Underwater hunting safari in Belize
Add adrenaline to a beach vacation, and save the Belize Barrier Reef, by hunting lionfish.
Framed in scuba bubbles, the author, Josh White, waves during a dive at Turneffe Atoll on the Belize Barrier Reef, part of the world’s second-largest reef system.
A school of shimmering silver jack had just glided by overhead as I crested the reef, where a trio of tall orange sponges rose toward an outcropping of coral and a pair of purple sea fans framed the opening of a dark nook.
My heart raced and my breath quickened, a rush of bubbles streaming upward as I caught sight of my prey. The billowy fins, the showy spikes shooting from its spine, the majestic stripes flowing into the distinctive mane.
It hovered carelessly in the pristine, bath-warm waters, this sea creature of local legend. I raised an arm, stretched a small piece of elastic cord, and sent a spear through the back of its head. Success! Death at 60 feet below the surface. I was now more than just a scuba diver. I was a trained killer.
Diving, in its common form, is a gentle adventure. I've heard many experienced divers liken it to an underwater hike or safari. Thrills come from spotting a rare fish, marveling at a soaring ray or spying a reef shark as it slips by.
The white-sand beaches at Turneffe are lined with palm trees, hibiscus and plumeria.
One of the main tenets of scuba diving is that you are to look and not touch. Leave the ocean and all its inhabitants as you found them. Visit and admire their world, let them live in it. That is, except for the lionfish.
On a recent visit to a stunning atoll about 35 miles east of Belize City, the divemasters — and the national government — all but implored us to kill this magnificent monster. Although the lionfish is a beauty, they'll tell you, it is an invader to the Caribbean Sea, a scourge on the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world.
The lionfish — native to the Pacific Ocean and believed to have been introduced to the Atlantic when a beachside aquarium in Florida broke during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 — has no natural predators here. It reproduces often and in great number. It eats its weight in local juvenile fish every day or two. It has a bevy of venom-laced triangular-tipped spikes that keep larger fish away. And it is slowly destroying the natural balance that keeps the reef vibrant. Posters in the dive shack say it is "wanted dead or alive," and the government has at times offered a bounty.
The reef is filled with aquatic life, including this feather star.
So on dives that normally would have been tranquil meanderings gazing at coral or staring at flamingo tongue snails, many of us carried spears and searched the reef for lionfish. Kill them, kill them all.
A private island
The lionfish hunts added adrenaline and intrigue to a journey that probably didn't need it; these islands off the coast of Belize offer some of the most interesting diving, nature and oceanscapes imaginable. The trip was the first my wife, Nikki, and I have made to Central America, with the promise of a dive haven. It didn't disappoint.
Nikki had wanted to travel abroad for her 40th birthday, and she had some requirements: The destination had to be tropical, scuba diving had to be on the menu, and we had to leave the kids at home. Nikki wanted to try a live-aboard boat, something that I feared because, well, what if you get stuck with a whole group of people you don't like? Even a big boat could get very small very quickly.
Instead, we lucked into Turneffe Island Resort, a 14-acre private island that sits at the southern end of the atoll. It is, in many ways, like a live-aboard boat: It can host about 40 guests at a time from Saturday to Saturday, all the meals are served family-style, there's a bar by the pool and a limited number of activities. Which is to say, if you don't dive, fish or kayak, you'd better be prepared for a lot of lounging around. (Not such a bad thing, really.)
After arriving at Belize City's airport, we met up with a boat that took us directly out into the ocean. The 90-minute ride took us past slim barrier islands dotted with fishing shacks and then through dense mangroves. On the other side: Turneffe.
The resort advertises itself as a private island, and it turns out to be exactly what you imagine celebrities get when they vacation on their "private islands." White-sand beaches, 80-degree azure ocean, more staff than guests, postcard views in every direction, and of course, privacy.
Our "room" was a stand-alone villa on the beach a few hundred feet from the waves lapping up on the sand. A screened-in front porch (vital at night because of mosquitoes) opened to a polished mahogany living area with high ceilings and a four-poster king bed.
Missing was a television: There are no TVs on the island, nor are there telephones. If you haven't gone a week without television — and I hadn't in a very long time — it is liberating. There is, however, Wi-Fi.
One of our favorite perks: predawn coffee service brought to our porch, allowing us to sip fresh Belizean brew as the sun began to ease over the atoll.
The beach in front of our villa was dotted with manicured palm trees and hibiscus and plumeria; the sand was neatly combed every morning and, seemingly by magic, had perfect ridges again when we returned at night. A dock and breakwater jutted out into the ocean, where a blissful breeze cooled a thatched gazebo with two chaise longues; it was there that I rediscovered napping in the lazy afternoons.
But Turneffe is primarily a dive and fishing resort. Mornings started early with a breakfast in the main lodge at 7:30 before the boats pushed off for dive sites promptly at 8:15. On most days, there were two dives in the morning and one dive in the afternoon. In all, we did 15 dives from Sunday to Friday.
The diving mostly took place about five minutes from the resort, meaning no long nausea-inducing boat rides. We would push off from the docks and almost immediately need to be in our gear.
Burley Bradford Garbutt, 46 — he goes by Brad — led us to sites with such names as "Three Amigos" and "The Zoo" and "Fabian's Roost." His hourlong tours were filled with spotted toadfish and free-swimming eels, goliath grouper and rainbow parrotfish, stingrays and eagle rays and occasional cruise-bys from the majestic hawksbill turtle.
Brad, a Belizean native who used to be a commercial fisherman, has gone on thousands of dives here. He started each of ours with a cheery "Let's see what nature has in store for us" and would gleefully tap on his tank underwater — tink, tink, tink, tink — to alert us to the underwater treasures he found hiding in crags and holes and among the sponges.
One dive site, the "Wreck of the Sayonara," was around the scant remains of a dive boat that used to run off Turneffe decades ago. Its captain was Brad's father.
A visit to the atoll must include a day trip to the Great Blue Hole, a national monument and international treasure that is like no other dive site. It is, quite literally, a hole in the ocean floor. Formed as a glacial cave more than 100,000 years ago, it ultimately collapsed under the weight of the rising ocean, forming a perfectly round sinkhole nearly 1,000 feet across and more than 400 feet deep. Seen from above, it has a midnight blue far more intense than the shallow waters around it. At about 120 feet down a sheer wall you find an amazing array of ancient stalactites — proof that this was once long ago dry land. "They still get me," Brad said.
And next to the Blue Hole, on Half Moon Caye, is a nature preserve that would have commanded Darwin's attention. In addition to being home to massive iguanas and hermit crabs, the small island is rife with red-footed boobies and soaring frigate birds, with a (searing hot) stand amid the trees that puts you eye-to-eye with the birds as they nest.
Back at Turneffe, the resort also offers a night dive, perhaps the most awe-inspiring hour of the whole visit. Though daunting to slip into darkness, the ocean is perhaps more alive under the moon than in the light of day.
Wave a hand through the water, and sparks fly: Small bioluminescent creatures evoke embers from a campfire. Handheld flashlights revealed octopus wandering along the coral (one turned shock-white and inked at another diver before going orange and shooting away) and lobsters ambling through the sand. We even caught a glimpse of a decorator crab, which sticks coral and shells and small animals to itself as camouflage.
Taste of victory
A stay at Turneffe is not roughing it, and that's reflected in high-end prices, service and accommodations. But you do get what you pay for. Staff members learned and remembered our names, and the food — fresh snapper, grilled pork loin, traditional Belizean rice and beans in coconut milk, seviche — was tremendous.
For those seeking a vacation with shopping and nightlife, this definitely is not the right place. You're on an island far from civilization. After dinner, we shared the bar/pool area with other guests, including a fun-loving group of anesthesiologists from Galveston, Texas, a honeymooning couple from Austria and a husband-wife team of travel agents from San Diego.
We spent those evenings with George Cocom, 41, a bartender who has been working on Turneffe for nine years. In addition to serving drinks — from nightly special concoctions that often had a blue hue to fresh drafts of Belikan, the local beer — George is a skilled entertainer. He's learned a trove of card, dice, rope and other tricks, and he delighted in mystifying guests between raucous games of liar's dice around the circular bar.
A new batch of guests could change the island's dynamic. There were just more than 20 of us there that week; double that number and things would have been different. Stock the island with your friends and family, and imagine the possibilities.
We were even able to celebrate the engagement of one of the doctor couples, as Nicholas Juan, 30, asked Mindy Milosch, 29, to marry him. They celebrated by hunting lionfish.
Milosch bagged "tons" of lionfish on the trip, getting quite good at using the spear and "loving it." The group was nabbing them left and right, often feeding them to eels and grouper that would linger, knowing they might get a meal out of it. Sadly, the reef denizens won't go after a living lionfish because of their poisonous spikes, but dead, the venom dissipates into the water and the spikes fall; divemasters hope the native predators will get a taste for it and do their own hunting.
We kept some of the lionfish, bringing them to the dock and handing them over to the staff. Some of the fish were pregnant; some still had dead reef fish in their mouths.
And a short time later, sitting at the mahogany bar and looking out over an endless sea at sunset, we clinked mugs of Belikan, sat back and snacked on lightly breaded lionfish bites. The taste of victory? Pretty darned good.