By STEPHEN RIPLEY, MANAGING EDITOR http://winnipegsun.com/SundayFocus/2006/02/19/1450781-sun.html
TURNEFFE ATOLL, Belize -- One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish ... 35 years after I first read those words, I finally understand what Dr. Seuss was getting at.
I'm floating face-down in the Caribbean Sea, transfixed by the kaleidoscope of colour and motion exploding before my eyes. A school of yellow-and-black porkfish to my left, a half-dozen deep-blue angelfish to my right, and pair of pink squirrelfish right in front of me, their huge black-rimmed eyes staring at the sunburned, begoggled intruder.
It's my first time snorkeling and I couldn't have chosen a better place. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second-longest coral reef in the world, and it's a lot easier and cheaper to get to than its more famous cousin in Australia. It hugs almost the entire 300-km length of the Belizean coastline, from Ambergris Caye in the north to Punta Gorda in the south. I'm floating smack-dab in the middle, at Blackbird Caye resort on the southernmost tip of a group of coral islands known collectively as Turneffe Atoll.
Most of the other guests at Blackbird this week have gone scuba diving today, leaving me, an American couple named Edie and Christian, and our guide Cristobal to explore the shallows. Behind the wheel of one of Blackbird's dive boats, Cristobal speeds us to one of his favourite spots and weighs anchor, being careful to do so on a sandy spot away from the fragile coral heads.
It takes me 15 minutes or so to get the hang of my rental mask, snorkel and flippers, but after that it's smooth sailing. Smacking his fist against his open palm, Cristobal gets our attention in the water, pointing out such hard-to-spot wonders as a lobster under a rock, a flat flounder with both eyes on the same side of its body poking out of the sand, and an orange, metre-long tiger tail sea cucumber which retracts into the coral when disturbed.
Coral reef ethics dictate a "look, but don't touch" policy, which Cristobal explains to me after I foolishly try to touch a small electric ray buried in the sand. It only packs a whallop of 17-35 volts, but I'm told it's the amps, not the volts, which can hurt you. Besides, between sharp coral, stinging anemones and the beautiful but dangerous fire coral, I learn it's a good idea to keep my hands to myself.
I don't need to be reminded the next morning when a curious barracuda swims within a few metres of me. Unlike many of the smaller, more skittish, reef dwellers, the barracuda is a bold predator which seems to have no fear of divers. Sure enough, this metre-long beast, with rows of sharp teeth visible in its powerful jaws, follows me around for a minute or so before losing interest.
As exciting as our encounters are, the scuba divers tell of even greater sights when we all reconvene at Blackbird Caye. Under the thatched roof of the main palapa -- where we get together for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day -- guests swap stories of brightly coloured parrotfish, huge sea turtles and majestic eagle rays.
Sipping Belize's ubiquitous Belikin beer and munching plantain chips, Scott Beffort and Scott Cooper, two marketing guys from Toronto, tell me about their encounter with a pod of dolphins. The friendly mammals stayed with the divers for much of the dive, leaving the entire group buzzing when they returned to the resort.
"This is one of the best places I've ever dived," Cooper says, urging me to get certified and give scuba a try. I'm game, but because of my mild asthma, I need a doctor's note before the staff will let me suit up.
Even so, I see my share of marine life during my three days at Blackbird Caye. And in between snorkeling excursions, I enjoy the good life -- kayaking, beach volleyball and just soaking up the sun. Never a big beach resort fan, now I finally understand why people are drawn to places like this.
Now if only someone would explain Go Dog Go to me.
IF YOU GO ...
- On the web: www.blackbirdresort.com, www.travelbelize.org
- There are no direct flights from Canada to Belize. You'll have to connect through Miami, Houston or Charlotte.
- Most travellers don't spend a lot of time in Belize City before heading out to the cayes, the ruins or the jungle. There's a good reason for that. The city of 60,000 can be a fun, bustling place during the day, but it gets a little sketchy at night. Two minutes after leaving my hotel, I was accosted by a panhandler who told me he had just been released from prison and didn't want to go back, so could I please give him some money. I refused and later that night, a shopkeeper down the street was shot and left for dead during a robbery attempt. I blame myself.
- Even so, the people of Belize are generally friendly. And best of all, because the country was founded by British pirates rather than the Spanish, the official language is English, although it's spoken with an often impenetrable Creole lilt.
- Belizean and U.S. dollars are used interchangeably. The exchange rate is fixed at $2 Belize to $1 US.
- Belize protects its local beer industry with high import taxes, which means instead of American suds, you'll end up quaffing the much tastier offerings from Belikin brewery. The bad news? A regular bottle of Belikin contains only 284 mL, while its Litehouse Lager brand holds just 237 mL. For a Canadian-sized thirst, opt instead for Belikin Premium, which holds 350 mL.
- Other staples of the Belizean diet are beans and rice and the locally made Marie Sharp's hot sauce.