Blue Hole and… Garbage
By T Dietz
In need of warm weather, sand and bottom time we made a last-minute decision to head to Turneffe Island off the coast of Belize. On the Caribbean coast of northern Central America and bordered by Mexico and Guatemala, Belize has claim to the world’s second largest barrier reef after Australia’s and the largest reef system in the northern hemisphere, extending almost 200 miles.
Packing extremely light, especially because we made the fateful decision not to take our scuba gear, we boarded the red-eye to Chicago that connected to a flight to Belize International Airport in Ladyville. A highlight of the final flight leg to Belize was seeing the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.
Following our landing and runway back taxi at the Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport, we boarded a resort bus for the 30-minute ride to a hotel in Belize City that acted as a midway meeting point before heading toTurneffe Island. The air had that tropical smell and the body knows to get into relaxation mode. After lunch and some beers, we joined about 20 folks on a 2 plus hour, partially-open cockpit, boat ride that ended with a clouded over full moon anddark arrival at Blackbird Caye. Along the way we passed some of the 150 oddmangrove islands that are part of the Turneffe Atoll. Following a brief introduction to the resort and the island with its population of salt water crocodiles, we headed to our cabin to catch some sleep before our first day of diving.
Up early, my son Colin and I headed to pick up our rental dive gear. Limited in options, ill-fitting, and terribly worn we regretted instantly our decision not to bring our own gear. Before my first dive the waist strap buckle on my BCdisintegrated into pieces leaving me the whole week with what felt like a moving monkey on my back as the weight of the tank shifted side to side with each kick. Crossing my arms and grabbing the upper vest provided some relief.Leaking first stages cut into air supplies as well. The dive boats were rear console helmed with seating along the gunwale in front of our cylinder racks. With friendly and knowledgeable dive masters and captain, we travelled quickly out to the dive sites. We had 14 divers on the boat the first day but that dwindled to as low as 4 on some dives. I and a gentleman from Alabama managed all 16 no decompression dives over 6 days. Total bottom time was over 14 hours. We dove 2 dives on the first day with one dive cancelled due to high winds and then 3 dives per day until the last day where we only submerged twice to allow for a 24 hour surface interval before flying home.
Most days had the wind blowing 15-20 knots from the North or East. The visibility on all the dive sites was sixty plus feet except when the tide cycle overlapped our diving on 3 occasions resulting in reductions to twenty feet. Most of the dive site topography wasvertical walls, sandy bottoms, canyons, and large coral masses and pinnacles. Turneffe is a special place being amongst only four coral atolls in the Western Hemisphere. Two others (Lighthouse (Blue Hole) and Glover’s) are also in Belize.
The sea life lived up to expectations with sightings of dozens of species of reef fishes plus highlights including, lionfish, moray eels, groupers, sting and eagle rays, hawksbill, green and loggerhead turtles, octopodes, reef and nurse sharks, incredible coral and sponge formations and crocodiles (well, only one in the water and observed from shore). One Nassau grouper followed us for about 20-minutes acting like a private eye investigating us. And a green moray who I was investigating decided to counter by chasing after me in open water. A quick flip to have my fins creating a safety barrier between us was enough to discourage his/her further progress. Lionfish were over abundant and not welcome by the Belize community as they have a significant negative effect on many aspects of the abundant marine environment. Hunting them was encouraged and lionfish fritters ain’t so bad. A remora tried to attach to me! That was interesting and easily averted because I saw it. However, I did watch “silently” as it went on to attach to the thigh of another diver just in front of me. I finally alerted him and a quick pull dislodged the hitchhiker leaving no lasting impression – the diver had no idea it was there.
On Christmas eve day we did a 110 foot check out dive in preparation for diving the Blue Hole. A highly anticipated dive, we arrived at the Blue Hole with only a couple of other dive boats present (the only dive site we encountered other divers). With plenty of preparation, we entered the water and moved down the side of the sink hole made famous by Jacques Cousteau. With little light, our dive lights illuminated the dark waters to reveal enormous stalactites and a myriad of fish. The Hole can be visited by hammerhead and bull sharks but we were not lucky enough for other than an encounter with several reef sharks at the edge of our lights. My max depth on this dive was 133 feet and with safety stops total bottom time amounted to just about half an hour.
After the Blue Hole dive, we headed to the Belize natural monument, Half Moon Cayefor lunch and surface interval time. Colin and I explored parts of the island and were incredibly disappointed by the amount of garbage being brought to the beach by the tide. At the Resort on Turneffe, there is a tremendous amount of garbage interwoven and floating on top of the sargassum grass. The Resort crew made a constant and futile daily effort to try to clean it up but the task is overwhelming. The tremendous amount of garbage was enough to tarnish the beauty that still only existed underwater. Let’s hope the underwater realm remains free however unlikely that will be.
Looking past the garbage, Half Moon Caye offers the unique opportunity to see rare the Red-footed Booby Bird and the Magnificent Frigate Bird nesting in Ziricote thickets. Colin and I explored the shoreline as we headed northwest towards the nesting grounds. The trail weaved around the edge of the island and then moved slightly inland and our efforts to stay significantly ahead of the others allowed us 20 minutes of lead time. A 20-foot tower allows you to climb into the thicket and be among the birds and their nests. Incredibly close up, the birds were immune to our presence and we could watch them go about theirbusiness. The Boobies are a beautiful sight with their loud screeches and blue bills on display and of course their red feet. Not to be outdone, most of the Frigates had their gular sacs fully inflated to maximum effect. As we climbed down the observation deck, the crowds started showing up.
Belize and Turneffe atoll provided a great dive experience and we saw amazing creatures above and below the water line. Flying back to the Bay Area through Houston had us reflecting on the ocean floating garbage and the unfortunate likelihood of its expansion. The Blackbird Caye staff worked hard to lessen the debris’ impact and we can only hope that others pick up the pace to stop the further impact to this fragile environment.