Postcards from the Ledge: Chapter 3

Our third (and last) day of diving was to be at Hol Chan off of Ambergris Caye (30 min north of Caye Caulker), one of the signature dive spots along the Barrier Reef here. Alas, the waves were starting to kick back up again (3-4' with the odd 5-footer now and then when we were outside the reef). But we went in anyhow. This time we were assigned Martin as our dive master. He was new, having just finished his Rescue Diver course the day before out at Turneffe. Recardo, our dive master the previous two days, assured us that Martin knew what he was doing and would steer us back to the boat again. Martin instructed us, given the high waves, that when we got in, instead of hanging around bouncing on the surface waiting for the rest of the group (and sucking air), to drop down immediately to 20' or 30' and wait near the buoy line. Sounded like a right find reasonable plan to me!

So in we went, and down we went. And gathered we did. And on to the tour. Dropping down early was key. Not so bouncy-bouncy.

The water today was much murkier than the previous two days. The sea was really churned up, and while we could *see* 50' or so, it was really only clear out to 30' most of the time. In any event, we swam down a channel, checking out the ridge reef next to it, and saw a fair number of grouper (black, Nassau, and a couple others) al ong the way. We also got to see a drum fish, which was very cool (google an image of one if you'd like, for while I got a photo of it, it's not the best). Only one we would see this trip.

We continued down the canyon and then popped over the ridge - and found ourselves *immediately* surrounded by hungry, ravenous sharks! There were no less than 20, possibly more, (nurse) sharks surrounding four other divers who appeared to be feeding them. Groupers galore, too. Tried to take some photos of all this, but none came out. However, as we swam away, I saw some loners hanging around and got a few good photos of them. :-) So now I can say, yes, I have swum/dived with sharks. Nurse sharks (probably the most docile of sharks in the world), but sharks nonetheless. :-)

Earlier this winter I took a coral reef ecology class at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD. And while I missed one of the five evening classes due to work travel, I learned a *lot* about coral reef systems in this class. Most of it I admit I can't remember, but what I do remember gave me an insight to look at the reef in a different manner than I might normally have.

One of the things covered in the class was the identification of different corals. One of the harder to find/see corals is something known as Elkhorn Coral. Because it looks like horns from an elk, very distinctive. Having seen elk before, I had a clue of what the coral should look like. My professor indicated that this type of coral prefers the environment where the waves are coming into the reef, generally the east side of reefs, which aren't dived much due to surge and wave action (the corals are also pretty torn up from the same forces). Well, the Belize Barrier Reef faces East, and to dive it, we had to be east of it.

Guess what I saw? :-)

The photo is actually from a snorkeling run I did during our surface interval between the two dives that day, just inside the reef, but on the last dive I found several heads of this same type of coral. The water was murkier, the photos of those didn't come out worth squat, but the one I got from snorkeling wasn't too bad. :-) So, yeah, very cool, I got to see some elkhorn coral, something I thought I'd never get a realistic chance to find.

One of the things my prof likes to do is drop down on the anchor line when diving, then sit there, and look at the *details* in the reef, rather than swim pell-mell all over the reef. And while yes, he misses out on seeing certain things, he gets to see the micro world that no one else ever really sees. I want to try that on one of my next ocean reef dives.

The last dive of the trip was back in Hol Chan, and the viz was still pretty crappy as compared to the previous days, and what it should have been (but for Maryland/Pennsylvania, not too shabby ;-) ). There was actually a lot more surge here, too. We saw more grouper, a plethora of other fish, and little else. We did do a swim-thru around 80' down, which was kinda cool. And I once again sucked down my air, so Martin got me back to the buoy line as I hit 500 psi. He took Lisa (who was still over 1300 psi, possibly more) and the other two people (who were sharing air, because he apparently hoovers, too), and they did a 10 minute swim around the area while I headed up. They reported to me that I didn't miss anything, they didn't see anything new or cool, but who knows? Maybe there was something unnoticed. Well, hafta save it for the next trip. ;-)

Back on land again we made our way to the house. The dive shop said they would happily rinse all our gear for us ("you are, after all, on vacation"), and we would pick it up the next morning after we moved to another apartment (since we were not going to Tikal, but staying on Caye Caulker, we needed alternate accomodations, as the house we were renting was rented out to someone else come the weekend. At the house Lisa's energies pretty much evaporated, and she fell into a deep slumber on the couch. I was still good to go, so decided to 1) get our return tickets from Caye Caulker to the Belize International Airport (rather than do the water taxi to regular taxi and fight with luggage; taking the small plane is quite convenient in this regards), and 2) explore some of the southern end of the island. So off I went.

The portion of the island south of the air strip is pretty much "the sticks", and I found myself, as I circled around from the east to west sides along the shore (as best I could at times) in swamps, mud bogs, marshes, hot ponds of still water (with mosquitoes!) and all sorts of other terrain you might imagine (see photo of mangrove tree and mud marsh, some of which I ended up walking/sinking through). Saw *thousands* of crabs (most tiny, a few larger) during the journey. It never once occurred to me that salt water crocodiles live on this island (learned this the next day), and love this type of area. Never saw any. I'm kinda thankful. I think.

The next day I was up extra early again, and caught a nice sunrise sequence.

We then moved from the house to the apartment, and then borrowed a golf cart (woohoo!) to go get our dive gear from the shop. The winds were stronger today, and we could see earlier the reef was getting pounded with some more energetic waves. The dive shop was taking people back out to Turneffe again. Would have liked to have gone, but we had our diving, and it was time to explore other aspects of Belize. We saw our dive master Martin. He was to be the boat captain on the Turneffe trip. He said, "Today I am Captain Crash. We will be like a submarine!" Little did we know how almost true that would be, when later that evening we ran across one of the divers on the trip who we dove with earlier in the week. He said that the trip out to Turneffe was really rough, and that practically everyone got sea sick, and was soaked from the boat plowing through the high waves. Maybe it's a good thing we didn't go after all. :-D

We grabbed a water taxi to Belize City, then a cab to the bus station where we waited for the "orange and white bus" to come. This is the bus that travels the Western Highway, and would drop us off at the zoo.

And AT the zoo (entrance) we were dropped! About an hour after leaving the bus terminal (and having our bus scrape briefly another bus who was just sitting in the middle of the bus area, not moving and being a pain), we came up to the Belize Zoo. Good thing we didn't have luggage to wrestle, as the bus actually never stopped while we got off! Slowed down, but was still moving as I stepped off, and was accelerating again as Lisa jumped out. Boy, talk about "drive by".

The trip out cost us $3 Belize each, which is $1.50 US. The trip back (later that afternoon) I was charged $4 Belize each, while everyone else who got on I noticed were charged $3. Interesting. There were only two other gringos on the bus, and as we got closer to Belize City, the bus got to standing room only.

But I've totally skipped the zoo.

We heard a lot of good things about the Belize Zoo, so we opted to make this a visit on our trip. Glad we did. It was actually very cool. The cages, such as some of them were, were VERY spacious and the animals (all rehab animals) had room to stretch and move. The monkey 'cage' was actually a fenced off area designed to keep humans out, while the monkeys were free to roam the trees and come/go as they please. We saw a huge variety of animals there, from jaguars, panthers, and ocelots, to harpy eagle (largest and strongest eagle in the world; photo attached), jabirus, crocodiles, red-fronted parrots, mackaws, piccaries - the list goes on and one. It was all very cool. The harpy eagle was a ham, and would fly past people to startle them (he had been raised by the zoo since he was but a newborn). On the parrots, one of them startled Lisa by doing something unexpected, and another sitting off to the side began laughing in a very human way at Lisa's reaction. We saw one ocelot cat who was very cool. But he was constantly pacing, and the light dim, it was hard to snap a photo of him. I took a bunch before I got his rhythm down and could walk with him a bit. Very cool kitty.

Then the return bus adventure to Belize City. From the bus terminal we grabbed a cab (we ignored the cab drivers who were clustered around the bus door shouting "NEED A TAXI?" at everyone coming off the bus and chose a guy standing in the terminal who wasn't acting quite as desperate.

He got us back to the water taxi, but not w/out Lisa being accosted by a homeless guy who was reaching into the car and asking for money. Lisa was at that moment reaching into her purse to give me something (I don't remember what), and he thought she was going to give him money, so trotted along side with us for a block or two.

Belize City is an...interesting place. Belize is a third world country, and Belize City itself pretty much reflects this in a lot of ways (run down, dirty, lot of poverty areas), but a great many of the people there have first world technology (ipods, cell phones, blackberries, etc). Interesting juxtaposition.

Back on the water taxi we zoom-zoomed to Caye Caulker. Had dinner, then crashed for the evening.

Continue on to Chapter 4