Edited by Naturalight Productions Ltd.
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A few years ago I would have gladly accepted the title of "sea-fear-er". Unable to swim and afraid of any water level that rose above my mouth, my sea expeditions had been limited to watching the waves roll in and to the occasional daydreaming foray of some exotic beach where I would sit and stare at the horizon. All this changed with a short, tense trip to an island off the coast of Belize City.
From the doorway of a house perched on stilts in the sea, I peered into what at first glance appeared to be an opaque brown soup flecked with blades of grass. As my eyes adjusted, the sun sparked silver of camouflaged juvenile fish began to take form. Beyond the playground of this protective nursery, a mix of turquoise and aquamarine color extended to the edge of visibility.
The visit itself was brief, but it was enough to inspire boat trip number two to fifteen acres of tropical trees and sand beaches within the South Water Caye Marine Reserve. The experiences of that first day on the island of South Water Caye from relaxing on the pier, kayaking in front of its shores, and wading in waist-deep water, to falling asleep in hammocks slung between coconut trees, rendered me speechless.
Boat ride number three, this one from the island to the famous Belize Barrier Reef, a World Heritage Site, had me curious but not convinced that humans were ever intended to venture beneath the waves where breathable oxygen was in short supply. Fully dressed in life vest, flippers, mask and snorkel, I finally allowed the cajoling of my friends to seep in and eased myself into the cucumber cool Caribbean. Safe in a life jacket, I tried to imitate their confidence but inexperience betrayed me. While my upper body bobbed awkwardly on the surface my lower body struggled to remain on the sea floor, and would not relax into a horizontal position. They took turns demonstrating how easy it is to snorkel. My brain nodded, my panicked body refused.
Carried by the waves the boat drifted out of reach. I looked around at the open expanse of sea that separated me from land and living. My hands reached quickly, grasping the boat as I tried to lift my terrified body to safety. Much to the relief of my companions, Captain Ernie, pulled me aboard our vessel, freeing them to enjoy the flurry of marine life below. I sheepishly looked on from up above.
A month later, I found myself on the five-acre island of Tobacco Caye. Descendants of its original inhabitants, from previous decades when there was actually a village with a school on the island, offer a friendly, casual environment with reasonably priced accommodations and dive services. Adding to Tobacco Caye's charm is its location right on the Barrier Reef and only minutes away from a variety of dive sites. This is where I had my first true snorkeling experience.
"Saint Malo", owner of Reef's End Lodge and a colorful character on the island started me off with classes under his restaurant and bar which sits over the sea, next to the Barrier Reef. The rules were simple:
- "Rule number one: breathe in through the snorkel.
- Rule number two: breathe out through the snorkel.
- Rule number three: you panic you die.
- But the most important rule is you panic, you die."
Unlike the experience of being dropped off on the reef, snorkeling from Tobacco Caye meant we started from shore. Once I realized that my body would actually remain afloat, that oxygen would find its way into my lungs from the snorkel, that the waves would not send me clear to Jamaica, and that I could return to shore at any time, the apprehension drained slowly but not completely from my body. When we made it to the reef, I lost sense of self and time.
A whole new world of darting fish and coral opened up before me. I wanted to vocalize my wonderment but was afraid to drown so I gazed and pointed and turned my head from side to side seeking more. I lay atop nature's aquarium completely absorbed in a kaleidoscope of colorful scales propelled by wiggling tails suspended above, diving into, and hiding amongst purple fans, moss-colored balls, and burgundy-tinged spikes. Swirling through this world were nuances of translucent silky blues and at the very bottom, fine, white, sugary, powder marked by tracks drawn on its surface.
At regular intervals, Malo would release himself from my grasping hand, dive down playfully, and return a few seconds later. On one such dive, my attention diverted to the multicolored coats of a Parrot and Trigger Fish that seemed to be playing hide-and- go-seek with me; I pursued them until a Butterfly Fish beckoned to me, leading me to the company of a school of Blue Tangs. When they disappeared from view, I realized Malo hadn't returned. I looked everywhere and he was no where in sight -- okay it was more like I checked to my left and to my right-but he was no where to be found.
In an instant my heart took off racing while my stomach tightened and my breaths became more audible. "You panic, you die." I thought to myself then turned to the direction of the island from which we had started.
"You panic, you die," I repeated slower this time, allowing the thought to marinate as my knees commenced an uncoordinated flapping action that I hoped would propel me back to shore.
The massage of the waves across my back and the appearance of life in slow motion that continued beneath me oblivious to my dilemma slowed my galloping heart. My throat dry, I finally reached another snorkeler from the group. Not knowing how to get my body into vertical position to tell her I had lost my partner, I paddled right past her. An eternity later, Malo reappeared by my side, just as suddenly as he had disappeared. If I was sure that the tears would not have drowned me in my own mask, I would have cried out of sheer joy.
Since then I haven't been able to shake the playful teasing and Malo's version of watching me "run for shore". Had I turned around instead of panicked, he insists, I might have caught a glimpse of him smirking behind me.
Not to be outdone by the Tobacco Caye fiasco, the consequent Glover's Atoll snorkeling trip ended with a rescue by the Fisheries Department patrol boat.
After an hour and a half, butt-whipping boat ride from Dangriga we found ourselves outside the protective confines of the Belize Barrier Reef and on the beach of one of the five islands that make up the smallest of Belize's three coral atolls. Shallow, turquoise-cerulean-aqua marine waters lapped the shore lines of Southwest Caye as we lounged lazily on the verandah of another over-the-sea restaurant. When our rested bodies, demanded some form of activity, we explored the island, kayaked to the neighboring one, and climbed the lighthouse/lookout tower before kayaking back to our on-the-beach cabanas.
For the Glovers Reef snorkeling adventure I had my own life jacket, mask and snorkel, had been fitted for fins before the trip and felt comfortable; but, just before the leap of faith, a tense stomach and shallow breathing overtook my body, blinding my perspectives and demanding immediate attention. As I studied the depth of the royal blue waters, I knew for sure that my feet could not touch the seabed without my head submerging. This thought sent my heart trotting for a few minutes until Malo's third rule quieted my fleeing mind.
I slid into the receptive channel that parted and held me suspended. The waves were wider and taller, their push stronger. The distance from the boat to the snorkel site was further than I would have liked but I understood that for the reef's protection it was best to keep my flailing appendages at a safe distance. I reached for the guide's reassuring hands to tow me unto new underwater discoveries: a mottled Nassau Grouper, juvenile Barracuda, species of fish I couldn't identify, and a Spotted Eagle Ray. We were in search of a Hawksbill Turtle when a pestering leak on my mask and a handy patrol boat from the Fisheries Department coincided.
The months that followed brought many more sea explorations. Man-o-War and Laughing Bird off Stann Creek; Caye Caulker and San Pedro in the Belize District; Abalone, Snake Cayes, and the Sapodilla Range of Toledo. Of these, my favorite had been an exploration of a sunken vessel, off the coast of Nicholas Caye in the Sapodilla Range.
My most recent snorkeling trip was to Shark Ray Alley in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, just minutes away from Caye Caulker and San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. Famous for its docile Nurse Sharks, the spot has become a popular dive and snorkel spot.
Instead of diving in like the other snorkelers, I spent a few minutes procrastinating. Granted it was time well spent, cleaning my mask with spit and sea water, testing and adjusting its fit on my head and breathing back the phobic waves that made my chest rise and fall a few times faster than normal.
"Are you ready?" came the patient voice of dive master Mark Castillo, one of three guides on the trip and already familiar with my snorkeling history.
Memories of iridescent scales flitting amidst golden brown elk horn and, brain coral, and deep lilac fans pasted against a backdrop of white sand combined with the feel of the sun's warm touch on my back, the wave's reassuring rocking motion and the sound of deep rhythmic breathing echoing inside my ear came back as vividly as Malo's third rule. My eyes rested on the sea, the waves seeming to stretch to infinity. Finally, rules one and two seemed to be occurring naturally.
Lowering my body into the warm Caribbean, I smoothly propelled myself pass where Mark's outstretched hands waited. Somewhere below, a Nurse Shark was expecting my arrival. This time I was ready.
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography
Pelican's Pouch Southwater Caye
Reef's End Lodge