By: Bridget Igoe
Edited by Naturalight Productions
NB: Remember to click on the links in the article to see all the images.
Nearly 15 months ago I moved to Belize to live and volunteer in Dangriga, a Garifuna, coastal town off the southern Caribbean shores of the Stann Creek District.
My first-year energies have been tapped from every possible angle from doing health education with women and teenagers, facilitating an after-school and summer school program, grant writing, to assisting with "back-a-bush" trail maintenance at Mayflower Bocawina National Park and participating in workshops, committees, and local initiatives, all pretty standard fare for a recent undergrad volunteering abroad.
I was about to begin a literacy program at one of the primary schools in town when I got a call from Tony, a photographer and co-founder of a Dangriga-based Internet marketing firm. He was looking for occasional help with some scenic photography and the flexible but habituated volunteer in me easily accepted. After all, this is what signing up to volunteer abroad necessitates: a willingness to partake in anything and everything that comes your way.
After I agreed to assist Tony with his undefined photo assignments I began to grasp what exactly this additional volunteer gig would require, namely, a readiness to pack up and go anywhere in Belize, usually within 12 hours after I received the call. A few days later, my first assignment landed me in the passenger seat of Tony's truck to hunt down Davis Falls, a waterfall tucked eight miles off the Hummingbird Highway on a road only accessible by a 4 x 4 or tank. We were equipped with a truckload of photography equipment, a GPS and some hastily scribbled directions that read like a treasure hunt: "turn right after first orange grove/quick left after 3rd river crossing…" I quickly learned that traveling with Tony is like competing on Survivor*: Volunteer.
I had been warned it wouldn't always be pleasurable, after all, I was being asked to help carry photography equipment through the jungle, across sand and to occasionally stand in the shot as the "token tourist" taking in the local scenery. But as a person seeking off-the-beaten-path adventure, no amount of sweat, bugs or heavy tripods could take away from the thrill of touring Belize alongside someone with local insight into the hidden gems of this land. It is like having a personal guide, not to mention I will have the most impressive photo album. If I don't get voted off, that is.
For my second assignment, Tony called about plans for a trip to Southwater Caye, recently named by Travelocity in a list of Top Ten Beach Getaways, to do some reef and diving photography. Southwater Marine Reserve is an easy 15-mile boat ride from Dangriga's shores. I've repeatedly seen the small groups of tourists return from the Caye, all looking as though they have collectively stepped out of a relaxing, deep tissue massage. I enthusiastically accepted the chance to "volunteer" my time in paradise and I packed a couple swimsuits and some SPF twice my age. It was like winning Survivor's Reward Challenge.
It's hard to imagine a more idyllic place than The Pelican's Pouch where I stayed during my time on Southwater. The scene from my veranda boasted crystalline waters in shades of emerald and azure, a private white sand beach where shapely coconut palms nodded in respect to Caribbean breezes, and graceful pelicans dove and soared against an endless sea-and-sky-scape. The sounds of the Caribbean breaking against the reef, the sun that penetrated like a massage and the way the constellations danced across the nighttime sky made me feel like I'd entered paradise.
My own diving experience prior to my arrival on Southwater Caye was maxed out at a mere 6 dives and so I was initially a bit intimidated to dive alongside Tony, my all-in-one dive partner, professional photographer, and trained marine biologist. But my instructions were simple enough: to follow Tony through the maze of coral and to carefully pose beside the colorful life, as indicated by Tony's sign language.
On our first couple of dives I did just that, keeping a close eye on Tony and his precise hand signals while also taking in the wonders of the reef world, this underwater jungle overgrown with coral textures and imbued with more colors than a box of crayolas.
The reef is a world where survival of the Exhibitionist reigns over the Fittest, and "fish" come equipped with decadent frills like electric blue mohawks and unicorn horns that dwarf the bodies to which they are affixed. Parrotfish, their large scales mottled in a mosaic of greens and blues, reds and yellows, can be seen using their beak-like mouths to scrape algae from the coral. Not to be outdone, graceful, disk-shaped Angelfish parade around as if waterproof peacocks, trailed by their shimmering, neon blue and yellow plumes. Large assemblies of Blue Tangs, in colors that range from powder blue to deep purple, graze the Caribbean floor in a gale of crescent tails.
Diving in more secluded areas, farther from the reef or in canyon walls, we encountered the solitary, larger beasts that pace and drift around the waters as if they are guardians of the inner, more colorful reef. Not until our fourth dive did I become wont to the huge barracudas that have the unsettling habit of approaching divers out of curiosity and shadowing them along the reef. I nearly panicked when Tony jokingly pushed me in front of a large, prehistoric-looking Tarpon, whose characteristically upturned mouth, I thought at the time, was in show of its objection to my presence.
Then there were the clandestine reef dwellers, or those fish that usually go by unnoticed, trumped by their more colorful associates, unless you have the trained eye of a marine biologist, reef guide, or radar for the bizarre and extraordinary. Tony pointed out Yellowhead Jawfish, timid tadpole types that hover vertically above their sandy burrows. After a full minute of intense staring at the white coral floor, I finally saw them too. On a later dive (and a moment of personal triumph) I picked out a Spotted Moray Eel hidden in a dark recess. The eel was contracting its alarming jaws but the frightening gesture was only to aid with water circulation over its gills. Gesture or not, I admired it from a safe distance and relished in the moment - my eyes had finally begun to discern more camouflaged life.
Tony and I had completed six dives, most in the inner reef, and we had each respectively laid eyes or camera on a spectacle of species unlike any on the land above us Tony was generally pleased with his photos and, surprisingly, with my aptitude for following his underwater and muted directions, which meant I was not voted off the island, yet. There was just one more dive before we called it a wrap and this one, number seven, was going to be different open water and shallow.
"Drop us at Paradise," Tony directed Richie, our boat captain.
We pushed off the dock and as we drove the short distance to the southeast side of Carrie Bow Caye, home of the Smithsonian Research Center, I tried to guess why this drop point, above all the others, has been deemed "Paradise." In just two minutes we left the caye waters, green like honeydew, and arrived to the amethyst depths of the reef waters, where it was curiously speckled with silver and tinsel.
"EEEE, look pan all dehn fish,"* was the second-to-last thing I heard from Richie, the last being Tony's ever-quick direction to follow his lead and "try to keep up!"
Into the depths we plunged, backwards, then weightless, then equalized, and eventually my mind caught up to carve out my bearings and I got it. The tinsel were fish, hundreds, maybe thousands, of fish in massive schools of Spadefish, Dog Snappers, and Horse-eyed Jacks, like snowflakes in a blizzard but all perfectly synchronized in even the most minor of movements. The vivid contrast of silver on purple created the most luminescent patchwork I had ever seen. I swam hard, following Tony's lead and trying to keep up when suddenly I was no longer viewing the fish formation but I was part of it. Fish. I was engulfed in a patchwork of Spadefish and I slowed my swim to keep in tune with their fluid harmonization. For as long as my regulator would supply me oxygen, I was admitted into their sleek, symmetrical world. And from inside our shapely coterie I swear I saw a tarpon and a barracuda, those guardians of the depths, nod in acceptance as if to say, "You may pass."
The volunteer position is still filled and I've survived a few more assignments, with more in the future. While you might not be as lucky as I am to volunteer, diving at Southwater Marine Reserve is an unforgettable experience. When you go, be sure to have Richie drop you at Paradise, the underwater one, that is.
*Survivor is a popular reality TV series featuring competition, voting and "survival of the fittest".
**"EEEE, look pan all dehn fish,", Kriol for "Look at all of the fish". Learn more about Kriol
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Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography