We started our second day of diving with a “test dive” for the Blue Hole, a controlled 130 ft. dive. (Our recreational limits are normally 110 feet.) For the test dive, we will be going to 115 feet and the dive staff will determine if our skills and reactions make us candidates for the Blue Hole dive scheduled for tomorrow. Most dive outfitters will not impose any requirements other than certification to take you to the Blue Hole and I was impressed with the dive staff at Turneffe Flats and love their safety conscious approach.
Both Rocky and I passed the tests, descending quickly to 46 ft (representing the ledge at the the Blue Hole) and maintaining our composure at depth. I only went to 107 feet because I had forgotten to switch my computer out of nitrox; the nitrox mix I was using has a depth limit of 110 feet. Nitrox helps minimize the nitrogen absorbed by the body during diving. You finish the day less tired. It is a healthier way to dive if you are doing long multiple dives in a single or series of days. Use of nitrox involves additional certification and often there is an a surcharge to the cost of an air cylinder. (At Turneffe Flats, nitrox costs an additional $10 per dive.)
We came back from depth in a zig zag pattern, noting black coral along the way. This time Rocky got to hold one of the pederson shrimp. We also saw what at first appeared to be a dying stingray. The roughtail stingray had buried itself part way in the sand and was actually resting. Dive Mom played with it a little and it eventually swam away. When it moved we noted that there was a fish underneath. It was a sharksucker, which is in the remora family.
Our next two dives were shallower. On dive two, I saw an indigo hamlet which looks like a tie-dyed fish and a flamingo tongue on coral. The flamingo tongue is a small sea snail only about an inch in size. The shell it white, but it has a spotted soft exterior that moved when touched. Donna was also followed by a remora. It is normal behavior for them to select the diver in the group they like best and follow them. Donna’s boyfriend, as he came to be known, swam very close to her and returned again and again. He even followed her all the way to the boat when she was getting out. Donna was convinced he was trying to communicate his undying passion. “Stay with me, my love”. What a great entry in the log book.
One of the highlights of our dive was finding a juvenile drum. They are beautiful and protect themselves by doing an erratic dance, swimming in varying patterns. Dive mom and I hung out there a while just watching.
Our third dive was a simulated drift dive so we could get the feel for the different pick-up methods the boat uses in varying conditions. At the very beginning of the dive, we saw a sea turtle and later we saw two large resting sand divers-great at camouflage.
Our third dive day was a trip out to the Blue Hole and Half Moon Cay. Since we had an hour and 30 ride out and we wanted to be one of the first groups, we departed at 7 am rather than our usual 8 am. That meant getting up extra early to be ready and have time for breakfast. In spite of our early departure, we were not the first to arrive at the Blue Hole.
The Great Blue Hole is a submarine sinkhole off the coast of Belize, almost a thousand feet wide and 407 ft. deep. Stalactites are found at 130 feet, formed before the water level rose and the cave flooded. The site was made famous by Jacques-Yves Cousteau who declared it one of the ten best dive sites in the world. His ship is the one who created the opening in the reef that our boat went through to reach the site. In 2012, the Discovery Channel named the Great Blue Hole #1 among its top 10 most amazing places on earth. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Rocky was already a little leery about going in, but when the guide announced the hole’s history (not created by a meteorite) and that there were sharks at our selected depth, he decided he was out. The plan was to descend quickly to the ledge at 46 ft., then down to 80 ft., and ultimately 130 feet where the stalactites are located. We will only be at the 130 ft. mark for 8 minutes max. The entire dive will not last more than 30 minutes. My new computer tracked my bottom time and with careful monitoring I reached 133 feet and began my assent within limits never getting closer than 3 minutes to my no decompression limit. My computer gave me a deep stop of 3 minutes at 52 ft. and the standard 3 minute safety stop at between 20 and 10 feet.
At depth, we saw lots of reef sharks who came quite close as we wove in and out between the stalactites. The sighting of some sharks is common here, but rumor has it that that certain Belize dive operators are ‘chuming’ the area to increase the shark population. Given the number of sharks, I was glad Rocky had not made the dive. When he was young and a new diver, we dove off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii and saw quite a few sharks. That night on the news they reported that a tiger shark had attacked a surfer in the area we had been diving. We cancelled our dives for the next day and since then Rocky has always been leery about diving in “shark infested” waters.
Next stop was a dive at Half Moon Cay wall, considered one of the most beautiful dive sites in the area. It was a drift pick-up dive like we had “practiced” yesterday. There were lots of garden eels with their heads sticking out of the sand; they pop down when you get close. We saw several rays, some with a fish companion. Spotted gobies in the sand and a group of hogfish with their pronounced upturned snout. The highlight for me was the past through or swim through, a narrow break in the coral reef that allows a diver to go through. This is one of my favorite dive attractions.
You might consider this dive the best of “Donna Jean”-swim throughs for me and crap in the sand for Donna (my usual dive buddy). Donna is a bottom dweller and loves to look at all the little stuff in the sand flats. Many divers pass this by, but if you spend the time to look closely there is lots of interesting marine life that has camouflaged itself to blend with the white sand. On one of our first dive trips together one of the seasoned divers couldn’t remember which of us was which so he just called both of us Donna Jean. The name stuck.
After this dive was went to Half Moon Cay to enjoy a picnic lunch of fried chicken. Yummy!! Half Moon Cay is considered a natural monument and the island is maintained by the Belize Audubon Society. There is a small entrance fee to enjoy the dock, picnic tables, marked trails, and boobie observation deck. Turneffe Atoll is the closest of three Atoll to Belize. Half Moon Caye is located on the southeast corner of Lighthouse Reef Atoll, the furthest from Belize of the three atolls. With about 4,000 breeding birds, it is the only known breeding colony of the red-footed booby.
After lunch we took the trail to the observation platform to see the nesting area of the boobies and frigate birds. Along the way we spotted several of the lizard species common to the Cay. There was also the “cool tree” what felt wonderful to the touch. Research is done on the Cay and housing for those individuals and (yea) bathrooms for us were spotted on our walkabout. It was a lovely spot for a picnic. Dive Mom had her eye on the hammock.
Donna somehow twisted her “bad” knee on the picnic bench, so she was out for the day (and perhaps the rest of the trip). We carefully helped her aboard the Ms. Ellie. So glad she got to enjoy the Blue Hole and the Half Moon Cay Wall dive (aka the Donna Jean dive) before the accident.
Final dive for the day was the Chimney at Half Moon Cay. Natasha is in heaven with all the pass-throughs. We started with the perfect one, the Chimney for which the site gets its name. Straight down and then up and out at 86 ft. It was deeper than we should have gone today, but we did it as a bounce dive ascending quickly when we came out of the reef. There was another zig-zag pass-through with a barracuda at the turn. Hello!
A large black grouper followed us around the reef. In the grassy area, we found a large turtle just munching away. Rocky is a sucker for turtles and he enjoyed touching and petting it (at the dive master’s direction). There was a remora underneath and when he came out and swam around the shell on the turtle’s back, the turtle tried to swat it away. Stay below if you want to hang out.
Lots of rays, some buried in the sand and others in that beautiful graceful glide. We even saw two tarpon on our safety stop. What a perfect dive and a fabulous day. I love being a diver.
About the photographer: You’ll notice that the underwater photography is credited to Bill Fuqua, a member of our OVI group. Bill and his wife Debbie (an amazing diver herself; she reached 300 open water dives on the first dive of this trip) wear these really cool masks that cover much more of their face than the standard mask and provide greater visibility. They can also talk to one another underwater!! He has a pretty cool camera too. Yes, Bill has special equipment, but the wonderful shots you see are the result of his sharp eye and amazing photography skills. You can find more of Bill’s underwater photography on his facebook page.