BELIZE - NOVEMBER 1-8, 2014

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

(Click here to see "MORNING MORAY" video.)

This qualifies as a “first” trip for us. We had previously been to Belize in the early 1990s but that was not only over 20 years ago, but I didn’t lead the trip for us. So this was definitely my first and you’ve got to figure, like with many other dive areas, things have changed in the last two decades.

We were 13 strong on this adventure: Laurie Kasper, Sue Krauth, Lisa Mercier & Jay Lark, Walt & Susan Crandall, Kiff Crandall & Joy Radecki Crandall, Selo Imrohoroglu, Philip Nicozsis, Mike & Sharol Carter, and me (Ken Kurtis). And our vessel of choice for all of this was the Belize Sun Dancer II (SD2 - which is owned and operated by the Aggressor Fleet).

The short version of this is that it as a very good trip but perhaps not exactly the trip we had all hoped for due to elements out of anyone's control. How much you end up enjoying a dive trip is going to be based on a number of factors: (1) The group of people you're with, (2) the location you go to, (3) the boat or resort you dive with, (4) the conditions, and (5) the overall weather.

Weather is what affected this for us and not in a good way. When we landed in Belize City on November 1, there was a pretty good wind blowing. Wind is never a friend for diving because it can chop up the ocean and stir up the visibility. Unfortunately, the wind not only blew 15-20mph for our first three dive days, but the direction kept changing. And that complicates the choices of dive sites greatly because it meant that one site that was sheltered from the wind in the morning became exposed in the afternoon when the wind shifted. And while the SD2 crew did the best they could to adjust, it eliminated some dive site choices.

For instance, the two famous dive sites in Belize are the Blue Hole (more on that in a bit) and The Elbow. We made it out to the Blue Hole but we never were able to dive The Elbow, although we did dive a nearby site.

But my overall impression - and I really don't think this was wind-related - was that it wasn't as fishy as I'd expected. In general terms, you're diving walls or at least semi-walls. These are not the types of walls that we get in Indonesia where they're fairly vertical. In Belize they have a slope, albeit a steep one, to them. And there are certainly sections that are fairly vertical but there's not really that "wall sensation" of looking straight down and seeing the coral wall fade into the dark blue of the deep ocean.

Now I'll concede that even in Indonesia, you see less fish on the walls than you do on the tops of the walls and in the shallows. But in Indo, the walls are still fairly well-populated. And granted, it's Indo-Pacific which is a very different ecosystem. But there just didn't seem to be all that many fish and even when you got into the shallows, it was better but not as densely populated as other Caribbean areas, like Bonaire.

This isn't to imply that it was bad. It just wasn't what I'd been led to believe it would be from listening to people over the years rave abut the diving in Belize. It was OK, but not spectacular. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being best, I'd give it a 6. For comparison, I'd give Bonaire an 8 and Indonesia a 10. But it was still enjoyable and we still saw cool critters, just not in the proliferation that I'd expected.

Critters we did see on every dive were Lionfish. We certainly didn't see them all the time but I'd say we saw anywhere from one to five on each of the dive sites. I also don't believe for a minute that the Lionfish are responsible for what I perceived as a lack of fishiness. There's no doubt they're voracious predators but by the same token, we watched a few of them stalk prey (usually small fish) and they weren't very successful. On top of that, Lionfish in the Caribbean is not really a new phenomenon although it's only recently that it's been widely talked about. There are areas in Caribbean where Lionfish have been present for 20 years. (I'm not sure how long they've been in Belize.) And you've got to believe that at some point over an extended period of time, a natural balance takes place where either there's not a large enough food source for the Lionfish or some animal starts preying on Lionfish or whatever. And at the risk of sounding like a climate-change-denier, I'm not only not sure that the threat is as grave as it's pitched, but we've now been trying to "control" the Lionfish population for a decade or more with little or no success. So at some point it may be like Kudzu in the south: You can't get rid of it and you learn to live with it.

Weather and less-than-expected numbers of fish notwithstanding, we had a really great trip. And that was due in no small part to the collective efforts and attitude of the crew of the SD2 under the guidance of Captain Eddy Anderson and second captain Megan O'Meara. Both are enthusiastic souls and Megan bills herself as "Chief Enthusiast" and that's an understatement. Normally we'd think of bubbles in diving as being bad but Megan's bubbly enthusiasm is actually quite endearing.

First Mate John Garroway was also a delight to dive with and talk to. Chef Jerry Carcamo, aided by sous chef Carlos Soler and galley assistant Barbara Anderson, delighted us every meal with something wonderful and tempting. (And he was even able to accommodate one of the divers who was a vegan.) Generally there was a continental breakfast (cut up fresh fruit, toast, yogurt, coffee & tea) out at 6AM. Hot breakfast (some form of eggs, pancakes or French toast with sides of bacon) was served at 7AM. We generally dove at 8 and 11AM, and a buffet lunch was served around Noon. Then we'd get in two afternoon dives, a dusk dive at 6PM, and a full sit-down served dinner at 7:30PM. One night we even had an early Thanksgiving with roast turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, and more. And it was all fabulous. I haven't yet polled our group to see how much weight everyone gained during the week but this sure wasn't a Weight Watchers Cruise.

The crew was also quite helpful during the dives, from the moment you stepped on to the dive deck until you finished the dive and headed back to your room. They like to call their service "Fintastic" (Megan's term - no surprise) and it basically means they want you to do as little as you need to for the dive. They were quite happy to help you suit up and when you reached the dive platform at the stern of the boat, they'd have your fins ready for you and would even put them on your feet and tighten up the straps. (As a dinosaur instructor, there are simply a few things I still insist on doing myself and they took this all in good stride and with good humor.) If they could breathe the air for you, I'm sure they'd do that.

During each of the daily dives, there would be at least one dive guide in the water. You were welcome to stay with the guide or dive your own plan. Obviously, if there are any "special friends" around, it's best to stay with the guide to find them but on Wednesday, they went above and beyond on the post-lunch afternoon dive. A few of us were cruising the wall around 80 feet or so when we looked up and saw Captain Eddy frantically motioning us to come up. He had swum over to find us and then led us another 50 yards or so across the shallows to the red seahorse he had found. And then he went off and found other groups of divers to make sure as many people as possible saw it. Now THAT'S fintatsic service.

At the end of the dive, many divers spent their last three minutes on the hang bar of the boat. At this point, the dive guide was usually back and waiting at the surface and would swim down and grab any cameras divers were holding. When you finished your safety stop, you went up one of the two boarding ladders and simply extended your legs backwards as the first then the second of your fins were quickly removed. Plant your feet on the ladder and up you go. You'd be asked your max depth and time (which they recorded for everyone on every dive) and then would move to your gear station to secure your stuff. But it didn't end there.

There were fresh-water showers on both back corners of the deck but they've taken the hot towel service that Aggressor started (but every liveaboard seems to do now) a step further. Not only were the towels embroidered with your station number (so you got the same one each time) but once you'd completed your rinse off, they would insist on draping the towel over you and force you to endure a fabulously relaxing neck massage.

So the Belizean weather may not have been what we hoped for, but the climate on the boat was superb.

We also liked the physical layout of the boat. The main deck was the dive deck (rear 1/3 of the vessel) with everyone having an individual station with plenty of room to don gear and a small basket underneath for loose things like hoods, masks, etc. There were two multi-shelf camera tables and a multi-shelf charging corner with plenty of outlets (plus I also bring power strips). All diving is done directly from the boat so once you geared up, you walked back to the stern area, donned your fins, and made a small stride into the water to begin the dive.

The forward 2/3 of the main deck is where rooms #2-10 are located. #2 & #3 are "master" rooms (queen-sized double bed) and go for a slightly higher rate. The other rooms are "deluxe" and all have twin beds which can be pushed together to form a king. Each stateroom has a large window, TV, bathroom, closet space, and even robes for each passenger.

The hot ticket IMHO is stateroom #1 where Laurie & I were. It was the "Owner’s Suite" when Peter Hughes ran the vessel and is about 30% bigger than the other rooms. But it goes for the same price as a deluxe stateroom. However, it’s below the main deck (about even with the waterline) and only has two small portholes. But if you don't mind that, it definitely got more walking-around room than the others (although the closet space seemed rather minimal).

The second deck of the boat is the social area. There's a semi-open area in the back 1/3 (which is in turn covered by the third deck) with fixed tables and chairs as well as a small bar. Sodas and beer (from a dispenser) were out in the area too, as well as this served as the dive briefing area. Moving forward there's a roomy salon with six tables that easily seated everyone and still left room for workspace for those with computers. There’s a huge TV in here, coffee/tea station, as well as the galley and wheelhouse further forward, but those areas were generally off-limits.

The third deck, which runs the rear 2/3 of the boat, was a sun deck with chaise lounges and a great view of wherever we were. It was also an excellent spot to dry gear at the end of the trip.

Diving conditions were good and occasionally very good, but not spectacular. Visibility generally ranged from 50-80 feet (with a couple of dives in the 100-foot range) but on one dive it was less than 20 feet. Much of this was likely weather-related. Water temps were generally in the low 80s, ranging from 80-85º on my Proplus3 computer. On our first day, the ocean surface was rather choppy to the point that we cancelled the night dive. But even on that day, once you got underwater, there was no surge or chop to speak of. We hit some mild currents over the course of the week but again, nothing too severe.

It's important to understand the layout of Belize to understand the diving. There are basically three areas you hear about: (1) Ambergris Caye (pronounced "key"), (2) Turneffe Atoll, and (3) Lighthouse Reef.

Ambergris is in the northeast corner of Belize and is actually attached to mainland Mexico. There are a number of land-based resorts there and my understanding is that most of the diving they do is local, with an occasional foray to the Blue Hole. We did not go up to this area, which is about 40 miles from Belize City.

Turneffe is a series of small islands, about 30 miles southwest of Belize City. There are a number of sites here, including The Elbow (which we didn't get to), but the jewel is considered to be the sites out at Lighthouse Reef, another 20 miles west and home to the Blue Hole. Lighthouse is a fringing reef with a few small islands, and much more exposed to weather than Turneffe.

Because of the wind, we sat in port Saturday evening (SD2 lists their normal departure time as 6PM Saturday) and instead departed at 4AM Sunday morning for a smoother crossing. We ended up at Turneffe for our first day, diving Black Beauty and Grand Bogue. One thing you notice right away is a pretty good proliferation of tube sponges (mainly yellow and purple), and fairly large barrel sponges. We also found quite regularly over sandy areas, small colonies of Yellowheaded Jawfish. I really like shooting these guys partly because of the challenge and partly because they're cute. They basically hover over the burrow and zip right back in at the first sign of danger. So the trick is to get them comfortable with your presence so they don't feel threatened and will come out. The Holy Grail of Jawfish shots is to find a male brooding eggs in his mouth but I didn't get that lucky this week.

Monday we made it over to Lighthouse Reef and started at Half Moon Caye Wall, which we liked so much we stayed for a third dive. We had some good turtle encounters here, got some really good Garden Eel opportunities, a couple of Eagle Rays, and also ran into free-swimming Green Morays, which you seemed to see almost everywhere.

This was also a spot where there are Sailfin Blennies on the concrete mooring block, both males and females. The males do their name justice by sticking out of the holes and rapidly flashing their sail (dorsal fin) to impress the females. Photographically it's a tough shot to get because it only last a few seconds. But I decided to give that a whirl on one dive and literally sat in front of one (I was shooting macro since they're only about two inches long) for over half an hour. The trick is to pre-focus (or fix the focus and disable autofocus) and hold your shutter button halfway down so that when he comes out and displays, you push and the camera shoots with no shutter lag. It's tricky (but fun) and I shot about 75 frames until I got one I liked.

This was also the spot where we found a large Barracuda getting cleaned which meant you could get fairly close to shoot.

But this was also where we go tour first taste of visibility changes. Normally the SD2 does two dives at site A in the morning, moves during lunch, does two dives at site B in the afternoon, and then usually the dusk or night dive still at site B before moving to an overnight anchorage. But we liked Half Moon so much that we asked to stay for the first post-lunch dive and were very surprised when we all jumped back in and the vis was half of what it had been two hours earlier due to lots of particulate (almost like snow) in the water. We assumed it was due to tidal conditions but it was both interesting and amazing at how it had changed.

Tuesday we started at Uno Coco which we liked a lot. It had a nice wall with big Elephant Ear sponges and lots of tube sponges, as well as plenty of Angelfish and Parrotfish, along with the usual reef creatures. But best of all was a very cooperative Hawksbill Turtle we encountered on the second dive. This guy was calmly munching on sponges while everyone took his picture. He couldn’t have cared less and simply went about his business. We stayed with him and watched mesmerized for about 15 minutes until he meandered off.

Tuesday after lunch we pulled into the appropriately and unfortunately named Sandbox and it lived up to that name. Visibility couldn't have been more than 20 feet and it was a sandy/snowy 20 feet at that. Sort of like our third dive at Half Moon but with worse conditions. In fact conditions were so bad that I only snapped off 20 frames, where normally on a dive I shoot around 125 shots. Needless to say, we moved after the dive. We pulled into Long Caye Wall and liked that much better with a good array of Indigo & Barred Hamlets, Blue Chromis, and many Flamingo Tongues. Plus there was a huge school of Horse-Eye Jacks that formed under the boat and stayed there the entire time we were moored.

On Wednesday we were told the weather was favorable to make it out to the fabled Blue Hole. (Officially, it's known as "The Great Blue Hole.") The winds had calmed, the sun was shining, and it should have set us up for a lovely dive. I will tell you at the outset that I was unimpressed and even a bit disappointed.

The Blue Hole was formed some 150,000 years ago when sea levels were lower. It's essentially a collapsed cave system. When sea levels rose, it flooded. It's pretty much circular, about a thousand feet across, and a little over 400 feet deep. The floor of the Blue Hole (which we did NOT visit just for the record) is actually very slowly rising as sedimentation continues over time. John told us that 50 years ago, it was measured at close to 500 feet deep.

The Blue Hole is surrounded by a fringing reef, which actually makes it a bit tricky to get to because you can easily run a boat the size of the SD2 aground. But Eddy expertly guided us in and tied up to the mooring.

The SD2 crew really runs this dive expertly and wonderfully. John was the lead guide with Megan bringing up the rear. This is the only dive of the trip, due to the depths and potential dangers, that you dive it as a single group and must stay with the guide. The plan was to enter the edge of the hole at about 30 feet, slide down the vertical wall to 100+ feet, and then cut under the wall and continue down to about 130 feet which is where the bottom of the stalactites are, which hang from the ceiling. The total bottom time of the dive, including the descent is 8 minutes. At that point, everyone starts slowly back up, you come up the wall, exit back on to the rim of the hole, do a preliminary 2-minute stop, and then proceed to a formal 3-minute 15-foot safety stop.

Total time for the entire dive is about 30 minutes start to finish. Water temp was about 84º but dropped to 81º inside. But the vis was only about 40 feet and I was told that's fairly typical. It makes sense when you realize you're diving into a closed system with little or no water movement.

My impression prior to the dive was that we'd be diving into gin-clear water and when we got down to the stalactite level, you'd be able to look up and see the rim of the hole and maybe even the boat, and when you looked down into the abyss, you'd see the light fading out into a deep, dark, mysterious blue. That would be cool but that wasn't the case.

You'd look up and, well, it's 40-foot vis. You don't see too far. You'd look down and, well, it's 40-foot vis so you don't see too far. So what you are left looking at is . . . rocks. Long pointy rocks hanging down from a ceiling but rocks nonetheless. Not my idea of a great dive.

And after this experience, you have to wonder why people continue to rave about the Blue Hole. If you like getting narc'd, you don't have to go to the Blue Hole to do it as you can achieve those depths at most Belize dive sites. The only thing I can come up with is that it's like a diver's rite of passage, that people aren't that jazzed about it afterwards, and that there's a feeling of "If I had to suffer through this, so should others." Let me put it this way: Having done it, I wouldn't do the dive again. And if you go to Belize and don't make it out to Blue Hole, I don't think you're missing much except for a check mark on your diving bucket list.

After the Blue Hole, you actually skip (at least on SD2) the late morning dive as they check in at the ranger station on Half Moon Caye which also gives everyone a chance to walk around (and off-gas) to see the Red-Footed Boobies that nest on the island. After lunch, it was time to get wet again and we plopped in at Silver Cave which we liked a lot, especially because of the second seahorse that was spotted there.

Thursday saw us at two of the better sites on the trip. We started the morning at Chain Wall, so named for a long-abandoned anchor chain there. But the real highlight (which we were told of ahead of time) were the two Gray Reef Sharks who make the place home and who come visit and make close passes by divers out on the wall and in the shallows. At no time did anyone feel threatened by these graceful creatures and everyone got a good, close look at them. I'd estimate their length at 7 feet or so. So this is not a small animal and one whose presence you definitely notice.

And I had a great end-of-dive experience just before lunch when I was going back to the boat and noticed a Nassau Grouper just sort of sitting and hanging around on the bottom. I dropped down (he was at about 50 feet) to investigate and he just nuzzled right up next to me. It ended up that he seemed to enjoy looking at his reflection in the camera and being petted (gently) at the same time. Neat experience and only my dwindling air supply made me leave my new dive buddy.

In the afternoon we moved over to Cathedral and that was another lovely (religious???) experience as we quickly discovered a number of swim-throughs that were loaded with schooling Silversides. Great photo op and just fun to swim through as well. Not too surprisingly, there were Tarpon and Jacks and other predators lurking about, hoping to catch a snack.

Our final dive day, Friday, began rather early because we needed to be back in Belize City (a 3-hour run) around 1PM. So we motored back to Turneffe overnight and began the first dive at 6:30AM at Front Porch. Because of the light, I decided to take down my GoPro instead of my Nikon to shoot video and I'm glad I did because this is where "Morning Moray" occurred where a free-swimming Green Moray spotted me and made a beeline for my camera, bumped his nose into the lens, and then backed off and went on his merry way. A link to the short video is posted along with the other pictures. A second dive at Front Porch got us more Jawfish, Pederson’s Shrimp, and other creatures. We had been told there might be Spotted Toadfish there, but we couldn't find any (although two were spotted earlier in the week). Then it was time to bid underwater Belize goodbye for the journey back to the mainland, an overnight stay on the boat, and then an 8AM sendoff to the Belize Airport for the journey home.

All in all, as I've said, it was a good trip. It just wasn't quite the trip we'd expected or hoped for. For me the true test of any trip is answering this question: Would you go back again? And the answer is yes. We may have just hit an off week. And once again I want to point out that the sunny disposition of the crew more than compensated for the lack of sunny weather. So the thought of a better weather week AND that can-do attitude from the SD2 folks makes Belize a place we'll look forward to visiting again soon. Maybe you'll even come with us this time.
 


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