When I first arrived in Belize City in August 1976 as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was so overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, activity and odors coming from the streets that my perspective was distorted. That is, my consciousness was too cluttered with “background noise” to take in the whole scene. Of course, I eventually became accustomed to this environment and accepted it as normal; it was my new home. A couple of years after my Peace Corps service, I returned to Belize for a visit. It was only then that I became aware of how narrow the streets were and how close together the buildings stood. Albert Street was like Disneyland’s Main Street USA, deceptively but pleasingly small scale.
In 1977, the Canadian Government made a $10,000 donation of SCUBA gear, including an air compressor and Nikonos camera, to the Belize Fisheries Unit. None of us at Fisheries, however, knew how to dive with tanks. We arranged for an instructor from the British Forces to teach us. The instructor first gave us a couple of lectures and dry land demonstrations. Then he put us in the Fort George swimming pool for a lesson. We ended the week by doing a dive to 20-30 feet just outside the reef near St George’s Caye.
The next week the instructor felt we were ready to safely do a deeper dive. We dove to 130 feet as a group, touched bottom and returned to the surface. After we got back in the boat and removed our facemasks, the instructor looked at Romie Badillo and said, “Who are you? I haven’t seen you before.”
Romie had missed all the lessons up to that point because he had been out from work sick with a bad cold. He knew that if he had told the instructor the truth, he would not be allowed to dive with us that day. He just kept quiet, put on the tanks, and got in the water with the rest of us undetected by the instructor. So, Romie’s first ever SCUBA dive was to 130 feet!
The photo shows some of the gear donated to Fisheries by the Canadian Government.Karl Villanueva
Just a funny story to share about Romie. In the 80's-90's he was the captain of the Fisheries boat and he and a small crew would monitor, patrol and manage Belizean waters. On a trip to Caye Caulker the crew settled in for the night to sleep on the boat. No beds, just find a spot on the cabin floor and goodnight Irene. On one particular night, Romie removed one crew member from the cabin and told him to sleep outside on the deck. Needless to say, the crew member complied. Found out when he slept his snoring sounded like an approaching ship. Romie was a great captain. The snorer was my beloved brother.
Here is another story from my Peace Corps days in Belize. This one is from December 1976. As always, some or all the names may or may not have been changed to protect the guilty. If you were involved in this event, feel free to add to the story or correct any errors.
David, Denton, and I took the Fisheries skiff south from Belize City about 20 miles to Rendezvous Caye. We also brought along Colin, the husband of one of the fisheries officers, who was doing a study of the flora and fauna of Sergeants Caye. The skiff was fitted out with two 25 horsepower Evinrude outboard motors. The purpose of the trip was to catch some fish for our upcoming Fisheries Unit staff Christmas party.
On the way to Rendezvous Caye, at 9:00 AM, we dropped Colin off on Sergeants Caye. We told Colin that we would pick him up about 4:00 PM on our way back to Belize City. Sergeants Caye is little more than a high and dry sandbar close to the barrier reef, only about 50 by 100 feet in size, with its highest point maybe two feet above sea level. There are no trees and no shade on Sergeants Caye.
We planned to spearfish over the patch reefs by Rendezvous Caye. A patch reef is an outcropping or mesa of coral and rock that that lies just below surface of the water. As we were passing Rendezvous Caye we noticed a couple of people on the island waving for us to stop. We put into the caye to see what they wanted. It was a fisherman with his family. The fisherman wanted a ride back to the city. We told him we would be back to pick him up about 3:00 PM.
We headed to the patch reefs and began fishing. We fished all morning, spearing hogfish, snappers and barracuda, and then took a break for our lunch of sliced bread and canned sardines. Because fishing was particularly good, we kept at it until almost 5:00 PM. We were then about 3 or 4 miles north of Rendezvous Caye. The sun was low on the horizon, and that made it difficult for us to see the patch reefs lurking just inches below the surface of the water. David stood on the bow of the skiff to direct Denton who was at the outboard steering the boat. About two miles north of Rendezvous Caye, with both motors at full throttle, we ran up onto a patch reef. None of us was hurt as a result of the impact, but the propeller on one of the outboards was bent and jammed. We continued to Rendezvous Caye on one motor. There, the fisherman worked for about an hour on the damaged propeller, but it could not be repaired.
The four of us, including the fisherman from Rendezvous Caye, set out in the dark with no lights and only one working motor, hoping to find Sergeants Caye about 10 miles away. The fisherman knew the waters better than we did, so he guided us along. It was a dark, moonless night, and the sea was dead calm. There was no horizon; it was not possible to distinguish the sea from the sky. “How would we ever find Sergeants Caye?” I wondered.
We felt sorry about leaving Colin on that sandbar for so long. We were sure that he would be sunburnt and swollen from battling sandflies and mosquitoes all day. Colin was a proper gentleman, understated and very British “stiff upper lip” by nature, but we knew he would be hopping mad at us when we finally rescued him. We expected and deserved a good cussing out from him.
About 8:00 PM the fisherman told us to stop the motor and listen. He turned his head slightly to the left and right, and then he pointed out something which he said was Sergeants Caye. None of us could see it. We restarted the motor, and the fisherman guided us slowly ahead. Then, when we were about 200 feet from it, we could barely see Sergeants Caye.
We shouted, “Colin, Colin, you okay?” There was no reply. We shouted again. No reply.
Finally, in a calm, English-accented voice we heard, “Who’s there?”
“Colin, da wi.”
“My, it's quite kind of you to stop by," Colin said. "I was about to become a bit distressed.”
Colin got in the skiff and did not say another word to us about leaving him stranded. In that moment he had become one of us, an honorary member of the Fisheries Unit. We all had a good laugh and then turned our attention to making our way back to Belize City safely.
The stars were beautiful in the black sky and were reflected just as brilliantly by the glass smooth surface of the water. There was a blue-green luminescence in our wake. We had torn a hole in the bottom of the skiff on the patch reef and had to bail out water the whole way. We got back to the Fisheries Laboratory about 10:00 PM. For us, it seemed like it was just another day at the office.