Ducking and Diving

(27 July)
A couple of weekends ago after meeting up with Mr. S. at Crooked Tree, and negotiating to take on the little house, we decided to try out some snorkeling on the barrier reef the next day before we were committed to spending each weekend at CT for the next month at least. (I am a bit behind with this – out of sequence!)

The most northerly part of the barrier reef lies very close to the island of San Pedro, which if you look at a map you can see is actually really close to the main land of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. As you move further down the Belizean coast, the reef and the atolls and cayes are further from the mainland. This means that the more developed touristy bits are to the north, close to human habitation, and the marine reserves and more remote cayes are further away from the coast to the south and east. Since both Conor and I have the self-deceptive trait of not identifying as tourists as we travel around (!) we have decided that we are not even going to try San Pedro. So it was back to the Caye Caulker Water Taxi Terminal on Sunday morning, aiming for Caye Caulker, which is a little further south than San Pedro, and yet still with the barrier reef not so very far off shore as to make snorkeling expensive.

We arrived at 10am, and wandered down the lane, looking at what was on offer. At 10.30, there was a boat to the reef, 3 stops, and one with sting rays. The man behind the counter rang to see if we were too late or if it were full, and we got the OK. He fitted us out with flippers and snorkels, and we wandered out to meet Harry. Harry was a delight. Very athletic, with a good male version of the interesting hair I was writing about earlier! Most if it is in tight twists about 3 inches long, with the bottom 2 centimeters of his hair line cut short. The last half centimeter of each twist is died blond, and the effect is very stylish!

Harry has a great job! He takes folk like us out each morning and afternoon in a small motor craft equipped with an essential sun canopy, and guides them through the corals, pointing out the wild life. What a joy. He led about 12 of us onto the boat with an exclamatory “It is far too hot today to do anything but go in the sea” – and than motored towards the line of gentle surf we have been able to see breaking on the horizon everywhere we looked at the Caribbean from Belize. When in Belize City it is way out on the far horizon, white surf with the occasional palm tree or two sticking up. Here at Caye Caulker we joined about 4 other similar crafts moored on the lee side of the reef within about seven minutes. The white sand and clear sea were inviting, especially as the heat grew more intense. The 12 of us were a mixed bunch. Conor and I were the oldest there, with two other couples in their forties, all properly equipped for the task. They had diving boots, underwater cameras, harpoons, and the rest. The others were young back-packers and holiday makers. One Flemish couple had just arrived from Cancun in the Yucatan, and were on their way to Honduras.  When we were asked during one break whether we were on holiday too, and explained we lived here, we got some surprised glances from the younger ones. I mentioned the term ‘grey gap year’, and there was some laughter!

Harry secured the boat to a small buoy, checked whether everyone could swim, and whether anyone needed a life jacket. This was followed by a little homily about ecology: the rules for snorkeling and diving are no touching, no breaking, no standing. He then asked if everyone could snorkel. Conor has had difficulty trusting the snorkel in the past – his chronic rhinitis has led him to panic in the water, and he has had to re-educate himself to trust he can breathe each time we have had a snorkeling episode over the last few years. But he has always got there. So we kept quiet and hoped he would be OK this time too. Harry encouraged us to put our gear on and go overboard. We all lathered ourselves in sun protection, and some folk also wore tee shirts and baseball caps with a neck guard too.

As usual the warm sea was a joy to be in. We swam around the boat as folk gathered, and then he told us to follow him. I lingered, waiting to see how Conor would do, and after a minute or two of spluttering, he said that he would stay around the boat for this leg, just getting more confident again before swimming out a bit. Reluctantly I left him behind, but also sensed it was the right decision.

The shoal of large flippery fish followed our guide through the underwater garden of the coral reef. Harry would point something out – sea urchin, species of fish, type of coral, and then surface and call its name. One can hear quite well when snorkeling like that. The varieties were astonishing. Elks head corals, delicate fan coral, some corals with the most intricate, repeating patterns as if off a Byzantine temple or an Islamic mosque, with corals of every colour imaginable. Harry would suddenly dive down, then come up with something for us to hold and pass round to one another: a pink – and harmless – sea urchin; a spiny black star fish; or a sea grape, which is an algae. There were myriads of fish – big ones, small ones, solitary fish and fish in clusters. One tiny fish massed in clouds, and looked like a swarm of Scottish midges on a damp day. They were called something like thousands! The corals are full of nooks and crannies, and as you hover and watch more and more fish reveal themselves to you with a flutter of a fin here or flash of colour there.

Some were familiar after Gemma’s exploits with tropical fish tanks in her childhood, and some more mysterious, but a fish shyly coming round a corner on a coral reef is vastly different to peering through the murky sides of an algae-stained fish tank on a damp Scottish day! It is truly a world of its own, and just as the bejewelled damsel flies and dragonflies danced through the air in the creek, so too, the shimmering colourful scales of the fish did not fail to entrance.

At one point, Harry pointed to a large fish in the distance, and said “Barracuda”. I kept my distance from the pale silver form, about 3 feet long and with sharp teeth, eyeing us up from quite near the surface of the water.  Fortunately it seemed as wary of us as I was of it!

Eventually we made our way back to Conor and the boat. He was looking a lot happier, and ready to join in the next lap. Up the steps we trooped, and Harry very kindly made a supportive comment to Conor about being terrified in the air but confident in the sea. Conor decided he was too old to be embarrassed about lack of competence in snorkeling! We cast off from the mooring, and moved further down the reef for a few minutes. Here the sand was flat and the sea shallow, no obvious coral around. Suddenly Harry began throwing pieces of fish into the sea that he had been chopping with a machete (pronounced ‘mashet’ here, and everyone carries them like one would a pen knife at home). Within seconds, there were about 10 sting rays swimming very fast around the boat. Apparently some years ago, the fishermen used to clean their catch in this area, and the sting rays learned to go to the boats. As tourism grew, it was useful to keep the practice up! Harry got into the waist-high water, and was happily holding the rays, encouraging us to, too. Again I was a wimp and kept my distance! Nevertheless they were swimming fast around and between all of our legs. I could see that he was completely confident in handling the fish, and they did not seem to be disturbed. The rays’ bodies are fairly thin, and are like one enormous roast plate of rippling muscle. The back bone is very strong, extending through its whole body, the large and sharp three inch sting protruding out about 2/3 of the tail’s length. The round mouth is on the underside, and by feeding one a piece of fish still held in his hand, Harry held a ray up to show us that it really was not dangerous. He was hugely cynical about Steve Irwin who was killed by a ray, claiming that the man just did not know how to handle them. The only time they would be likely to attack under normal circumstances was if you were to tread on one when it was basking in the sand. (Conor said later that Steve Irwin was notoriously a bit gung-ho about wild creatures, so maybe the animal kingdom had a lesson to teach him.)

Encouraging us to stay in the water for a bit longer, playing with them, Harry climbed aboard and did some more chopping. He suddenly pointed just beyond the rays and said that there was a large barracuda – about 6 or 7 feet long – coming for a feed too. That was enough for me and as fast as decorum would have it I clambered aboard! In dribs and drabs, others came up for the relief of the canopy, and also to enjoy the fruits that we discovered that Harry had been chopping for us. As we were eating I asked Harry if he thought the barracuda were dangerous. He said that they would generally leave you alone, unless you were swimming towards a part of the coral where they were trapped, or where they had young. Then they would come for you. I told the boat how a friend of my parents had been bitten on the leg by a barracuda, and then died of a heart attack. A ripple of laughter went round!

It was at this stage that some of us began to realise that Harry’s words about it being a hot day were accurate, and despite our protective unguents, various lobsters were proving to be aboard too. Shaded, fruited, and watered, we moved on to our third and final stop. This was closer to the reef again but not such deep water as the first dive. This was a free swim, and after being reminded again not to touch, break or stand on the reef, we set off. Conor was perfectly happy now, ducking and diving with the best of us, and we spent a most enjoyable forty five minutes gazing down at the world beneath us.

It was a very contented crew that was dropped back at the jetty two and a half hours later. We made our way over to a little café for some lunch, and began to meander up to the swimming place at the top of the island. I was beginning to be more acutely aware that the whole of my back and neck, upper arms, and unbelievably, also my upper thighs despite being underwater most of the time, had actually had quite a roasting. As we passed one woman on a stall, she stretched her limbs and exclaimed about how oppressive the heat was that day. And as we approached the swimming area, Conor declared that he thought he had some sun stroke, and sat propped up under the shade of a palm tree. I had a short swim, but also felt that probably enough was enough. I reflected that because there had not been much rain recently, it was less humid, and I had been mistaking having more energy as being less hot – wrongly! It was blisteringly hot and very dry – what the locals call ‘hurricane fuel’. We enjoyed the laziness of the palm tree, and then made our way back to the water taxi, Conor still feeling a little wan but not too bad.

The following day we were acutely aware of our intense pink bits, parts of my thighs I am not usually aware of at all. Conor felt a lot better after a sleep and lots of water, but when I got into work, I discovered that another volunteer on his second weekend here had also been at Caye Caulker for the whole weekend. He had been a bit blasé about the need for sun protection, thinking that he never burned, and ended up with a very severe dose of sun stroke on Saturday night: fever, sickness, headaches, the works. He looked a terrible brown /red colour on Monday morning, and was so sore that he could not bend down or move quickly for three days. It was horrible to witness how badly he was burnt, the effects of which lasted a good week.