“Dolphins!” someone shouted and Captain Jack, his dreadlocks poking out of the back of his baseball cap pivoted our dive boat, the Mulac, around and swung into the path of the pod of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins who were arcing their dorsal fins out of the water in unison, their powerful exhalations audible a hundred yards away. I quickly pulled on my fins and mask and perched on the gunwale.
“Go, go!” Jack shouted and I back-rolled off the moving boat, like in a Navy SEALs fantasy, and swam awkwardly through the chop towards the approaching pod of fins. Up to that moment, it was almost instinct. There wasn’t time to think. I wanted to swim with the dolphins. But now, bobbing in the churned-up sea with a dozen large mammals beneath me, I had a moment of apprehension. I ducked my face under the water. There, about 20 feet below, was the pod, gracefully finning their way past me. One curious dolphin ascended towards me and the primitive part of my brain kicked in, vaguely remembering stories of swimmers being pulled under by playful dolphins and drowned. But at the last moment, this one turned on his side, examined me with its intelligent eye and then, with a few powerful strokes was gone. I surfaced, laughing uncontrollably. It was only our first day on Lighthouse Reef Atoll. This was going to be a good week.
Slideshow: 7 Days in Belize
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This past winter was longer, darker and colder than usual in Minneapolis, and not because of the weather. It was during our last dive trip in Honduras in November that my wife got an e-mail from her doctor that the lump that had shown up on her mammogram was indeed cancer. The news put a shadow over the remainder of that trip, preoccupying us both before we returned to the leaden skies and spitting snow back home. What followed were six months of appointments, research, biopsies, second opinions and ultimately some major surgeries. As if the cancer didn’t want to go without a final curse, Gishani developed a pulmonary embolism during her last four-hour surgery and was resigned to daily blood thinner doses for three months afterwards. The word from the doctor was: no travel, no diving until this is cleared up. In the happier days before our Honduras trip, we had booked a spring getaway to Belize and this now looked in doubt, though we now needed it more than ever.
There are only four coral atolls in the Western Hemisphere and three of them are in Belize. An atoll is a ring of coral reef that surrounds a lagoon in the middle of the ocean, creating its own ecosystem, its shelter providing a great home to soft and hard corals and countless species of reef fish. Atolls also make for great SCUBA diving. The outermost atoll in Belize is called Lighthouse Reef Atoll, so named because of the old lighthouse that was built by the British on Half Moon Caye. It lies 43 miles offshore from the mainland but might as well be a world away from the poverty and decay that is Belize City. It was a two-hour boat ride in the Mulac, at 40 knots over choppy seas, past the barrier reef (the second longest in the world), across Turneffe Atoll and then miles of open ocean.
After a windy, bumpy ride, we pulled into the pier on Long Caye (pronounced “key”) a small island that is part of Lighthouse Reef. Not many people come out this far and indeed, there are only four permanent residents on Long Caye. One was on the boat with us and the other three were waiting to greet us on the pier when we arrived. One of them, Ruth DeVaacht, a fetching 30-something blonde Belgian, came here four years ago and bought an overgrown building that was intended to be a remote medical facility. She turned it into a small resort and named it Huracan Diving. But this is no posh setup. The building lacks air conditioning since electricity is dependent on sunlight and water is dependent on rainfall. There’s not a lot to do on the little island other than dive in the mornings, hide in the shade all afternoon and go to bed early so you can do it all over again the next day. In other words, it’s exactly what we needed.
The news could not have been better – the clot was gone, the cancer was gone, we were going to Belize. Our long winter was over, bookended by two dive trips.
Two weeks before we were scheduled to fly to Belize, we had an appointment with a hematologist to get the results of Gishani’s latest CT scan. We both knew what the appointment meant: go or no go, depending on whether the blood clot in her lung had dissolved. We hardly talked of it in the weeks leading up to the date. We busied ourselves with packing our dive gear, checking camera equipment and checking the hurricane forecasts. When Dr. Perez came into the room on that Wednesday afternoon, we were both doing something a diver is never supposed to do: holding our breath. The news could not have been better – the clot was gone, the cancer was gone, we were going to Belize. Our long winter was over, bookended by two dive trips.
Lionfish have become the scourge of the Caribbean, from Cuba down to Bonaire. These impossibly gorgeous fish with a “mane” of poisonous spines have no natural predators in this part of the world and thus are free to multiply at will and devour other species on their way. Local divemasters have taken up the Sisyphean challenge of ridding the ocean of lionfish, one at a time. Our underwater guide for the week, Jerome, approached the task with the seriousness of an assassin. On our first few dives around Long Caye, Jerome swam with his rubber band-powered speargun and we all got in on the task at hand, pointing out lionfish under ledges. Jerome would swim over, aim and skewer the slow-moving creatures against the coral, then viciously finish the job with a chef’s knife he kept tucked into his buoyancy vest. On one dive, he killed 26 lionfish and swam around with them on a stringer like a swaying bouquet. On a surface interval on tiny, uninhabited Hat Caye, Jerome proceeded to clean all the fish while we watched, and that night, Ruth batter-fried the pieces to make a delicious basket of fish fingers that we washed down with local Belikin beer.
The main reason people make the long journey out to Lighthouse Reef Atoll is the Great Blue Hole. This natural phenomenon, which was made famous in the early ‘70s by none other than Jacques-Yves Cousteau, is a massive collapsed cave in the middle of the sea. Its perfectly circular shape, 1,000 feet in diameter, is visible from space and its 400-foot depth swallows up all light, giving it an eerie, foreboding appearance. We dove the Great Blue Hole twice in the week we were on Long Caye, taking advantage of our close proximity to the site and arriving early in the morning before the bigger boats arrived from the mainland or other cayes.
The lip of the hole is sunny and sandy, gently sloping down past schools of Bermuda chubs and the occasional lazy Nassau grouper. But then there is a precipice and a sheer drop into inky water. The sides of the hole are featureless, devoid of corals or even fish, so we emptied our buoyancy vests and dropped like stones, picking up speed as neoprene and air compressed. At 135 feet there is a ledge in the side of the wall. Here, giant stalactites hang down, remnants of the days when the sea level was lower and this was a freshwater sinkhole, not unlike the cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula. At this depth, we didn’t have much time before we’d rack up a decompression debt so there wasn’t time to linger. We swam around the primeval formations for a while and I dropped down to the ledge at 150 feet and peered over, wondering what fossils and creatures existed still further below. It wasn’t only the colder water at this depth that made me shudder and I was glad to turn my back and start heading for the sunlight above.
It was a parade of five reef sharks, circling past us and coming around again, as if to let us know whose realm this was. Who were we to argue
As we ascended, we drifted out from the wall into the murky gloom of the hole. Shafts of sunlight played off of descending sediment from above, giving the feeling of walking in a blizzard on a cold Minnesota night. Suddenly, Jerome shouted through his regulator and put hand to forehead in the familiar blade-like gesture that means, “shark.” My eyes scanned the near distance and slowly, ghost-like, a familiar shape emerged and cruised right in front of us. It was a Caribbean reef shark, maybe six feet long, but twice that in my mind’s eye. Caveman instincts kicked in and my heart started racing. To drift in deep blue water with apex predators is a feeling that defies description but it is both frightening and calming at the same time. Then, out of the corner of my eye, another shark, then another. It was a parade of five reef sharks, circling past us and coming around again, as if to let us know whose realm this was. Who were we to argue? It was time to ascend. Up over the lip, ten minutes of decompression on the sunny ledge and then we popped up into the land of the living to find other boats had arrived and were discharging snorkelers into the water like chum.
Back on Long Caye, the daily ritual of telling dive stories is played out over beers and delicious dinners. This was the time when the crew, staff and guests would convene to laugh and banter in the sweaty dining room, while swatting at the merciless sand flies and mosquitoes. There was Richie, the dreadlocked deckhand, with his perpetual smile and witty jabs, delivered in lilting Kriol. CC, the cook, regaled us with songs and stories as she placed plates of freshly-caught fish and beans and rice in front of us. Then there was Dave, the handsome Australian ex-Navy-diver-turned-yoga-instructor. He was a recent arrival and his positive attitude and noble pursuits were fodder for good-natured ribbing from the crew. This was utopia, settled by happy, good-looking locals and expats and visited by outsiders like us, escaping from our busy lives for a week at a time.
On our last day of diving, the Mulac took us out to Half Moon Caye, a protected nature preserve, where fishing is not allowed and we were promised abundant fish life. Dropping down onto a sandy bottom, we were greeted by a large barracuda, a regular at this site, and he accompanied us on the entire dive, sometimes getting a little too close for comfort. As we passed through a gap in the reef wall, I spotted a familiar shape drift by out in the deeper water. More sharks. We finned furiously through the crack in time to spot two big reef sharks swim past and circle around to check us out. Then, as if it couldn’t get any better, Jerome suddenly gestured and pointed into the distance. A lone hammerhead shark silently cruised by below us, disappearing as quickly as it arrived. I turned to Gishani and could see that she was as awestruck as I was by this benevolent omen. For that moment, for that entire week, we lived suspended in liquid, neutrally buoyant, carefree and happy once again before ascending to the surface to be reborn.