A Portlander conquers her fears as she descends 140 feet into the Blue Hole off the coast of Belize
Sunday, May 02, 2004
All the way to Belize I worried.
Would I pluck up the courage and plunge 140 feet into the ocean on the deepest dive of my life -- or would I panic and miss a chance to experience the Caribbean's legendary Blue Hole?
In a coral atoll off the coast of Belize, this limestone cavern, explored by Jacques Cousteau in 1970, is not about fish -- it's about structure.
Once above ground, the roof of the Blue Hole collapsed thousands of years ago, forming a huge sinkhole. The rim cuts an almost perfect circle about 1,000 feet in diameter, and the hole plunges more than 400 feet down. The cobalt blue water darkens as you descend toward craggy chambers that shoulder massive stalactites. But you have to dive 140 feet to see them, and that worried me.
I'm not a beginner. My husband and I have been going on diving vacations for five years. We've done about 50 dives, mostly in Hawaii, some in Mexico. We've been to 100 feet before -- a requirement for our advanced certifications.
But I have panicked.
Sinking into the blackness on a night dive in Hawaii, I freaked and would have aborted had it not been for the soothing reassurance of our dive master.
Now we were gearing up for an-other adventure, and I wasn't sure I could do it. What if I ran out of air at 140 feet? What if I panicked and couldn't breathe? What if, after traveling so far, I froze and couldn't even stride out of the boat?
I kept my worries to myself as we flew from Portland to Belize, thrilled to be escaping the Northwest's icy gray January for 10 days in the tropical sun. Welcome to paradise
The trip took about 12 hours door to door. We had staggered into PDX in the pre-dawn to catch our 6:15 a.m. flight to Houston. There, we caught another plane to Belize City, where we touched down at about 3:30 p.m. local time. Then we strapped ourselves into a single-propeller Cessna with 15 other people for the last leg from Belize City to Ambergris Caye, the country's biggest island.
The 20-minute puddle jump over the Caribbean took my breath away: Gliding through a clear sky, wings glinting in the sun, we soared over a sea of olive green and turquoise that was swooshing and churning and whipped with white, punctuated by splashes of pink islets formed of coral.
Called British Honduras until 1973, Belize borders the eastern edge of Guatemala and the southern tip of Mexico. It is Central America's smallest country, and, after Australia, it has the longest barrier reef in the world, which runs less than a mile off Ambergris Caye (am-BURR-gris key), a finger of land 25 miles long.
The name stems from ambergris, a musklike secretion from sperm whales used in perfume. Whalers used to find lumps of the stuff on the island's beaches, including one that sold for $30,000 in 1910. But you won't find riches there today, unless there's a sudden rampage for seaweed.
Our plane touched down in San Pedro, a village on the southern tip of the island, and we clambered into moist, warm air that tasted of dust and salt. Before long, we were sipping tropical drinks at BC's, an open-air bar packed with tanned American expatriates. Pelicans swooped in for dinner and a wrinkled Belizean man shuffled by, half-heartedly hawking conch shells. Then our water taxi arrived and off we sped to Captain Morgan's Retreat on the northeast coast of the island.
Unbeknown to us, the resort was featured in the reality show "Temptation Island." It was picked to portray paradise -- a sanctuary of casitas overlooking silky beaches, coconut palms and an emerald sea -- and it was close enough to paradise for me. Our casita, with mahogany floors and wainscoting, included a small but adequate kitchen, an air conditioner (essential), and was just yards from an outdoor pool and bar. We had a gourmet restaurant nearby, miles of beaches to walk and a world-class reef to explore.
Practicing for the Deep Hole
Our first dive -- there would be seven leading up to the Blue Hole -- was set for the next day. A two-man crew met us, along with three other divers, in a small out-board at Captain Morgan's pier at 9 a.m. -- a civilized time to go diving. (In Hawaii, boats often leave at about 7 a.m. because many dive spots are about an hour away.)
It was overcast and the ocean a steel gray as we thundered through swells up to 8 feet high to the other side of the reef, about 10 minutes away.
The crew tied us to a dive buoy, one of scores along the reef. We put on our gear and, one by one, tumbled over the side of the boat into the water.
After renting gear for years, we had decided to invest in our own equipment, a mark of serious divers. We bought top-of-the-line equipment, everything from our buoyancy-control devices, or BCDs, which are jackets that hold your oxygen tank and have air bladders to regulate your buoyancy, to our computers, which calculate depth, bottom time and other information.
All this smart scuba gear -- and when I hit the water, I panicked.
As water seeped into my mask, I started hyperventilating. Fear is a diver's worst enemy. It makes you gasp for air, and when you suck short breaths through a regulator, you don't get much oxygen -- which further inflames your fear.
I swam to the boat, got our dive master Juan to tighten my mask and forced myself to descend by letting the air out of my BCD.
Slipping into the secret world of rainbow-colored fish and spindly sea creatures, I relaxed. A few purple-and-yellow fish flicked past -- tiny fairy basslets -- and two yellowtail snappers rushed over to check us out. They're very curious about divers, following you around like puppy dogs.
We dropped to a sandy bottom about 35 feet down. Three nurse sharks swam over, attracted by sardines Juan had stuffed into his boot. He pulled them out and the sharks snapped for them, battling some pushy groupers that had appeared out of nowhere.
As we drifted into deeper waters, we lost the groupers but the sharks stuck close, obviously hoping for more treats. Nurse sharks are fairly small -- these were about 4 feet long -- and docile, letting us stroke them as they wove around us before swimming off.
We entered a coral canyon about 10 feet across at a site called Cypress Tunnels. I've seen plenty of coral before, and it's never been the main attraction. But the Belize Barrier Reef is lush with violet vase sponges, purple-veined sea fans waving with the current, yellow candelabras and mounds of brain coral etched with labyrinthine patterns.
Tropical fish, of course, have the best makeup artists. Black durgons with turquoise lines radiating from their eyes whipped by, and in the distance we saw a blue fish decked out in chartreuse spots, with eyelids to match. A hawksbill turtle lumbered away as we approached. Then Juan spotted an eel and waved us over.
We hovered overhead as the fat green moray protruded out of a hole, flashing razor-sharp teeth. You don't want to get your fingers anywhere near that mouth. Exploring San Pedro
To get to San Pedro from Captain Morgan's, you can take a water taxi, a bike or rent a golf cart, a popular form of transportation. We chose the latter, which turned out to be an adventure in itself.
I gripped the dash as my husband tried to veer around potholes on the dusty trail. You can't avoid them, so we lurched into town, bouncing past mangrove swamps and cinder-block houses, occasionally spotting an egret.
San Pedro is named after St. Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. It was founded in about 1850 by people of mixed Spanish and Indian blood fleeing Mexico's Caste War. The town used to be a sleepy fishing village -- and you can still buy freshly caught fish on the piers -- but today boats are more likely to be carrying tourists.
Like the rest of Belize, San Pedro is multilingual. Everyone seems to speak English -- it's the country's official language -- along with Spanish and Creole. There are few Garifuna, people of West African and Carib Indian descent, although most Garifuna live on the mainland.
Everyone was friendly and accommodating. As Carlo, the sales manager at our resort, told us, the Belizeans are proud of being laid-back.
Navigating San Pedro is a cinch. It has only three main streets that run parallel to the beach. We parked our golf cart and wandered around, looking for a spot to eat.
Although Ambergris Caye is Belize's most popular tourist destination, San Pedro is not overdeveloped like Cancun or even Cozumel. The airstrip is near the center of town. The narrow unpaved streets are lined with brightly colored buildings no more than three stories high. Tiny shops selling everything from hardware to food to dive gear are tucked among houses and restaurants where tourists --and locals, when they can afford it -- eat.
The restaurants are fairly expensive, with prices comparable to Portland's, but without Portland's quality.
We discovered one place with great food at decent prices. Cocina Caramba doesn't emphasize decor: Formica tables, chairs to match and plastic palm trees. But owner Rene Reyes bubbles with warmth, the fish and seafood are fresh, and the selection is extensive.
After a shrimp burrito and grouper stew, we wandered over to the beach and pulled up chairs at Fido's, a popular restaurant and bar. Food in San Pedro might be expensive, but the drinks are cheap. So we sipped cocktails, watched boats pull in and chatted with other divers, some who had already gone deep into the Blue Hole, others still waiting for the climax of their trip. The Blue Hole
Our day arrived. A man from Amigos del Mar, reputed to run the best Blue Hole trips, picked us up at our pier at 6 a.m. Lights twinkled in the darkness as we sped along the beachfront on a slick sea.
By 7 a.m., we were huddled with 20 other divers on Miss Mel, a 48-foot dive boat that kept us dry during the rocky trip through open seas. The Blue Hole is about 60 miles southeast of San Pedro at Lighthouse Reef. It took us about three hours to get there -- plenty of time to fret.
It looked as if we were heading into a storm, but the crew joked while assembling everyone's gear. After almost a week of diving, I had confidence in my equipment. And I had a safety net. My husband and I had our own dive master, Junior, from Protech, the best dive shop on the island.
So I tried to relax, striking up a conversation with another woman from Portland. Candice was worried, too. She had left her 5-month-old baby girl at home for the first time, and because she wasn't comfortable diving deep, she planned to sit out the Blue Hole. I was relieved knowing that if I opted out, I wouldn't be alone.
At about 11 a.m., we cruised over turquoise water into the Blue Hole, a circle of cobalt blue inside a limestone rim. Several other dive boats had already anchored, and some divers were on their way down. The captain called us around for a briefing. This is a deep dive, he said. We'd drop to 140 feet. We couldn't stay down long, maybe 10 minutes at the bottom, or we'd risk getting decompression illness.
The bends is not the only hazard of diving deep. Past 100 feet, divers risk getting nitrogen narcosis -- a feeling of intoxication that can impair judgment. "Narced" divers have been known to hand their regulators to fish.
"If you get nitrogen narcosis," he said, "ascend a few feet and it will go away."
He divided us into two groups with two dive masters each (three in ours counting Junior). Each group would descend to 45 feet, the dive masters would make sure we were all OK, and then we'd drop to 140.
"If you can dive to 45 feet, you can go to 140," he said.
That was reassuring. I'd been to 45 feet on practically every dive I've ever done. Nothing to it.
So down we went, striding off the boat one by one, letting the air out of our BCDs and descending to a ledge about 40 feet down.
"Are you OK?" Junior asked with his hands. "OK," I responded, making an "O" with my fingers.
I would not turn back now.
We edged lower along a craggy wall toward bluish darkness. I looked up. Light trickled down from the surface as our air bubbles streamed upward in effervescent towers. No fish were in sight. Just a deep blue that went on forever.
The dive master in front gave the sign for sharks and pointed down. Everyone stopped and stared. I saw nothing but the blue.
We kept falling, slowly, softly, quietly. It was as if the world had stopped. I had no idea how deep we were and I didn't want to look at my computer. I felt fine. In fact, I felt better than fine. It was as if I were in a trance, sinking into liquid blue, feeling enveloped, comforted, at home.
We reached 140 feet and leveled off. Massive limestone stalactites, carved over centuries, arched into the deep blue. They looked like pillars of a gothic cathedral, dwarfing us as if we were bugs. We wove through them, finning in single file, looking out at the dark blue.
For several minutes, we drifted through this surreal world; then it was time to come up. Leaving the pillars behind, we drifted slowly toward the light. At about 20 feet, we leveled off for a safety stop, hovering a good eight minutes to let the nitrogen work its way out of our bodies. A school of silvery horse-eye jacks swam by, their yellow tails wagging. I spotted several rainbow-colored parrotfish, too, and in the distance a great barracuda.
The day included two more dives before we began the rollicking ride back to Ambergris Caye. The crew cracked open beers, poured coconut rum drinks and cranked up the volume on music blaring from an old boombox. The sun beat down as we sped across the open sea, joking, drinking and dancing to a reggae beat.
I had reason to dance, my spirit light. I had carried days of worry with me into the Blue Hole, but it had all melted away as I gently fell into the deep. I shed my fear and gained confidence down there at 140 feet, emerging with the satisfaction you feel when you break through one of your own personal weighty barriers.
Lynne Terry http://www.oregonlive.com/travel/oregonian/index.ssf?/base/travel/1083067075140130.xml