we see both the Belize Aggressor III and Peter Hughes' Sun Dancer II moored nearby. Envy sets in. But in truth, our day is full: We enjoy a delicious lunch served on a picnic table under a palm tree on Half Moon Caye, observe a protected population of red-footed boobies and the magnificent frigates that live alongside them, and log three awesome dives. Afterward, we're fed near-frozen Snickers bars by the crew who then expertly mix coconut rum and pineapple juice for the extended happy hour back to San Pedro.
It's storytime now. A fireman from Texas who has dived all over the world tells us this is the first time he's been on a boat where women outnumber men. Even he gets clued in that Tanya is the world of diving, and he joins us in picking her brain about where to go next. Lombok perhaps? The pattern has started, I think with a smile.
Later, our evening tradition of sharing a bottle of wine on the patio above the restaurant at the Sunbreeze Hotel is further improved. Erin has made us a little party. We bring out the iPod and portable speakers and cover a table with my pretty sarong before spreading out the feast that Erin's assembled: cheeses, crackers, pâté, fruit and dark chocolate. She's also found a lovely cabernet to add to our dwindling cache, and a pinot grigio is on ice. After four dinners on the island, the Sunbreeze's restaurant is unquestionably our favorite, but tonight, ours is the perfect feast.
Fire and wine
For girls who didn't seem so interested in shopping, our hands sure are full. Guatemalan belts woven from bright-colored floss, hair clips made of polished hermit-crab shells, beaded necklace sets, embroidered stuff sacks you name it, we need it. This is our first, and only, afternoon on the World's Narrowest Street (according to Guinness World Records), a mile-long sidewalk in the beach town of Placencia on the mainland.
A hand-lettered sign points us to John the Bakerman for fresh cinnamon bons. I smile, thinking of my own Grandpa John, also once a village Bakerman, and suspect that my mom is doing the same. Whether passing locals on their stilted front porches or passing them on the sidewalk, we are greeted at every turn. Further bolstered by a cup of Italian gelato, we journey on.
We arrived in Placencia from San Pedro (via Belize City) aboard Tropic Air's 15-seat aircraft just in time for a little pampering. Pink golf carts (they sure took this Girls Gone Diving thing seriously, I think) dispatched from Chabil Mar Villas whisk us back to our waterfront home. After nearly a week of diving, we're all ready for some R&R, and at Chabil Mar, the offerings are abundant. Two mosaic-tiled eternity pools, wraparound balconies with views of the sea, chaise lounges on powdery sand and condos so artfully decorated (The honeymoon suite? Wow!) that you actually consider reading your book indoors. Add a staff dressed all in white, wearing radio headsets to ensure speedy delivery of another icy Belikin. Plus, there's the massage therapist and the on-demand meal service that will knead you and feed you in any setting you wish. The choices are numerous, and in just over 24 hours, we dine in several spots: at the end of the thatch-roofed dock, by the pool and our favorite around the red adobe outdoor fireplace.
That's where we pass our favorite evening. Chef George grills outdoors for us and we dine, sip wine, stoke the fire, share desserts and tell stories until the log disintegrates into ash. Other than my mom and my sister, there was no real history behind any of our friendships before this trip. Now, after a week of diving and playing, we are one solid group. We are all friends.
It's tempting to opt for a morning "off" but everyone rallies for a sunrise breakfast and a boat ride out to Laughingbird Caye, a spit of sand pinned down by palm trees and protected as a national park (as is more than 40 percent of the country). Mom interviews the caretaker who lives on the island (note to self: Give that woman a notebook and a pen next time she joins me on a trip) while the rest of us pull on our fins, masks and snorkels to navigate around half the island. We're looking for lemon sharks, which I've never seen in the wild. Not until we return to shore does a butter-colored dorsal fin split the water's surface. Tanya wades right in to shoot over-unders as our guide tosses bait.
"Amazing. Just amazing," Carol says for the umpteenth time as she and I climb uphill through the damp thickets of orchids beneath towering rainforest trees. We are following the astonishingly loud sound of a lion roaring; we are still wearing pajamas; and my watch shows a time beginning with the number 5. Of course, there are no lions in the jungles of Belize, but the guttural howl of the black howler monkeys (known locally as baboons) is a wicked mimic that never fails to quicken my pulse.
Thanks to the logistical planning and expertise of a company called Belize Expeditions, our dive trip has become much more. Here we are at Lamanai Outpost Lodge, a cluster of rustic, artfully built hardwood structures on the banks of the New River Lagoon. We arrived by riverboat last night and slept in screened-in cottages engulfed by the sounds of the jungle.
We race through breakfast to reach the excavated ruins of the Maya settlement called Lamanai. Our self-educated and unbelievably knowledgeable guide Carlos takes us first to a museum on the site and then for a long walk in the shaded woods before we reach the main plaza containing the most important temple.
We climb its steep steps, each one at least as high as my knee. I think Mom might float right up, so transported is she by these ancient structures. In all honesty, though, each of us is in our own state of awe.
The peak rises high above the jungle's canopy, and Carlos tells us that from here we can see 15 miles in all directions almost to the sea. I survey 180 degrees and imagine the theater of life that once played out on this mysterious stage.
Mom reflects, "A few days ago I dived 130 feet in the Blue Hole. And now here I am, on the top of a Maya temple." The primal call of the howler monkeys carries to us from across the treetops. "I never knew such places existed."
Related Links from Sport Diver: