Friday, July 22, 2016

Diving Lighthouse Lagoon and Ambergris Caye in Belize

My logged dives 1462-1477

Bobbi and I needed a break - from work the month of July to visit family in Katy, Texas - and from family to pop down to Belize for a week of diving on the Barrier Reef there, something you do because you can :-) 

We arrived in Belize July 15, 2016 and dived the next 6 days. Our last dive was on July 20.

Bobbi had found a dive shop there using Trip Advisor that had no derogatory reviews. It was called Belize Pro Dive Center and the manager Emeliano promptly replied to every email we sent and answered all our questions scattered throughout each mail, and often that's the shop that gets our business, because when you're planning a trip on short notice, timely information is critical. Emeliano even replied the evening when we booked a Blue Hole trip our second day there and canceled diving with Belize Pro Dive Center that day. He said no problem, and assured us we'd get a pick up at our hotel the following morning.

Belize is known for its nurse sharks, which are everywhere on the parts of the barrier reef where we were taken. Belize is starting to be infested by lion fish, which dive centers in the Caribbean are trying to control by culling them. Consequently, divemasters sometimes carry spears and when they spear a lion fish, they feed it to the nurse sharks, which delights tourists almost as much as it does the nurse sharks. It also encourages the nurse sharks to associate people with food so they follow divers around, and come quite close to them. The dive guides model how to pet them, and many divers find them cute and irresistible. Indeed they seem to enjoy contact with humans, as you can see in the video of our dive at Esmeralda Canyons. One of the nurse sharks cuddles up with dive guide Bernie's fins, and you can see Bernie instructing me to pet only the top side, not the bottom, because they might bite if they think you are feeding them.

Here is a list of dives we did. I'll upload the videos as I get around to them

Friday July 15

Borderline, my 1462nd logged dive

So named because it was the last dive site on the border of the Hol Chan game park, this is where we got introduced to and first petted nurse sharks, diving with Giovanni, whose moniker Gio was etched in ersatz diamonds on his dive suit.

B and D, my 1463rd logged dive

We saw dolphins here, making this the most phenomenal dive of the week, and my camera was out of charge, diving with Gio. However, we managed to make contact with another diver in an adjacent group who sent us this video. You can hear the dolphins clearly and see how they were chasing the hapless sharks around. They paused to check out the divers, then went on their way. The video is courtesy of Eric Teplitz, a young veterinary student at Cornell who was diving from the same boat we were with his brother. You can see them in some of the other videos we have posted on this page.

Saturday July 16, Lighthouse Lagoon with Aqua Scuba, diving with Juan

Blue Hole, my 1464th logged dive

We didn't know how else to get there, so we booked a dive to Lighthouse Reef Atoll with Aqua Scuba Center, on the beach in San Pedro. It was about a 3 hour boat ride with Aqua Scuba to Caulker Caye to pick up more divers and then travel on twin inboard engines to the atoll.

This would be a rite of passage for many of the open water and newly advanced divers among the two dozen entering the water on each of our dives. At the end of this dive my computer showed 41.2 meters, but vis was poor and there wasn't much to see until the safety stop.  Apart from that, the hole was just that, green water down to some over-rated stalactites and stalagmites, nothing special,
On YouTube,

Bobbi and I are in our late 60s, but we dive and jog regularly and keep ourselves fit and tuned for scuba. My air consumption is not bad and Bobbi's is negligible. There were a pair of older couples on board, the ladies quite obese and clearly not fit, and I'm always concerned the dive crew will try to logically group us together. However, they weren't so organized. They made an attempt to say this divemaster would go in first with these people (point, point, point) and that one would take the ones over there (I think it was 3 groups of 7) but in the end it got kind of mixed around. There was one divemaster named Juan who said he'd take whoever would swim over to him, and there were 5 or 6 young people in his group, so we stuck by him and all descended together. For the second dive we made sure we kept that grouping, which was quite compatible for all concerned, and by the third dive, the groups were set.

There's not much concern with air in Belize. We were almost shocked our first day when our dives with Belize Pro Dive Center were called at 40 minutes, each of us with half tanks remaining. Apart from the Blue Hole, the dives were usually to about 25 meters, whatever that is in feet, around 80 I think. Even the heaviest breathers could usually make it 40 minutes with 50 bar left in the tank, so 40 min was the standard dive time there, 45 minutes once the divemasters got to know us, or even 50 with a safety stop, but never more than that. We got used to it, but we would have preferred longer dives.

We are fortunate where we dive regularly in UAE and Oman that we can dive unguided as long as we like as long as we're back on the surface in an hour or so before they think to declare an emergency and come searching for us. The problem with resort diving is that the best dive centers are extremely safety conscious, they can't possibly know their customers, and most of the divers they get need to be monitored, and expect to be. We understand how in the interest of safety for all they have to cater to unskilled divers. That's good if you dive infrequently on holiday and not confident of your skills. If that's you, you're in excellent hands with Belize Pro Dive Center.

Half Moon Wall, my 1465th logged dive

The video shows our best dive of the day at Half Moon Wall, Lighthouse Reef Atoll, Belize. It features a reef shark and eagle ray in one memorable tableau. I got close to a lone black barracuda, and got close to a feather-tail ray in a field of garden eels. We were stalked by a friendly, or perhaps opportunistic, grouper throughout the dive. On YouTube at

Aquarium, my 1466th logged dive

This video shows our last dive on a long day out at the Aquarium, Lighthouse Reef Atoll, Belize, It wasn't a particularly exciting dive, but we saw a turtle, a moray, and lots of fish at the mooring at the end of the dive (presumably, the aquarium). On YouTube,

Sunday July 17, back on Ambergris Caye

Ramon's Canyon, my 1467th logged dive

led by Dimas, whom I liked to call DiMonster, lots of nurse sharks,

Paradise Canyons, my 1468th logged dive

diving with Gio, link on YouTube,

This dive seems to have had a preponderance of nurse sharks, yielding interesting videography, like watching carp in a Japanese garden pool. We ended with a remora joining us on our safety stop.

Hol Chan Marine Reserve, my 1469th logged dive
and Zone D shark feeding (snorkeling) with Santiago

One of the set 'tours' on Ambergris Caye is the 'combo' dive in Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which is mainly a snorkel trip for non-scuba day trippers, combined with a shark feed experience. As a dive Hol Chan is restrictive and subdued compared to deeper dives on the barrier reef, but it still presents some mellow fish tableaux and the occasional turtle (here a loggerhead and a hawksbill). I tried to capture the flavor in these videos, including the snorkelers hovering overhead, on YouTube

Chumming produces a shark and ray feeding frenzy in Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Zone D, Belize, Sunday July 17, 2016. We snorkel in amidst the scrum in the chum,

Our guide Santiago explained that the shark feeding spot was a traditional one, where fishermen often went to clean their catch, attracting dense balls of thrashing nurse sharks. Now the tourist industry was emulating the process by chumming the water while tourists don snorkels and join the fray. The result is photogenic.

One of the delights of the trip was the constant banter kept up by Santiago, our dive guide. Pulling up to Hol Chan and parking near a dozen other boats, he told us this was his secret site (it was funny at the time). He told the ladies not to worry (these were MAN eating sharks). He liked to tell people to roll over backwards on the count of three, and then he'd say THREE, and topple them in the water. He had us thinking that Victoria Canyons was called Victoria's Secret until we went there a second time and learned better.

Monday July 18

Tackle Box Canyons, my 1470th logged dive

This dive began with Luiz leading into the canyons but Bobbi and I went up to the reef top to see what the nurse sharks were up to. It appeared someone was feeding them because they were running riot up there. Gio said they chum there to attract Caribbean reef sharks. We saw one of those on our dive but too distant to get on video. Apart from that, we saw more nurse sharks, and were dogged by a disoriented ramora on our ascent, diving with Luiz,

Victoria Canyons, my 1471st logged dive

On this day we were diving with a new family, with Luiz, who took some time to help the ladies with their buoyancy. While he was distracted and I was bored, I noticed an eagle ray skimming a nearby reef top. My air went down from just below 3000 to 2000 by the time I'd recovered my breathing, but I did get the video when the ray slowed down so I could catch up, video above and on YouTube at:

Tuesday July 19

Tackle Box again, my 1472nd logged dive

Touching encounters with nurse sharks on our second visit to Tackle Box, Ambergris Caye, Belize, Tuesday July 19, 2016,

Tuffy Canyon, my 1473rd logged dive

Also called Toffee Canyons on this map,
We saw an eagle ray close up, with Orlando, posted here and on YouTube:

Esmeralda Canyon, my 1474th logged dive

diving with Bernie, video link

Bobbi and I did this as an afternoon 3rd dive of the day and were accompanied by among others a father and his young son. You can see that it's an entertainment dive, with divemaster Bernie finding a mantis shrimp and enlarging its hole so we can see it better, and uncovering a sea biscuit for us. One interesting insight into the culture here is evident in the small nurse shark that followed us around and lay in the sand at our fins when the focus of the divers was on other things, such as the damsel fish in one segment. A highlight of this dive was an eagle ray that reared up off the reef and made a graceful exit with me chasing after it.

Wednesday July 20

Cypress Tunnel, my 1475th logged dive

The tunnel was a long swim through about 20 meters, diving with Gio. There are just a few shots here from Cypress Canyons, where a cowboy diver who can be seen in the video grabbing the nurse sharks, dove too deep, and ruined everyone's dive by letting his young son go into deco (I don't know how old the kid was, but depth limit for junior advanced divers is 21 meters, and they were down at 30, where his kid was actively chasing after the sharks as they passed by). The two of them can be seen in the videos of our dive to Esmeralda the day before.

Video segments after that are from D and B Canyons.

D and B, my 1476th logged dive

at Bobbi's request, tiny turtle, again with Gio
Both these dives are in one video,

Victoria Canyons again, my 1477th logged dive

This was our 3rd trip to Victoria Canyons - where again DiMonster led deep. Bobbi and I skimmed the reef tops, and we saw the eagle ray there up close. Then I chased a lone barracuda through an amusement park ride swim-thru, and experienced a touching nurse shark farewell (bye nurse sharks, sniff sniff - see you next time) led by Luiz,

Thursday July 21

boat back to Belize City and American Airlines on up to Houston

Getting there and hanging out

Briefly, about logistics, we landed in Belize on an American Airlines flight, less that $700 round trip the two of us (but we had to fly to Dallas from Houston and on to Belize from there, a hassle, but $300 off the direct flights from Houston). In Belize Emeliano had assured us we could hop a plane to San Pedro, lots going, or if we were lucky, we might make the 5:30 pm express boat. We got our bags through customs fairly quickly and were on the curbside at the airport just after 4:30, but big surprise, no taxis.  The friendly Belize guy who organized cabs (they call everyone 'guys' in Belize) assured us one would come soon and we were next in line for a cab, after one lady waiting, so we gave him $25 and waited our turn. A big crowd rushed the first cab which came at a quarter till 5, the friendly cab 'guy' had a good heart but little control, so the next in line and Bobbi and I managed to board the 3rd cab though we'd paid collectively $50 for it. To boot, a young lady joined us without paying anyone. The driver shrugged and off we went for the harbor, arriving just in time for the boat. Normally they go to Caye Caulker and then to San Pedro but this one went directly to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye and arrived around sunset. A friendly cab guy approached us there and offered to take us to our hotel south of town for $10, but that was Belize dollars, so it was $5 US, and that turns out to be the standard price so no rip offs, a pretty straightforward transfer to airport to hotel a boat ride away.

About the hotel, it was called Caribbean Villas and the office closed at 7 pm which was before we arrived, but the security guard was found. He had been informed we were coming and took us to the second room back from the beach on the ground floor. The room was nice and cool, had a safe and fridge, cable TV and wifi barely working on the lanai. We had a beer at the bar, got walking directions to a good restaurant up the beach (lobster salad, yum) and walked home only to notice that the hotel was a 4 story wooden structure and people on the upper floors clomped about at all hours. So next day we scored an upper floor room, 4A, the first room nearest the beach on the topmost floor. Now WE made all the noise clomping about to use the toilet in the middle of the night. The view was lovely, it was much quieter (for us), and the wifi worked fine in our room up there. Not only that but the staff went out of their way to replace the false king with a crack in the middle with a real king bed from elsewhere in the hotel. We had booked three nights there in advance but this won us over and we ended up staying there the whole time. The only thing I noticed was this was an obviously flammable wooden structure yet there were no fire escapes. I didn't mention this to Bobbi. Anyway, a hurricane was more likely than a fire.

The best restaurant in San Pedro to our tastes was Waraguma on Middle Street downtown. Emiliano recommended it as a great place to get lobster burrito, which was $27 belize (US $13.50) and had a whole lobster tail lying upside a burrito itself stuffed with lobster chunks. It was too filling though so the next time we went there (yep, a return trip) we had the two lobster tails grilled for $45 Belizian, which Bobbi and I shared. Ladies working there had grills going and were making papusas stuffed with chicken, pork, or almost any kind of seafood, or combinations ($10 belizian for the latter, the most expensive). We also tried Hidden Treasure, Rain over the bridge in the north caye, El Fogon and Elvi's kitchen. All were good but twice the price of the exquisite simplicity and wholesome goodness of Waraguma.

According to Trip Advisor the best place to eat on the caye is Robin's Kitchen just across the street from Rico's and our dive center. This is a good place to go if you are out biking and want to stop and eat at tables on the sand, no frills whatsoever (and byob). The lady in the shack there produced good down home Jamaica Jack Chicken which was tasty and cheap, but when I went to pay I noticed a big cockroach on the wall over the preparation area, so I'm not sure if I would rate it best on the peninsula. Worth a try, but not the best.