A scuba voyage of discovery

by Rob Tiller

Sally and I got back late last night from a four-day trip to Ambergris Caye, Belize.  We accomplished our primary objective of scuba diving the beautiful coral reefs, and had several unexpected pleasures in addition.

Travel consumes a lot of physical and emotional resources.  Even when things are going well, they may at any moment suddenly stop going well and require swift and decisive action.  There are many ups and downs. I’ve gradually refined by baseline holiday travel model, so I usually remember to bring the essentials, anticipate the common annoyances, avoid the greatest risk of infectious diseases, and leave reasonable space for some relaxation and reflection.  Especially when travelling, I love my iPod and noise-canceling headphones.  Lately on the road, I’ve been listening to Mozart operas, which I find at once nourishing, comforting, and exhilarating, and I’m happy to have the time to listen.  I always carry at least a couple of books, and appreciate a chunk of uninterrupted time for reading.  But it isn’t completely relaxing; there’s always some residual vigilance.  I generally notice if the plane, or another passenger, starts making strange noises.  I always note the location of the nearest exit.

We flew from Belize City to Ambergris Caye in a single-engine plane in which I was able to read the pilot’s instruments (we flew at 2100 feet).  We stayed at the Mayan Princess, a clean, unfancy, and convenient hotel in San Pedro, a bustling little town with hotels, restaurants and bars along a narrow beach.  San Pedro has an interesting stew of cultures — Hispanic, English, Indian, West Indian, creole, and of course tourists from all over.  At first, I thought that everyone who greeted us in a friendly manner was hustling to sell something, but I soon figured out that that many people were just being friendly (though others were hustling).  The streets were narrow with few sidewalks, and at times we had to dodge heavy traffic of golf carts and minivan cabs.  We saw more people who seemed to be working for a living than we did tourists.  As Sally observed, the local vibe was very casual.  All the men’s shirt  tails were out.  The buildings were bright but many could have used a new coat of paint.  Over all, it seemed a little down at the heels, but full of life.

We did all our diving with Amigos del Mar, which was located about 50 yards from our room.  On the first and last diving days, we did short boat trips to local reef hot spots.  They did not disappoint.  The coral was abundant and varied, and the wall and canyon topography was fascinating.  We saw several nurse sharks at close hand, and at one point were in the midst of a dozen of them in a feeding frenzy.  Like many people, from long socialization I’ve inherited some fear of sharks, but very quickly I felt comfortable with the sharks swimming close enough to touch.  They seemed curious about us.  I suspect part of the explanation is that some dive operators feed them.   At least these particular sharks seemed a lot like our cats, except much bigger and with more teeth.  We also saw swimming green moray eels, sting rays, barricudas, a scorpion fish, and many gorgeous smaller species.  We also encountered a couple of lionfish, which are poisonous and highly destructive, and which our guide captured.

Our biggest adventure was a trip to the Blue Hole, a circular reef formation that is about 60 miles from Ambergris Caye.  On the trip out, it was drizzly and windy, and the seas were very choppy.  It was even choppier coming back, and we were wet.  All told, we had around 8 tough hours on the water.   We did not get sick, though others were not so fortunate.

The main draw of the Blue Hole is stalactite formations, which are about 130 feet down.  There was not much except the divers swimming at that depth.  We had better luck seeing fish at 60-80 feet at Half Moon Caye and West Point Wall at Long Caye.  At lunch time, we also visited an observation deck at tree top level where there were hundreds of roosting magnificent frigatebird pairs, with males displaying enormous bright red inflatable throats.  There were also many roosting red-footed boobies.

At dinner after the Blue Hole trip, I asked Sally to explain how it is possible that some people do not care for scuba diving.  Her theory was that it does not suffice simply to have a love of nature, the absence of certain phobias, and a modicum of courage.  As she said, you have to be a trooper.  Put another way, you must have some fortitude.  I suddenly realized that fortitude is a necessary but seldom discussed virtue that makes scuba, and other adventures, possible, and makes them richer.  WIthout fortitude, a significant part of the experience could be counted as unfun.  But developing and exercising fortitude is part of the satisfaction of the thing.