With just a few days of recovery from India and still jet-lagged, Rocky and I are headed to Belize for some post-semester diving. Rocky is just as tired as I am. He finished finals at 10 pm, moved out of his dorm and drove home the next day, and then had an early wake-up to be at the airport at 6 am for our flight. Thankfully, it is a short two-hour flight from Houston to Belize City.
We are once again traveling with Oceanic Ventures and Dive Mom. Our group is 14 strong, with 13 of us diving. One our OVI friends, Zaide, is at the house dog-sitting Peabody. We didn’t have the heart to put him in the kennel again after his three-week stay while we were in Asia. No up-grade on this flight, but I did get all four bags checked “fee-free” on United. You are guaranteed to have to check luggage on a dive trip unless you rent everything. We carry all our equipment with us except for weights and cylinders (notice Ann that I did not say tanks).
Upon arrival in Belize and after clearing customs, the resort has arranged for us to be transported to the Radisson Hotel at the dock where the Atoll resort boats and live-aboard dive boats transfer their guests. We have to wait here until 4 pm when all the inbound flights arrive so all the guests can be taken to the Atoll in one trip. It is a 90-minute ride (in good weather). You can enjoy the pool and bar and have some lunch. Rocky and I had large portions of some great fish and chips-fabulously fresh fish I might add. Our luggage was transferred directly to the boat and we only had to keep up with our carry-on bags.
When we got word that there would be a two-hour delay for some of the guests, they went ahead and took us early to make sure the big boat would pass through the mangroves before dark. “An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef including a coral rim that encircles a lagoon partially or completely. There may be coral islands (cays) on the coral rim.” We are headed to the Turneffe Atoll, the largest atoll off the coast of Belize. In November 2012, Turneffe Atoll was named a marine reserve. It is 30 miles long and 10 miles wide with 12 acres of island.
To some, Turneffe is best known as the fishing destination to catch an angler’s “Grand Slam”- permit, bonefish, and tarpon. We are staying at Turneffe Flats, a resort that accommodates only 28 guests. They stretched to 32 this week by using some of the staff cabins for guests. There are 18 divers, 6 adventure travelers, and 8 fishermen among the guests. We crossed over to the atoll on the Ms. Ellie, the large boat that we will use for our dives.
To stay cool, I sat up on the captain’s deck. Once out on the open ocean, we did hit some rough water and even on the upper deck I got soaked. Fortunately, it was warm enough that I dried out before our arrival at the resort. Once we reached the Atoll, we slowed down considerably to pass through the mangroves. These mangroves provide the perfect environment for young fish earning them a reputation as a “natural nursery”. There are more than 200 mangrove islands on the Atoll. The plants absorb the salt water and filter the salt out through their leaves delivering fresh water to the plant. They are beautiful, but the passage through them is narrow and shallow and I saw why they wanted to bet the Ms. Ellie through during daylight hours.
After the mangroves, we rode through the lagoon where dolphins passed along side us. After passing through the mangroves on the east side of the Atoll, we arrived at Turneffe Flats. We will have beautiful sunrises here, but sunsets will be in the distance. Our bags were taken directly to our rooms and we headed to the dining room/lounge area to complete the check-in paperwork. No keys here, although a locked safe bag is provided for your valuables. No cash or credit cards are needed while on the island.
All rooms are not created equal. Ownership feels that the value in your resort fee, comes from the meals and general services and consequently, Turneffe Flats has the absurd policy of charging the same price for each room. Although the trip description said two queen beds, Rocky and I got totally shafted. We are in a “villa” with three rooms off a central common area. We got the tiny room in the back with barely enough space for two TWIN beds and a nightstand in between. There are not individual temperature controls for these rooms; we were at the mercy of one of the other couples in the “villa”. They were exceptionally nice people, but did not speak English. (Their room was also four times as big as ours.) While everyone else had a lovely water view, our view was of a dry-docked boat. What really “pissed me off” was that I was paying the same price as the other guests. I voiced my unhappiness.
Once our luggage was in the room you couldn’t walk in, so they opened a storage closet for us to put our suitcases in. After sorting out our dive gear out to be picked up by the dive staff, we headed back to the dining room. At 6:15 each evening, complimentary appetizers are served in the bar just off the dining room (really just separate areas in one large room). All the food is included in the resort fee. You can choose a dive package, fishing package, or adventure package. There is actually quite a lot to do here even if you don’t fish or dive. Larry was the adventure traveler in our group and he reported to us each day on their activities.
After seeing my room, I needed a drink. During the cocktail hour, the staff comes around and takes your order for lunch the next day. There were quite a few choices-salads and sandwiches. These will be packed on the dive boat for us in the morning. If you want to add a soft drink to your lunch order, that cost is added to your bar tab which is not included in the resort fee. Dinner is a set menu, so no choice there. Although the pecan-crusted snapper was exceptionally good, I couldn’t help but worry about another night when I might not like the dinner offering.
After a day of travel, we were exhausted and were in bed by 8:15 pm. Breakfast is at 7 am the next morning.
Our first morning on the Atoll, we started with breakfast before the dive briefing. Our dive gear was left out and staff will pick it up and set up our equipment on the boat. Each morning at breakfast you can choose between the standard meal that includes eggs, meat, toast, and fruit or choose the “special for the day”. Dry cereal is also available, as is coffee, tea, water, and orange juice. After breakfast, we went straight to the dive shop for our briefing. Forms were filled out and our certification cards were collected. The staff will hold the C card and our nitrox card for the week. (Guess that saves them from copying them all.) The orientation was very thorough and I was especially pleased that they went through the hand signals that occasionally vary from country to country and dive master to dive master. You don’t want to get caught underwater using hand signals that no one understands.
We will dive three one-tank dives each day. The boat is large enough to accommodate all the cylinders, so we will not return to the resort until after all the day’s diving. Lunch is packed on board and will be pulled out after the day’s second dive. Of course there were snacks and fresh water and limeade available after each dive. We are in a dive group of six with a dive master, a good size. Rocky is my buddy and Donna (my frequent buddy when Rocky is not along) is also in the group.
When diving inside the barrier reef, the water is very clear and calm with an easy entry. We are anchor diving with limited current. This is easy diving and a great way to start off the week. The Atoll is known for the rare white-spotted toadfish, eagle rays, turtles, moray eels, nurse and reef sharks, trunkfish, grouper, snapper, permit, and horse-eye jacks.
Right off the bat, we saw lots of really cool small things. I held a small Pederson Shrimp and yellow-line arrow crab that our dive master found and presented to us. The reefs were very healthy and the area teaming with fish-foureye butterfly fish, blue tangs (Dori for the Nemo fans), trumpetfish, yellowhead wrasse, blueheads, Creole wrasse in large schools, and squirrelfish with their big eyes.
Our second dive we found garden eels in the sand flats and queen angelfish, rock beauties, gray angelfish with their yellow accent fins, and the biggest lobster I have ever seen in the reefs. Highlights included the barracuda and a graceful spotted eagle ray. I have seen many rays, but the beauty and movement of this spotted eagle ray was breathtaking.
After a tasty chicken salad sandwich for lunch, we went in for our shallower third dive seeing another spotted eagle ray (this one smaller) and a moray eel. This was truly an aquarium dive with the plentiful marine life on the reef. I loved the yellowhead jaw fish that hang vertically above their small hole in the sand, ducking in when you get close. We also spotted a flounder, a rare find given their clever camouflage techniques.
By the end of three hour-long dives (with at least an hour surface interval between each), we were exhausted. After a dinner of chicken, some of the more adventurous considered a hunt for the alligators that populate the Atoll, but I headed back to my small room and was once again in bed by 8:15 pm.
Rocky commented on the beauty of the night as we headed back to our space. The sky was clear and the stars brilliant. We had just enough light to steer clear of the hermit crabs that crossed our path as they headed out to sea. Sweet dreams to the tired and happy divers.
About the photographer: You’ll notice that the underwater photography is credited to Bill Fuqua, a member of our OVI group. Yes, Bill has special equipment, but the wonderful shots you see are the result of his sharp eye and amazing photography skills. I don’t take my camera the first day and after I saw Bill’s work I left it in the case and enjoyed the record of the trip that Bill created. He was kind enough to share his photos with me. You can find more of Bill’s underwater photography on his facebook page.