Day 16; Snorkeling in Caye Caulker – Shark Ray Alley and the Hol Chan Reserve

Most of us turn up to the same, Dani-recommended, place for breakfast at varying times. It’s a late start this morning, we wont be departing on the boat until 10am, but before that we all have to go and take our turns at being fitted for the snorkeling gear. It’s almost my turn when they say they need cash to pay the guides, so I head back to the hotel to raid the stash of cash I have in the safe. They’ll take both US dollars and Belizean here, and to keep it easy it’s a straight 1:2 ratio, one USD to two Belizean. By the time I get back most of the group is nowhere to be seen.

Keith isn’t here, but we’re being helped by a couple of young men who we find out later are his brothers. The business is a family affair. One of them, with long black dreadlocks and gleaming teeth in a beaming smile that lights up his face introduces himself as Shane and asks me if I’ve been fitted for my snorkeling gear yet and I tell him no. He sits me down and with another flash of that smile lifts one of my legs up to rest across his knees and starts trying flippers on my foot. I find myself wondering if I remembered to shave my legs. He then proceeds to fit masks onto my face. When I bid my farewell he flashes that smile with a wink and tells me maybe he’ll see me later. These Belizean men are charming that’s for certain. I’m positive it is all part of the service, this is a tipping country after all, but I leave feeling like I’ve received a special level of treatment.

We’re all back at 10am waiting outside the office ready and are led off to the boat, which is quite literally a speedboat. Someone behind me remarks they thought Keith was joking when he said there were no toilets on board. We’re helped off the dock down into the boat in true gentlemanly fashion then told to get what we need out of our packs and pass them up to be stored in the undercover section of the boat. I’ll be testing out the new waterproof pouch for my phone today to get some photos and video. I had one already, but it was purple so the plastic tinged the images. This one is clear. I’ve put myself squarely under the roof of the boat to get as much protection from the sun as I can.

There are three guides joining us for the days snorkeling, including the dreadlocked man with the dazzling smile.

Passing between Caye Caulker and the neighboring island to head out to sea

Passing through the gap between islands known as ‘The Split’

Our first stop is only a short trip away to another dock on the island with a large area of seaweed beside it, where we are pointed out a number of seahorses hanging on with their tails and bobbing around in the current. They are very light, and not strong swimmers so they always need to be holding on and they’ll be in areas of water where the waves aren’t strong. The males carry eggs deposited by a female in a pouch on their tail until they hatch.

On our way out from the seahorse dock they hover the boat over a school of large local fish called Tarpons. Unique because unlike other fish they can come to the surface to breathe in air. Some of these ones are close to a metre in size, but they grow much bigger and this part of the bay is one of their habitats.  They’re not good for eating though we’re informed.

Tarpon fish swimming beside our boat in Caye Caulker, Belize

The huge Tarpons – not good eating

It’s only a short trip to our first snorkeling spot for the day; the Coral Garden, a spot teeming with fish and corals in clear blue waters. It’s time for me to try this snorkeling thing.

We’re all handed out the flippers and masks we were fitted this morning and asked if anyone isn’t a strong swimmer and wants a life jacket. Myself and a couple of the other girls raise our hands, and one of the boats jackets is tied on under our arms. One of the girls murmurs why it’s being tied on this way, I explain that if its worn as it should be it would keep us upright and we wouldn’t be able to put our faces in the water. One by one we sit on the front of the boat with our feet dangling over the water and push off.  My jacket keeps me afloat when I hit, it’s like bobbing around inside a flotation ring. I’m sure I probably look ridiculous, and its awkward trying to swim, but at the very least I’m not going to drown.

Two of the guides are in the water with us and we are divided between them and instructed to stay close to our assigned guide. I am in Shane’s group. He tells us all that when he claps under water we are to come up so that he can speak to us. The other group have moved further away from us.

My mask is already on my face and I take a few deep breaths to steady my breathing, and put the mouthpiece in and take a few more. I tip my body forward in my jacket-ring and put my face down.

My instinct is to hold my breath rather than attempt to breathe through the mask, and my first few breaths are rapid gasps that do nothing to calm my nerves. That familiar compression commences in my chest and I fight it, forcing myself to take slow breaths. I can hear my breathing under the water as the water laps around my ears. The water is still, protected from the waves by the reef.

The water below me is full of life. Periodically Shane claps his hands so that he can point out fish to us, including a couple of large stingrays gently traveling along the sandy floor kicking up a sandy wake. My phone turns out to be a useful focal point, giving me something to focus on instead of thinking about my panic and breathing and I find I am able to breathe almost normally. The waterproof pouch allows for great visibility, however the plastic prevents the phone from registering my touch while underwater so instead of photos I have to make do with video, starting and stopping the recordings above the water. I manage to capture a ray and a few of the local fish, I thought I got better footage of the ray but the camera didn’t record. When I lifted my head up I had swum away from the group following it. It is a stark reminder that I am in the open ocean and I need to keep my head. Shane shows us a cave under the reef and invites anyone confident to free-dive it with him.

Before too long there is water dribbling down the inside of my mask, the seal has broken. I put up with it for a while and then bob around in the water held buoyant by my jacket-ring to empty it. The fins feel ridiculously clumsy and heavy on my feet, and my ankles are sore from the unfamiliar feeling of kicking with something weighing them down. Shane notices me emptying my mask again and asks if everything is ok.

Even though I have my phone I’m not paying any attention to time, so I couldn’t say how long we spent snorkeling out there before we’re called back to the boat to continue on our journey. Our next stop is known as Shark Ray Alley, funnily enough named for the Sharks and Rays. It hasn’t even occurred to me to ask what Sharks are in these waters, which is probably for the best really. I don’t even ask for the life jacket this time, and I find I’m able to stay afloat without difficulty.

I cannot say if it was real, or my eyes and mind playing tricks on me in my anxious state, but when I first put my head into the water I glimpse a Hammerhead Shark. In an instant my head is back above the water frantically looking around as my brain tries to process the information. Confused, I put my head back down and look around, there is no sign of anything. I convince myself I am seeing things, though when I look it up later I find that they can be found in these waters. Disturbingly, so can Bull Sharks.

Underwater photo of Nurse Shark on the ocean floor

Nurse Shark

There are however, plenty of Nurse Sharks. We’re told they are bottom feeders, and certainly this is where most of them are, sifting through the sands beneath us or swimming not far above. They come nowhere near us. Several Rays slowly glide through the water. I’m still having issues with my mask leaking and Shane seems to notice every time my head comes up again. He attributes every instance to the mask, I don’t tell him that sometimes its simply because I need to check where the rest of the group are.

The main snorkeling attraction is up next, the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. We’re hoping to see Manatees, which have been sighted in the area on recent trips, and a large Green Sea Turtle also often makes an appearance. When our boat arrives amongst a number of boats already moored, another guide yells out that the Turtle is in the area.

All thoughts of sharks are forgotten and as soon as I’m in the water I make a beeline for where we’ve been pointed as the Turtles location. I’m still a way away from her when I see her swimming along the ocean floor, and I am single minded in my focus to get there. The camera is rolling and I capture the legs and feet of a number of snorkelers as I speed past. Seems I’m getting pretty comfortable with this snorkeling thing by now, or just determined.

What follows rates as easily one of the greatest experiences of my life. I swim until I am right above her, so close I could almost reach out and touch her. I can see the detail of her shell and her flippers slowly raising up and down again to propel her through the aqua water. She’s not fast, like she’s just out for a relaxed afternoon stroll. For about 20 seconds I swim with her, keeping her pace, watching her. There is only the sound of the water lapping around my ears and my breathing to break the underwater silence. And then I hang back, and watch her swim away, not wanting to distress her by staying too close for too long. A Nurse Shark crosses her path as she maintains her casual pace.

My mask is leaking again as I swim back to join the others and Shane sees me empty it, yet again. He pulls his own mask off and hands it to me, telling me he can’t let me not have fun. I think the issue is that the strap of mine keeps sliding on my hair, breaking the seal. The strap on Shane’s is different and it doesn’t leak.

Nonetheless I am happy to sit the next stop, another area of coral, out and happily wait on the rocking boat with a couple of the other girls who partied perhaps a little hard last night and are feeling somewhat worse for wear. The rocking of the waves isn’t helping matters.

Our last snorkeling stop is a sunken barge, and I jump eagerly back into the water. It lies perhaps no more than a couple of metres below the surface, a rusted rectangle punctuated with holes leading into cavities below which one of the guides free dives in and out of. Its surface has become like another ocean floor, layered with sand it is dotted with seaweed dancing back and forth with the water as I swim the perimeter. There is something eerie about it, and once I have swum the perimeter I do not linger, and I return to the boat ahead of the others.

After our included lunch, and more rum punch, both of which the hungover abstain from, we make the trip back to Caye Caulker, as the snorkeling part of our day is finished. We have time to shower and freshen up before we meet back at the office for the next instalment. After a day in the sun smothered in sunscreen the shower is heavenly.

Silhouette of boat against the sunsetFor our final adventure we are loaded back on the boat and pause on the water to watch the sun as it begins to set over the ocean. The effects of light on water is one of my great photographic fascinations and I am still busily capturing the light creating silhouettes of boats when ours moves again.

The boat pulls up at wooden pier at the end of the island before dusk, with still plenty of light to see ahead of us is a small sandy beach, and beyond that a clearing with scattered palms supporting hammocks between them. A bonfire is already roaring with chairs set out around it. A rough wooden hut elevated from the ground by stilts sits to the left, a ramp leading up to what would be the doorway, if there were a door. Reggae music comes from a small Bluetooth speaker.

 

 

Bonfire on the Beach on Caye Caulker

Beach Bonfire

We are handed cups of rum punch from a large, for want of a better word, plastic barrel, and chips complete with a ceviche servedSilhouette of boat and pier as sun sets in a plastic crate I’d normally pack my camping gear in. I learn three things very quickly;

  1. There is some sort of sandfly here and they are everywhere
  2. They hurt!
  3. My aeroguard is absolutely useless against them.

The boys tell us they get better after it gets dark, and that they are worse near the trees. I move immediately into the open but it does little to curb their enthusiasm for nibbling at my feet and ankles. I don’t notice a difference immediately it gets dark either, but at some point the painful biting seems to stop.

In the darkness beyond the fire we can now see we are surrounded by tiny hovering lights that I’ve never seen before. Captain Keith confirms they are fireflies when I ask and several of us stand watching them for a time. I tried to record them but their light was too faint to distinguish from the background.

The rum punch continues to flow, my cup refilled every time it approaches the bottom, and the air is filled with laughter and chatting. We stay perhaps a couple of hours before the desire for dinner leads us back to the boats to leave the quiet serenity behind.

Boats against the sunset and silhouetted trees

Serenity

I have lobster for dinner, again, still not a rival to my first two nights in Belize, and I manage to head to the sports club with the others for the grand total of about 15minutes before my day in the sun has caught up with me and I leave them to their dancing to stumble tiredly to my room.

Snorkeling in Belize, swimming with sharks and turtles