It’s nighttime. We’re paddling a canoe down the middle of the briskly flowing Macal river in the Belize jungle, somewhere very near the Guatemalan border. The handle of the powerful handheld spotlight I’m gripping is warm. Actually, it’s hot. So hot that I shift it from hand to hand as I point it up onto the riverbank and sweep the overhanging branches of the giant rain forest trees that lean out over the river.
A dense cloud of moths forms a ball around the light, covering my face, my head, flying into my ears and eyes, tumbling down the front and back of my shirt. I reach into my décolletage to dig a few out and my fingers encounter a ball of squirming moths, soaked and likely drowning in a pool of sweat.
Ahhhh- vacation! We’re on yet another adventure in the wilds of Central America. This evening, the last of three we’ll spend in the Cayo district of Belize, has so far featured a hair-raising ride in an old and well-worn pick-up truck with two canoes strapped on top and six humans crammed inside a steamy interior, being tossed about like pebbles as the truck bounces and bangs down a deeply rutted, dangerously steep and potholed track through the jungle night.
Once at the river’s edge, we four guests stand behind the truck out of the way while the guides untie the canoes and place them in the river shallows. We’re told to watch where we put our feet and to use our headlamps to look for snakes. The jungle growth pushes up right next to the jeep and there’s little cleared space for our feet. Robin and I stand quietly and watch the other two gals, a mom and daughter from Maine, as they mince about and scan the ground nervously. Robin’s more concerned about bug bites than stumbling into a snake, but only harmless moths and gnats flit about. In the light of my headlamp I spot a couple of bats swooping overhead.
The crickets and frogs clamor so loudly that it’s hard to hear the guides as they call for us to climb into the canoes. In the canoe, I step gingerly toward the bow seat, maneuvering around a car battery. The guide hands me a large hand-held spotlight and I watch as he hooks up two somewhat shielded wires from the spotlight to the battery terminals. Interesting. Guess I won’t be letting those wires dip into the river.
Robin settles in the middle seat, the guide shoves us off the gravel bottom, hops in and paddles us efficiently into the brisk flow of the river. While I’m digging moth bodies out of my nether regions, I can hear Robin behind me making disgusting noises and muttering “Oh for heaven’s sake!” and “Ick! Yuk!”. Her brisk motions to wave off the clouds threaten our balance. Atypical for me, I’m feeling exposed up here in the bow, probably because I’m top-heavy holding this big spotlight. (Wry humor.) Besides, my position in a canoe has always been at the stern, since I was 10 years old and learned how to paddle. I simply feel more comfortable being in the rear seat, managing the balance and track of the canoe.
I warn Robin to be still and wait, the moth swarm will go away once we get some breeze.
Sure enough, a nice breeze greets us as we move into the center of the river’s width, generally about 200 feet across. Soon the moths thin out and we find ourselves distracted by the strong beam of light, which I aim to light up the massive trees that thickly line the banks of this wild river.
We’re spotting for wildlife that has come out on this starry night to forage for food, mate, meet up with family members, dodge predators, and to pose for us as they’re picked out of the darkness by the unrelenting probing lights from the two canoes.
Our guide uses a powerful green laser pointer to direct my spotlight beam- he knows where to look for critters. As we float along with the current, I spot a brown animal up high on a large limb. “It’s a kinkajou!” the guide exclaims. The boats quietly approach the tree and there it is, about 30 feet above us, stretched out on a limb. We sweep our lights about but the kinkajou won’t budge, so we continue downriver, scanning the river banks and trees.
Soon I spot two orange eyes up on a river bank and as we approach the guide tells us it’s a fox! The eyes scoot along the river bank but the spotlight is relentless and soon picks out the little fox. We watch as it darts behind some shrubbery and then the current moves us past our vantage point.
Next up, around a bend, we spot two kinkajou’s in a tree, darting from limb to limb and making their way quickly away from the river. A few minutes later I spot a Wood Rail sitting quietly on a limb overhead, it’s orange and white beak shining in the spotlight.
As we continue down the river, we can hear rapids ahead– nothing huge but definitely enough force to turn the canoe over if mishandled, so I direct the light to help guide our passage. Once past the rapids, I resume sweeping the light through the trees, marveling at their incredible heights, some with massive buttressed trunks and many festooned with creepers, strangler fig vines, and huge air plants.
We spot a Water Possum on the bank- a brief glimpse before it darts behind a large tree. Then a bit later we come across a beautiful Spectacled Owl, small and as brightly marked as a tropical bird, perched just above our heads on a tree branch. And then we spot four or more kinkajous. These are quite close to us and only 15 feet above the river, on a large tree limb. Three of them take off but the last one remains behind, blinking in the spotlight. It stretches out on the limb and then flips to the underside, then flips back up, then hides its large round eyes behind two little fore paws and cowers. We all say “Awwww” and turn the two spotlights away to let it go on about its business. The guide is tickled pink; he seldom sees a kinkajou that close up, much less one that doesn’t dart immediately away.
At one point we turn off our spotlights and headlamps and soon the stars are right down on our heads! One of the highlights of our trips to little-trammeled places is that we get to see the stars as our ancestors might have seen them. No light pollution, no loom from nearby man-made anything, just stars: the Milky Way scattered across the chunk of sky visible above the river, the Big Dipper over There, every star in it etched against that dense blackness, not at all where we’re used to seeing it the few times we might glimpse it on the eastern seaboard of the U.S.
Nearing the end of our journey we come upon a large bend in the river and before us is a limestone bluff, over 300 feet high and disappearing into the gloom. Massive trees grow out and up from the sheer walls, which are densely covered with thick vines, creepers and vegetation. The scene is starkly lit by our lights, the shadows quivering mysteriously in the breeze.
The jungle night sounds wrap around us and as we slowly slip by this towering wall, I’m so absolutely in the moment, with the smells, the jungle night sounds, the humidity and the breeze on my skin, the little taps of bugs hitting my exposed face, hands and arms as moths and gnats and who-knows-what bugs collide with my body.
For just a moment, I am suspended. I forget about my aching flat butt, heated hands and sore back. I recognize this all-encompassing feeling; it reminds me of SCUBA diving, that moment when you’re past the awkward and jittery phase of transitioning from a large dive boat plunging in ocean waves to the calm depths below the surface. That moment when your equipment is comfortably settled on your body, when your breathing slows and you relax into the sensation of water buoying you, caressing you, moving you perfectly in tandem with the fish that hover over the reef. That moment when you hold your breath for just a few seconds, so you can hear the pops of shrimp, the myriad of unidentified squeaks and grunts, and the crunching of the parrot fish as they bite off chunks of living corals.
It’s the experience of moments like this one that bring me back again and again to nature, the outdoors with few or no people or trashed and trampled environments. Sure the adventures are fun, meeting new people, learning about different cultures, being physically active and challenged by the newness and the unknowns of travel. But for me the magic is truly moments like these. So fleeting, so sublime, so few in a lifetime.
The ATM Cave
The day before our canoe adventure, we headed out in the early morning from the Mariposa Jungle Lodge, our digs for a 3-night “Belize jungle experience” that I’d cobbled together by spending hours on the Internet during months of planning for this vacation.
My usual approach for building a vacation plan had given us a running start. Beginning with a geographic area, I craft an itinerary based on the various things we want to see and do, then I really dig into the details, from finding a place to stay near our planned outdoor excursions and figuring out in-country transport options, to immersive time on TripAdvisor forums.
I keep a running spreadsheet of costs, set up online travel bots, sign up for numerous email and Twitter alerts (airlines/airfares) and correspond with local experts and property owners to glean the “inside” info. Often, I negotiate discounts based on pre-paying and between such negotiations, keeping copious notes, checking costs and adjusting itineraries, we save a LOT of money, avoid not a few unpleasant surprises, and are better prepared for the vagaries of a given locale while leaving a great deal of room for serendipity and last-minute adjustments due to weather, illness or just plain “I don’t wanna do anything today but relax”!
This day, our destination was the ATM cave, short for Actun Tunichil Muknal, located in the Tapir Mountain Reserve, just north of the Maya Mountains. Here we’re reminded no cameras, period. No nothing, really. Your guide will pack in anything you need: lunch, water, your specs etc. NO CAMERAS because some tourist a coupla years ago dropped a camera or accessory on an ancient human skull in the cave and broke the skull so, that’s that.
Thus I’m resorting to open-source pix taken inside the cave before the camera ban.
Check out more trip pix here.
After banging down the painfully rough track from the Mariposa out to the main highway for 40 mins and another 30-min trip off the main road and back into the jungle, we arrived at the parking area for the ATM cave tour. Off we trekked down the path, keeping a wary eye out for snakes sunning themselves in the places where the rapidly heating rays of the tropical sun penetrated the jungle canopy.
We crossed the same river three times (knee-deep, rapidly-running cold, clear water and slippery ankle-turning rounded stones) and kept going, spotting a lovely bright green Vine snake (non-venomous) and swatting at gnat-clouds attracted to our sweating bodies.
After 45 mins or so of hiking up and down trails we arrived at a clearing in the jungle featuring a rough-built palapa, an old wooden picnic table, a felled tree used for seating, and large trees all around for those who wish to relieve themselves. I trotted off down a path and followed my nose to an old privy– a hole in the ground surrounded by a tumbled down wooden structure, fallen tree limbs, dead palm leaves and a cloud of buzzing insects.
I returned to the mustering area, where our guide Gliss was loading new batteries into headlamps and strapping each onto the damp and slightly smelly plastic helmet we each had been given. Gliss explained that this area where we were standing was likely an ancient Maya ball court, due to the obvious work that went into leveling a large area of ground where level is simply not typical. He pointed to a massive limestone face that may have served as one wall of the ball court. The towering wall disappeared into the humid gloom, almost completely hidden by vines, trees and vegetation growing up, out and dangling down the face.
As it turned out, within that towering limestone edifice was the cave system we were about to enter.
Gliss led Robin, myself and another Mariposa guest, a petite and somewhat timid retired lady school teacher, down a short path that followed the curving wall. The sound of a rapidly flowing river became louder, then the forest canopy opened and before us appeared the huge gaping mouth of the cave.
The photos do this place justice– it was every bit as magnificent and intimidating as it appears. I consider myself pretty fearless, in a calculating way, so I was startled to sense my slight apprehension about entering this unknown, sorta spooky, certainly dark, dank and confining cave, with nothing beyond hiking sandals, a helmet and headlamp on my head, a cherry chapstick in one shorts pocket and a pair of old socks in the other.
But, no time to ponder the possibilities as we stepped gingerly down slippery rough-hewn wooden stairs to the water’s edge, slid over slippery rocks into that clear, frigid water up to our waists and next thing you know, we were swimming in 15 foot depths under the cave overhang and beyond, into the gloom of the cavern opening.
The shock of that 70-degree water hitting my tropical-sun-heated body literally took my breath away, but once I got past that I actually enjoyed paddling quietly into the cavern. I noticed swallows darting in the gloom overhead and became aware of every sound that was amplified, reflected off rock walls and the water’s surface. The too-loud splashing and squealing of the larger party ahead of us as they clambered out of the water onto a rocky ledge jarred as we drew closer. I wanted to just be still for a moment and soak up the atmosphere, the silence I knew this place could generate, allowing one to pick out little trickles and drips of water, the ripple of bird and bat wings, the background buzz of the jungle just beyond the cave opening.
But, such moments of solitude and contemplation are anathema to organized “tours”. Rather, we had to hurry up and get going; staying together, carefully in single file as we slapped along in our sandals, careful to watch our step on the uneven and sodden clay of the cave floor, or tromping confidently on gravel through the fast-flowing underground river shallows.
Squeezing through tight spots, we aimed our headlamps to assist with handholds to avoid razor-sharp rock and to aid in penetrating the often shoulder-deep water to help us find ledges or dodge knee-and-shin-knocker boulders. Sometimes we’d be in a skinny crevice that disappeared overhead, our feet feeling along a narrow ledge about 4 feet below the water, sidling sideways as we crept along a wall. More than once I allowed myself to slip off the ledge into the water quietly and swim alongside to encourage the nice schoolteacher lady, who was pretty freaked out by all this, already. And we were only into the first minutes of what would be three hours in that cave.
Can’t remember her name but whatever, she was very nice and I thought very brave in her determination to overcome her fears and to challenge herself to finish this expedition. She was certainly past 60, with a knee that simply would not bend, no upper body strength, and little self-confidence in bouldering and climbing heights in the pitch blackness, swimming in frigid water for unknown distances, balancing on a rusted and creaky 40 foot ladder that led to a slippery 90-degree squeeze around an overhang– yeah, stuff like that.
Clearly the brave lady felt safer right behind Gliss, so I followed and Robin brought up the rear, saying if she fell she would have all us to soften her landing, ha.
Around a bend there appeared a giant sinkhole off to our left in an area that looked like it would take 15 minutes to get to by clambering over boulders, some stacked on one another, all the size of a golf cart. Sunlight speared down into the hole from some 60 feet above us. Vines hung over the crumbled top, trees grew right out of the sides, and more massive trees crowded the margin, as if they too wanted to take the plunge.
That was our last view of sunlight for a couple of hours.
The further we penetrated into the cave, the more dense the humid atmosphere became. Our headlamps illuminated the condensation of our breath, adding to the suspended water molecules hanging in the air around us. We were soaked, cold from water immersion, and sweaty from exertion. The sounds of other groups receded into the vastness around us, and often the noise from the rushing river over shallow gravel beds, and us splashing doggedly against the current, drowned out any other sounds.
By the time we got to the first of many skulls, human bones, large and small smashed pots strewn about on various ledges and natural platforms, my feet were tired, my shoulders and neck sore, my lower back complaining, and my knees were inflamed. So far this had proven to be more Cirque du Soleil than a jaunt into the distant past. Between the climbing, clambering, balancing, tripping, mincing, squeezing, shin-cracking and neck-craning, my poor bod was a bit tired. But, we still had to get to the place where we were to take off our shoes, don socks, and stomp around for an hour or so over rocky, crumbly, slippery, ever more painfully rough cave surfaces, avoiding harming the mud while working our way to the very rear of the cave to see the really cool stuff.
Cool stuff: Amazing crystal formations, much as you will see in many a cave around the world. Lovely but really, how many stupidly named formations can you gawp at? However, there was an awesome and inspiring ceremonial stone plinth way up and over on a wide ledge, supporting two heavy angled stones about 3 feet tall, carved to look like the gaping maw of a crocodile. Well, at least the shadow cast on the massive cavern wall behind it sure looked like a crocodile. The question is- if the ancients didn’t have LED flashlights, would that have cast the same shadow when lit by a torch or a dozen? Good question. Gliss was full of many question like this, which caused us to scratch our chins and ponder. Or at least gave us an excuse to perch on a nearby rock and, for just one second, rest. But then- “Let’s move on!”
On to more slippery cave footing and more climbing to yet more ledges with pots and small fire pits and human bones and a skull or two and then, on our way to the pièce de résistance, we came upon the climbing challenge that I thought was going to cause a mission abort. Our intrepid nice retired school teacher positively balked, and even Robin turned quite pale in the lamplight when faced with this last bit.
First: place your left foot here, about two feet above the cave floor, flat against the wall. Now use your hands, reach across to this edge, get your right foot into place across this gap, over to this little ledge here, just wide enough for your foot. Now lever yourself up, using your thighs and quads and any muscle you may have down there — out and over the gap while reaching up to this handhold, right here, all lit up in the little circle from my headlamp. Then your other hand goes here- nope not there, here!
This was a challenge for folks with little or no climbing skills, but with coaching from Gliss above and myself below, they made it. Thank goodness Gliss had done this many times and had this traverse, and others like it, down pat.
No break in sight, though, as we arrived some 20 feet higher along this crevice. I found myself balanced with one foot on a small rounded, slippery and shiny limestone cap on top of a stalagmite. My other foot dangled in mid-air. I looked down and my headlamp revealed my perch– a large mushroom head, beyond which was a two foot wide chasm that dropped straight down to five foot tall jagged rock teeth below, the teeth seeming to twitch malevolently in the shadows from my light.
No time to study my predicament, as Gliss steadied my elbow and motioned for me to spin in place- yes spin in place, lean forward across that gap and sit right down there on that ledge. Quickly, now. Don’t think, just do it, then scramble away from that gap, stand up and go over there to take off your shoes. Time for the socks drill.
Holy cow. We all made it and, socks donned, we formed up into our single file again. Robin muttered “Did you see that gap? What the hell did we just do?” I replied “Shhhh,” and she understood it wasn’t a good idea to let on to the retired teacher what we had spotted. She had obviously been smart enough to follow Gliss’s instruction to not look down during that passage.
The full skeleton splayed out on the cave floor, carefully roped off with engineer’s tape, was worth the effort to achieve the viewing. Of course Gliss took the opportunity to fill us in on a bit of fact and a lot of educated guesswork about what, who, why this obvious display of a human corpse, way back in the day, way back at the rear of this cave.
The thing sure looked spooky there in the harsh shadows of our lights, the bones (or whatever they had turned into by now from leaching of limestone) appearing as fragile as piles of dust.
As we stood close together, a few feet from the skeleton, my claustrophobia crept in. The still and musty air, the closeness of our bodies squeezed in a narrow opening between walls, the deep pitch around us only barely penetrated by our weakening headlamps, the knowledge that we were heaven-knew-how deep under tons of rock — all combined to make me want to get the heck gone.
I was quiet most of the way back, as we retraced our steps back down the rusty ladder, across the cave floor that further bruised my tender soles. Back to the shoes (ahhh), back across that dang gap passage, down and down and swim and squeeze and swim some more and balance on tired legs, my back telling me it had had it.
Soon enough we were back in the twilight of the cavern entry, lowering ourselves one last time into now bitterly cold water, swimming out of the cave, out from under that huge overhang, slipping on rocks and soggy wooden steps, and back to the ancient ball court area, where a light lunch of fruit, a few strips of cheese and swarms of flies awaited us.
I could have eaten one of those Tapirs. Instead, we guzzled water, gnawed cheese, gulped fruit, swatted at flies, then started our 4 kilometer trek back up and down the jungle trail, re-crossing the river three times in the full heat of the equatorial afternoon. Steam rose from our clothes and heads, my sunglasses fogged, gnats and biting flies swarmed, sweat dripped into my eyes and the fine sand collected between my Teva outdoor sandal straps at every point they touched my skin, raising painful blisters.
Hey, this is what it’s all about. Eco-adventure! Jungle trekking! Caving! Thirst, hunger, full bladder, aching body, and beat up feet combined to make me feel every single year of my, er, age.
We survived, and it’s in the re-telling that I appreciate fully the effort, commitment, tenacity, determination and sometimes just plain blissful ignorance that drives me to take such a “vacation”. Luckily Robin and I are both adventurous enough to want to experience such things and are physically able to endure them. All in all, a tale worth telling but you know, I’ve done my caving thing now and, like climbing pyramids, I’ll move on to something different for the next adventure.
Coda: the two things our adventures typically have in common is History and Nature. Tubing through a cave or down a river with a bunch of screaming people, or zip-lining, or riding in a 4-wheeler tearing up the landscape or blowing through water hyacinths in an ear-splitting air boat, for instance, simply isn’t it. Just sayin’.
Next Stop: Turneffe Atoll
We spent three nights at our “jungle lodge”, which was situated on a ridge in the piney highlands of the Belize Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. This reserve is located within a large alluvial river valley that serves as the key area of the country for vegetable and fruit farms, cattle ranches and dairy farms, and has been supporting agriculture and human habitation for thousands of years.
All of which meant, if you want to experience anything jungle-like, you need to travel in a vehicle with shot suspension along the washboard, dusty limestone track for almost an hour to get down to one of the many rivers and creeks and that form a network within the Cayo district of Belize. There, you can escape the heavy layer of slash-and-burn smoke and the ubiquitous fine dust from limestone roadways that criss-cross this heavily farmed area of western Belize.
A feature of our getaways is the opportunity to exchange the pollen and other delightful particulate inhalations of Atlanta for the fresh air of the tropics. We deliberately planned our trip to Belize during the dry season, when the winds are calm and the waters warm for snorkeling. Also, travel to the Caribbean at this time of year typically offers off-season rates and fewer visitors, while avoiding the bug swarms and other drawbacks associated by the rainy season.
Not for the first time, we had deplaned in Central America at the Belize airport to a heavy pall of smoke caused by the relentless slash-and-burn agricultural practices that prevail in this area of the developing world. From the time we walked off the aircraft until left the coast in the wake of the dive boat transferring us to Turneffe Atoll, we coughed and choked on the heavy smoke, dust and the fumes of the petroleum-and-water mix infrequently sprayed by trucks over the more heavily traveled limestone tracks.
So, on Saturday we were quite ready to bid Goodbye to the wonderful staff at Mariposa. Safely ensconced in a newish van with AC and shock absorbers, we rode a couple of hours back down the Western Highway to Belize City on the coast. The pall of smoke had been dispersed somewhat by rising winds the past day, which meant we were anticipating a rough 90-minute boat ride out to Blackbird Caye Resort on Turneffe Atoll, some 25 miles or so off the Belize coast.
The resort’s 50-foot dive boat Big Bird handled the big seas just fine as we and the other dozen or so guests aboard jammed ourselves into the driest places we could find, bracing ourselves, our water bottles and any miscellaneous gear into positions that might spare us injury from the heaving of the boat as it crashed headlong into seas that were 5-footers or more.
We enjoyed a short respite from the gyrations as our passage took us through an area of pristine mangroves, where we could easily see the sandy bottom some 15 feet beneath the hull through clear water.
Finally, after what seemed hours of noisy and uncomfortable running, we approached Blackbird Caye and the deep channel that cut through the fringing reef to the protected waters inside, and the resort dock. I could see we were going to turn 90 degrees or more to line up for that channel, so I scooted over to Robin and yelled above the noise of the twin diesels, the wind and the waves slamming the boat to hold on, we were going to virtually come about and we were gonna take those seas full abeam. She nodded and we both found something to grip as, indeed, that big boat gave a mighty heave, crawled up the face of a wave I didn’t even want to look over at, and, with dexterity that told me our skipper was indeed a skilled pilot, we executed that turn and surfed right on through that channel and into the relatively calm waters of the inside of the reef.
Good thing everyone on that boat was an experienced diver and big seas boat passenger. Nobody got tossed, no gear went rolling over the deck, and calm expressions prevailed as we approached the dock and all began to gather their gear.
A significant tailwind gave us a couple of shoves as we stumbled along the dock boards. Once on land, I silently gave thanks to being on solid ground, even if my lower legs were getting sand-blasted.
This was our introduction to a wind-blown week on Blackbird Caye. We were here to snorkel every morning and afternoon, and to experience some of the most pristine coral reefs remaining in the Atlantic Ocean. But these high winds were weird– uncharacteristic for this time of year, these winds were more like what you’d see in the winter months, not in early May. My quick video panorama of conditions here: http://youtu.be/J8wffvrZwGY
Well, we were here, our room beckoned, we had a group orientation to attend in the palapa bar and then dinner, sleep, and we’d see what the morning conditions would be.
No other way to describe it, this was indeed awesome snorkeling, leaving nothing to disappoint.
While the morning seas were choppy inside the protection of the reef, and we had to do some energetic finning ever so often, we still had incredible visibility for most of the week, aided by the bright sunshine that lit up the corals and the amazing variety of fish, crustaceans, mollusks, rays and anything that caught our attention.
Our guide Chris was terrific- he was a patient and relaxed snorkeler, allowing us ample time to hang in spots to simply watch fish doing their thing, or to enjoy the view of soft corals swaying in the surge or a fish cleaning station taking on another customer. His knowledge of this environment was encyclopedic and he would point out critters in places I wouldn’t have known to look. Obviously he was well acquainted with the hidey-holes that certain critters or fish called home. You don’t become that acquainted with the locals without diving those areas a lot, and often.
I was delighted when he dove down to the sandy bottom to show us an electric ray. I have a trained eye to spot fish and critters, especially rays, but these electric rays totally had me baffled!
When Chris would spot an electric ray, he would take off a fin and, slowly sinking down to the bright white sandy bottom, he would gently slip the tip of the fin just under the nose of the ray. The ray then would raise itself from the bottom, none too fast, swim calmly a few feet away and settle down in another patch of sand. Then it would flip its wings a few times to cover itself with sand, and once again it was perfectly hidden in plain sight. Well, in plain sight for Chris, but not for me. I never did learn how to spot them accurately. Too many worm holes in the sand look just like the ray’s slightly oval, dark eyes.
Once, Chris pointed out across the sand and I looked and motioned “what?” and we floated briefly to chat. “Big ray over there,” he said. “Really?” I wondered. “Yes,” I remember him smiling impishly. “Really big ray.”
Oh, so I was looking for a Really big ray, and I sure spotted it. The animal was the biggest southern stingray I have ever seen, including the monsters that used to show up at Stingray City off Grand Cayman back in the early 1990s. Forget spotting the eyes, the bulges below the eyes were poking up at least 4 inches above the sand and the gap between them was easily 16-18 inches. When we approached (her, likely) she raised calmly up and, shedding sand in a big cloud, she moved off and soon swam out of sight. Holy cow, that was one monster stingray, easily the size of a dining room table seating six. I looked around for Robin and she was right there just off my shoulder, nodding emphatically and arching her brows.
Subsequent dives brought new and fabulous sightings and experiences. We spotted clouds of fish of almost every variety common in the Caribbean, including millions of tiny Sharp-nosed Puffer fish, breeding and dying.
Large predatory fish, from groupers to hog snappers, tarpon and barracuda were spotted. Turtles and spotted eagle rays swam in and out of the visibility curtain. Mature soft corals undulated in the currents. Unbleached corals reflected their true, healthy colors. Large hard corals, from brain coral to staghorn to elkhorn, were abundant. We even saw some sharks (although their numbers are very, very depressed.)
And–lobsters! Amazing. When we spotted a clump of five lobsters all crowded into a large hole in the reef, I got kinda teary-eyed because I realized, horrifyingly, that many years ago I had stopped looking for the signature antennae of these crayfish, once so common on the reefs of my native Florida. Heck, in the early 1970s I used to catch my limit of lobsters right off the coast of Dania beach in Ft. Lauderdale, within hearing distance from the tide line! I realized I had simply not seen lobsters anywhere in the Caribbean for many, many years. Not to say they aren’t out there but I had seen damn few, if any, in my travels criss-crossing the Caribbean basin for over a decade.
If I was gratified by this experience, I was equally, and familiarly, dismayed when comparing notes with the highly experienced, knowledgeable and trained fish-spotters we shared the resort with that week.
Reef.org www.reef.org is the web site for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, described as “… a grass-roots organization that seeks to conserve marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting and enabling divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active ocean stewards and citizen scientists.”
Every one of these folks is self-funded, and this group was fully outfitted with underwater still and video cameras and laptops and editing software. Everyone did 2-3 dives a day with their slates, ticking off the fish they spotted. Each day the group would meet in the palapa bar at 5pm to review what they’d seen, count fish, review fish images to freshen memories, and share videos.
What an amazing group of dedicated divers. I was overwhelmed and humble in the face of their knowledge and dedication. I thought I knew my Florida and Caribbean fish species, including juvenile phases of many, but whew, these folks are da bomb! Several are easily classified as true EXPERTS.
It’s so cool that many of these folks have dived together in different seas around Planet Ocean. They give of their time, money, energy and enthusiasm to add to the international database of knowledge which is completely open to the public.
Too, these folks’ personal, hard-won experiences completely validate global climate change– not the cause(s), but most assuredly the impact on reef ecosystems. They remember all manner of locations back in the day and compare conditions, fish life, reef health, etc to today. Not a pretty picture- period.
Two of the member ladies were well into their 60s and were diving daily– and remember, the seas were massive, especially where they were diving, out in the open ocean, with no protective barrier reef. And that boat was a dangerous platform to get on or off, with all that gear and weight, even with the superior assist of the dive masters. It’s just plain hazardous to dive in 4-6 foot seas, under any circumstance. I surely enjoyed the confabs with these and others of the group over meals, and was delighted to share in their experiences.
The Great Blue Hole
This trip was simply amazing. A full day and a full contingent of divers aboard Big Bird, all of us off for a 90 minute drive out to the blue hole http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Blue_Hole where divers plumbed the depths and we snorkelers tooled around the reef on top. A highlight was being buzzed by two Cessna planes that would have made an interesting shot from the perspective of a snorkeler, but no camera in hand!
Then it was off to Half Moon Caye for more snorkeling, diving, viewing the Red Footed Booby colony, and of course a yummy BBQ in the shade of a palm tree grove with Frigate birds soaring high overhead.
Back aboard, we headed off to Lighthouse Reef for an amazing dive/snorkel on a world-class, virtually pristine reef.
By the time we got back to the dock, we were all tuckered out. Fish class was held, as usual, and after dinner folks drifted away to their cabanas to rest up for the following day’s dives.
Lionfish and the Green Moray
Many readers may know about the problem that lionfish pose in the Atlantic. The population of these non-indigenous predators have simply exploded across the Atlantic, impacting fish and reef systems in ways we’re only beginning to understand. They have few predators. Divers spear them whenever they can. Lionfish rodeos spring up all over and dive clubs and other groups are pitching in to attempt to undo what aquarists have done, but the genie is out of the bottle and who knows what’s in store for many fish species.
In any event, one day the group came back with an amazing video clip. The dive master had speared a lionfish and tucked the dead fish into a nearby hole in the reef. Along came a large green moray eel, swimming out in the open over the reef- a rare sight. The eel disappeared into a hole in the reef and soon reappeared, the dead lionfish now a large lump in the eel’s throat. The eel writhed and gyrated, using its body muscles much like a snake, to crush the lionfish. Then the eel opened its mouth wide and out floated one, two then more of the venomous lionfish spines. Scratch one lionfish. That was an amazing video.
Our last day the gale-force winds finally subsided, making for calmer conditions and better visibility underwater. Quick video pan: http://youtu.be/morXnFycNR4
A group of us went snorkeling that afternoon on the outside of the nearby reef. Suddenly someone yelled “Shark! Shark!” Rather than heading for the boat in a panic, this wise group all headed as quickly as their legs could propel them toward the person yelling!
I laughed into my snorkel as I joined the clutch of folks and, sure enough, below us in about 25 feet of water, lying quietly on the bottom was a large nurse shark– all 7 feet of it. Nice to see a shark– any kind, these days. The finning of sharks for shark soup and other uses has truly taken a toll in the world’s oceans. It’s quite a statement to have people swim toward a sighting rather than away. That could have been a black tip or a Caribbean reef shark or a bull shark or any shark, but the mere fact of spotting a shark is perhaps becoming a rarity, especially in some oceans. That’s a hell of a situation.
I’ve waxed philosophic and perhaps sophomoric in this posting, but I guess like our trips, my musings must come to a close. I don’t claim to have any real insights, just observations about our travels. More and more, these trips into the Caribbean are becoming bitter sweet, less fun adventure and more frequent and alarming exposure to What Man Hath Wrought.
I can say I’m not at all proud of the legacy my generation and the ones before us have left the planet. I can say that this trip has given me hope– hope that governments like that of Belize, in partnership with NGOs like Reef.org and just plain folks, are trying to save something for the future, even as we all grapple with the consequences of too many people, too little space, greed, overpopulation, environmental degradation, poverty, corruption, greed, ignorance, and more greed.
I reference a heroine of mine, Dr. Sylvia Earle, the famed oceanographer, explorer, environmentalist and National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence. Here’s her famous, award-winning TED talk in which she speaks of what she calls Hope Spots on the planet, marine protected areas critical to the health of the ocean: www.ted.com/talks/sylvia_earle_s_ted_prize_wish_to_protect_our_oceans
The direct flight from Atlanta to Turks & Caicos Islands steadily approached Providenciales, the largest island in the group. As the plane began its approach, we looked up from our paperback books to catch glimpses of the collection of islands below, stretching roughly east to west, surrounded by the purple-black of the “deep”, over 7,000 feet worth. The colors of the sea surrounding the islands reflected changes in the water’s depth – first royal blue, then cobalt blue, then robin’s-egg blue, and finally a brilliant turquoise over bright, shallow sandy bottom.
Viewing the familiar yet consistently stunning colors of the Caribbean Sea jump-started our excitement and anticipation of a long-awaited and hard-won week’s holiday. By the time we clanked our way down the metal steps from the plane to the tarmac and hiked the quarter mile or so to the terminal, we were hot, sweaty and grinning from ear-to-ear. We had arrived! Vacation could officially begin.
Clearing Customs and Immigration and securing our rental car was relatively painless and soon I was sitting on the wrong side of the car, driving on the wrong side of the road and hesitating at each of several roundabouts while my brain processed new rules of the road in Real Time. Robin, erstwhile Navigator, refrained politely from snickering as I repeatedly flipped on the windshield wipers instead of the turn indicator.
“Yield” yielded to “Give Way”. Posted speeds were in Kilometers, not Miles per Hour- as was the speedometer- a happy coincidence. Soon enough we arrived, unscathed, at the IGA Supermarket on Leeward highway, purchased necessaries for the first few days in our rental condo and tooled down the road to Turquoise Ridge, our home-away for the next 7 nights.
After checking out our spacious, new and completely comfy (privately owned- found on VRBO.com) digs and the view of Juba Point (a bright turquoise colored bay) from the screen porch overlooking the pool, we whipped up a favorite adult beverage to fortify us as we unpacked our carry-ons and backpacks. Then, off to one of our rare visits to one of many resorts lining Grace Bay, where perfectly white sands kissed by crystal turquoise waters greet tourists (mostly American, Canadian, British) and the prices are, well, quite beyond what we routinely want to pay. But hey, it’s our first evening and we have a terrific view of the large patch reef right in front of our perch on the wind-blown upper deck of the restaurant at Coral Gardens resort.
Our drinks appear, soon accompanied by tasty meals and we’re just happy to be here, enjoying the fantastic view, the cool wind and the shade of the table umbrella. This is a treat, as we’ve agreed to go it “on the cheap” on this vacation, re-heating lunches for dinner or buying a half chicken with a side or two at the IGA and stretching it to 2 or more meals. Each day we prepare a light breakfast in the condo kitchen, pack our travel cooler with drinks and ice, tuck snacks we brought from home into our beach bags, grab the snorkel gear and off we go.
Next morning we were up bright and early, making our way to the north side of the island and Smith’s Reef, a lovely spot just off the beach, arrived at once one has made their way from the road and stomped along a hot, unmarked sand track through the scrub to the wind-swept beach.
We donned snorkel gear and were soon finning against a wicked current, past a few isolated coral heads and finally over Smith’s Reef, approximately the distance of a football field from the rocky shore. Here, the water depths ranged from 5 feet on the lee side of the patch reef to over 20 feet at the northwestern-most point.
A school of juvenile barracuda hung over the reef, facing into the current. The usual fishy reef denizens patrolled, like trumpet fish, damsels, groupers, snappers, grunts and Parrot fish, busily snapping off bites of coral and pushing that lovely white beach sand out the other end in never-ending streams.
I floated above the deep, watching the curious behavior of a young Nassau grouper, which was pointing like a dog at a spot in the reef. The grouper would move a little, roll its eyes, turn this way and that and point. I decided to free dive down to see what had its undivided attention. At my approach an octopus with a head the size of a soccer ball suddenly darted out of its hole and danced across the sand, its mantle stretched out and tentacles flailing as it tried to find another hidey-hole while the grouper gamely pursued. In a blink, the octopus tucked its body into a handy crevice of the reef and, Poof, it changed its color and mottled pattern to perfectly mimic its surroundings. Even though I knew exactly where it was, I was hard-pressed to pick out its shape before I had to head for the surface. I watched for a few more moments, but clearly the grouper was as baffled as I was, and we each went our separate ways.
We visited Smith Reef again later in the week, early in the morning when the wind was quiet. The visibility was low due to so much suspended sand in the water caused by several days of high winds, but we spotted the same grouper, the same squad of barracudas, and had the added pleasure of watching a slipper lobster bumping its ungainly way across the reef.
While hanging over the deep part of the reef, I kept looking out over the surrounding sand and turtle grass, hoping to spot a passing turtle like we had on our first visit. Suddenly, out of the gloom, a large spotted eagle ray appeared, swimming right toward us. I alerted Robin, who watched, google-eyed, while the ray came within 4 feet of us then gracefully turned and glided away on a 5-foot wing span. I followed, swimming alongside it (but keeping a safe distance from that 7 foot long tail!). A magical moment that ended as the ray quickly out-distanced me and disappeared at the edge of the visibility curtain.
The next day was still windy but we had reservations with Deep Blue to spend the day aboard their boat, snorkeling at various locations on the fringing reef around Provo and West Caicos, a relatively undeveloped outer island known for amazing corals and healthy fish populations on the nearby reef system.
A note about the reefs of T&C: The barrier reef system is the third largest in the world, behind the Great Barrier Reef and the system that runs down the western side of Mexico and Belize, extending into the Bay Islands of Honduras. Since the 1980s I’ve visited numerous locations in these areas, and have witnessed the steady degradation of reefs from Florida and the Bahamas to Ambergis Caye, the reefs off the coast of Tulum and Akumal Mexico, and Roatan. My “bucket list” consists of the search for pristine-as-possible, healthy coral structures in the Caribbean with lots of healthy reef fish.
Here, off the coast of West Caicos, I finally got to see large collections of amazingly colorful Elkhorn corals the likes of which I haven’t seen since my SCUBA check-out dive on Molasses Reef off Key Largo, Florida in 1972. What a breathtaking sight, to snorkel in clear water, the late morning rays penetrating the shallows to light up a scene perfectly sublime: a massive, rust-red Elkhorn coral in the center of a gracefully curving reef face festooned with large sea fans and other soft corals and gorgonians waving in the currents, many adorned with one or more cowrie shells. Each little cowrie shell appeared to be hand-painted a unique pattern of bright colors, and the play of light and shadow of the waves above gave the impression of the cowries dancing merrily as their hosts waved back and forth, back and forth with the current.
At one snorkel stop, the boat anchored in 50 feet of water right at the edge of the abyss. We jumped in the water and spotted a large school of horse-eyed jacks circled in a protective ball, enjoying the welcome shade beneath the boat. The dive master beckoned us to follow her over toward the edge of the drop-off and, as she had promised, we spotted 2 reef sharks, mom and youngster, slowly circling the top of the reef 50 feet below. At the edge of the “wall”, the water turned from a royal blue to almost purple, the visibility curtain closing down rapidly across such depths.
The day’s travels took us around the greater part of Provo and West Caicos, where we observed several resorts in various stages of development, apparently abandoned to the elements. Unpainted concrete buildings stood forlorn on the rocky shore, their window openings bruised eyes staring bleakly out to sea. Barren of any decorative trees or shrubs and surrounded by streets carved from the rock, the resorts were quiet testaments to the effects of the Great Recession, the closing of banks and the withdrawal of development funds. Combined with Britain’s 2009 suspension of Ts & Cs government over allegations of corruption, (the Premier and his fellow government ministers apparently sold off Crown land to property developers for their own personal gain), the effects of this Perfect Storm are still very much in evidence.
One day we caught an early morning ferry to explore the outer island of North Caicos, where we planned to secure a rental car for a day’s exploration of North Caicos and its rather more remote neighbor Middle Caicos.
Once on the island, we drove our rental car along the main highway toward the settlement of Whitby on the windward cost of “North” and weren’t surprised to run out of asphalt when we turned off to head toward the “Three Mary Cays”, our morning snorkel destination.
Getting to these scenic cays situated just offshore in a pristine setting required concentration and a tight grip on the steering wheel as we bumped slowly along narrow and exceedingly potholed limestone tracks festooned with sharp rocks just waiting to puncture the little tires on the poor tired rental car. At one point the track apparently disappeared in a wash-out caused from a hurricane in 2010, but we persevered and eventually ended up at our destination, on a wind-blown and rocky shore.
The cays were exceedingly scenic and beckoned, so we donned snorkel gear and, in spite of the high currents and heavy seas, we snorkeled out to the cays, which offered little in the way of reef structure or fish life around their undercut bases. A dangerous rip current threatened to sweep us out to sea, so we quickly returned to the relative safety of the razor-sharp ironstone shore, where we minced around, observing the beauty of this remote location. The bow of a large freighter poked up from just inside the barrier reef, approximately a mile from shore, serving as a reminder of treacherous potential awaiting the unwary.
Making our way gingerly along yet another track, we arrived at the highway again and headed toward the settlement of Kew and the nearby ruins of Wade’s Plantation, a Loyalist era cotton plantation founded in 1789. After an arduous drive and a great deal of dead-reckoning navigation, we arrived at a small parking area carved out of the surrounding scrub. We walked a quarter mile along a rough footpath between low stone walls to arrive at a padlocked hurricane fence. The guide books and web pages we had read described the ruins as open daily. We were disappointed but dang it, we came all this way to see the ruins!
After glancing around guiltily and reassuring each other that we might be able to talk the authorities into viewing our trespass as a minor offense if we were to be apprehended, we clambered over a broken section of wall and proceeded on a self-guided tour of the ruins. Our risky gambit paid off, as we thoroughly enjoyed discovering the main house, overseer’s house, kitchen building, a garden and the original well site, all situated on the top of a hill that, back In the Day, must have provided excellent breezes and a breathtaking 360 degree view. Although our view consisted of twisted, bulldozed trees and ruins of the plantation walls that disappeared into the overgrowth, it was not hard to imagine how busy and possibly scenic this now desolate setting must have appeared when the estate was in full swing.
After a lovely lunch at the quaint cottage housing the Silver Palm restaurant and bar (delicious pina colada!), we drove our rental car along the paved road that connects North Caicos and Middle Caicos, hardly surprised when we were faced with large sections that were washed out by the hurricane.
These outer islands are characterized by stretches of scrub and salt ponds dotted with flocks of Flamingoes in the distance. Small settlements came and went and we met few vehicles on the roads.
We enjoyed a visit to a limestone cave, part of the largest cave network in the northern Caribbean.
We stopped off at Bamberra Beach, where a large cavern carved by huge waves over millennia overlooked a beautiful little bay protected by a high ironshore wall.
Soon it was time to return to the ferry dock, leave the keys in the rental car and catch the 30 minute ferry back to Provo which, after our day on North and Middle Cays, seemed terribly cosmopolitan and teeming with auto traffic.
Highlights of snorkel trips to the barrier reef just off Grace Bay included exploring the fairly robust and healthy reef, where some places were fishier than others.
On two different stops we spotted a large puffer fish, each over 3 feet long. I always look for these comical and shy fish and consider them a talisman. During the day they seldom come out of their holes in the reef, so I was surprised and delighted to spot each one swimming out in the open—even if they were frantic to find another place to hide.
In another spot that featured deeply undercut ledges at 20 foot depths, I spotted the distinctive outline of a nurse shark’s tail in the gloom of a large overhang. I dove down and, sure enough, there it was, all 7 or more feet of it, resting comfortably on the almost-smooth ledge, hidden from casual view by the deep overhang. Robin managed to dive down to spot the critter and returned to the surface, grinning.
One place we visited on Provo was a history buff’s delight- “Pirate carvings”, reached after best-guess driving/navigation and carefully picking one’s way up an almost vertical, rocky and slippery goat-path to the top of wind-swept Sapodilla Hill, which overlooks the commercial port and the sea.
Here carved into the bedrock and several large stones were dozens of rock carvings that featured dates and names of sailors who stopped by the island in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Some names appeared more than once, with almost a decade between dates, testifying to a steady commerce in sisal (rope for sailing vessels) and cotton during those periods.
Between balancing on boats, snorkeling in heavy surge and strong currents and hiking up and down precarious hills and goat-paths, we slept well each night and found ourselves thoroughly relaxed, if a bit worn out, after our week’s stay in TCI. Typically, we avoided the resorts and shopping and the high-end tourist scene, with the exception of Robin’s parasailing adventure over the reefs fringing the popular tourist destination of Grace Bay. So OK we did indulge, just a bit. After all, vacation should be about experiencing the new and different and the Ts and Cs did not disappoint!
Video panorama of one lovely, isolated snorkel spot.
B-B-B-brrr! Belize was a bit chilly on the Saturday of our arrival. It was early November, 2010- an overcast, windy day. But hey, it was better than the chill and the rain we’d left back home in Atlanta. And when the sun came out, things tended to warm up quickly!
Robin and I had planned this trip over a year ago and by the time it arrived, we were both more than ready to chill on a beach somewhere. I had been home for three days from a week-long business trip to San Diego. I was plumb wore out by the time I got back home. Plus, the 3 days at work in-between trips proved to be lengthy and chock-full of meetings. My battery was running seriously low.
On a Saturday, we made our way to the Atlanta airport for the direct flight to Belize City. From there, we caught a quick 20-minute flight in a small plane to the island of Ambergris Caye, “la Isla Bonita”.
I was looking forward to my third trip to Ambergis Caye and Robin was looking forward to her first exposure to the Belizian culture and to experiencing another tropic vacation in the Caribbean.
The interested reader can find, elsewhere in this blog, tales of two previous visits to Belize, and the adventures therein. This visit was slated to be laid-back, with emphasis on much-needed rest and taking advantage of the opportunity to snorkel the fabulous reef just offshore of the island, when weather permitted.
Kenny, the erstwhile, if practically useless, property manager of the condo we rented met us at the San Pedro airstrip. We quickly piled luggage and ourselves into the golf cart we had rented for the week and headed up-island.
Threading our way along the crowded, dusty streets of the town of San Pedro, we made a quick stop at the market for snacks and drinks, and within minutes we were over the bridge that spans the “cut”, a narrow inlet that separates the north end of the island from the south end. Shortly afterward we pulled into Bermuda Beach, the beachside condo complex that was to be home for the next week.
After a perfunctory review of the obvious by Kenny (“Here’s your balcony, this is the living room, there are the two bedrooms, each has a bath, this is the kitchen, here is the washer and dryer”), we kindly demurred over his offer of “making arrangements” for our reef trips (he wanted cash, up front—not the typical arrangement on Ambergris Caye. Or anywhere else in the Caribbean, for that matter. I sniffed a hustler). We shuffled Kenny off to Buffalo, unpacked, and had a drink on the balcony. The view from our second story balcony was lovely- looking over the pool surrounded by tropical plantings and out to the nearby reef.
It was time for a mid-afternoon lunch back in town, so we jumped in the golf cart, tooled over the bridge and ended up at Fido’s (Fee’-do’s), a fixture of San Pedro eateries on the beach, its high and massive thatched roof towering over the town. I had been looking forward to reacquainting myself with Fido’s signature Kalua Colada drink, the Purple Parrot, and was not disappointed when it quickly showed up at our table. Yummy!
Unfortunately, the food wasn’t terrific, and in fact by that evening I was sick. What a drag, to spend the first night and next day feeling sick. Same thing happened when we vacationed on the island of Anguilla in the spring. I wondered if this was becoming a habit.
Anyway, Sunday was windy, cloudy, and cool, with intermittent light rain, so we passed on the snorkeling in rough seas and instead found Ak’ Bol, a cute, scenic and low-key beach-side bar/eatery near our digs, just a few minutes of B-B-B-banging in the golf cart down the rutted, deeply and amply potholed sandy track that serves as the “road” for the northern portion of Ambergris Caye.
At Ak’ Bol we discovered terrific food, great drinks, and good prices. This yoga-retreat featured several low, thatched-roof cottages snuggled among lush, tropical trees and shrubs. A long dock with a large, thatched-roof open pavilion on the end extended into the quiet water in the lee of the fringing reef. The beach bicycle path ran through the property near the water, framed by large sea grape trees and gracefully curving coconut palms. There was nobody on the path, no nearby buildings, little golf-cart traffic out on the road at the back of the property, and only two people sitting on the high stools at the bar. Perfect! Just our kind of place.
The owner, a somewhat dyspeptic aged hippie ex-pat Gringo, compete with lengthy, dusty grey dreadlocks and a leathery tan, turned out to be a kind and handy source for expeditions to the nearby reef. We easily made arrangements with one of his employees to take us out on the reef, and availed ourselves of the inexpensive, private trips on several subsequent days.
The reef just offshore of Ambergris Caye is part of the fringing reef that runs down the coast of Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. Second only to the Great Barrier Reef in size, this magnificent coral garden has been (mostly) protected by the government and the citizens of Belize for decades. As a result, the coral is in terrific shape, with a healthy population of tropical fish and visits from large schools of ocean fish and predators.
It is not unusual to spot turtles, sharks, large sting rays, spotted eagle rays, and even green moray eels as one tours popular snorkel spots like Mexico Rocks, Tres Cocos, the” cut” and of course the marine park Hol Chan. We drank it all in during the week, and with the exception of one day when the wind was too high, we managed to snorkel on four different days.
At Hol Chan, Robin got to see a giant grouper and many of its smaller cousins, clouds of snappers, a 6-foot, free-swimming moray eel, magnificent spotted eagle rays, sting rays, and nurse sharks in the depths of the shipping channel that cuts through the reef, allowing large boats access to the insland. We swam within touching distance of numerous turtles that were feeding in the shallows on the back side of the reef. I was heartened to hear our vigilant guides warn neophyte snorkelers to avoid chasing the turtles, as doing so would stress the animals and keep them from breathing when they needed to the most.
This time of year the water was cool, so we wore our skins and rented shorty wet suits to allow us to stay a few more minutes in the water on each dive. Our captains and guides eyed our warmies with envy- poor guys, they had to snorkel in swim trunks and t-shirts, quickly bundling up in hooded jackets after each dive. While we were warm in the water, we got more than our share of goose bumps during the boat rides back to the dock. We often donned our windbreakers, but still, B-B-B-brrrrr! We’d sit in the sun out of the wind when we got back to warm up, just like the rock iguanas that hung out around the condo sea wall.
Evenings we would drive over the bridge and into town to grab a bite, which was more often than not street food, which was plentiful, fresh, yummy and inexpensive. BBQ chicken, rice, beans, and some plantains were the mainstays and suited us just fine. Sometimes we ate fish and we enjoyed the papusas made famous by the fabulous ladies at Waraguma, a hole-in-the-wall eatery on the main drag in town. Passing golf carts stirred the dust that wafted in the window openings of Waraguma’s. As indeed the dust wafted everywhere in the town, settling thick on countertops, chairs, tables and on the collection of paperbacks at the tiny used book store we frequented. All part of the atmosphere. When inclined, we would escape the noise and bustle of the narrow town streets by hanging out at the bar of any of the restaurants that line the narrow beach of the town.
Several times we B-B-B-banged the golf cart from pothole to pothole, threading among palms, scrub and construction that, these days, makes up the northern end of the island. Three years ago I observed the beginnings of many construction projects, private homes, condos and resorts. The development is marching inexorably north of San Pedro, with a temporary slow-down caused by the Great Recession. But the signs are there, and I saw more new construction on the northern part of the island during our stay than what I’ve seen in the communities around our home in suburban Atlanta in the past 3 years. Unfortunately, Ambergis Caye is faced with the same dilemma that bedevils most Caribbean tourist destinations; rapid overdevelopment, precariously perched on inadequate and poorly-funded infrastructure. Fresh water, sewage, solid waste disposal and the taxed and aged electrical grid all vie for attention and go unheeded as more ex-pats pour into the country, looking to “live the dream” with their vacation home or retirement condo. Magazines, online articles, blogs and travel forums trumpet Paradise! Those who get the real story from the locals or ex-pats apparently haven’t paid a lot of attention to the many vacancies, unfinished and abandoned construction projects, and foreclosed and sadly untended properties that are now on the market for dimes on the dollar and remain unsold. Meanwhile, AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other tropical delights confound the poor, (and I haven’t even broached the topic of abandoned and stray former pets) who make up the vast majority of islanders who live in the hot, airless lee of the island, their tiny, tilting wooden homes perched on rotting stilts over brackish and sluggish water. Healthcare is hardly universal. Education is improving, but statistics like high infant mortality, unemployment, children borne out of wedlock, alcoholism and an average annual income of $1200.00 US (not a typo- that’s twelve hundred dollars) tell the real story of this former “banana republic”.
Anyway. There we were, spending our hard-won dollars, doing our best to support some economy, somewhere. We could sink into despair over the plight of a third-world country, or revel in the “great deals” we secured for a just-off-season vacation. But we did neither. We mostly lived in the moment, taking and giving and enjoying what, for us, was a much-needed break from work and a wintery Atlanta.
All in all we had a fine time, even though we had to deal with Kenny-the-wanna-be-grifter. The story of Kenny would be fun to tell if it wasn’t such a sad reflection of a person who (sometimes?) works hard for very little, and who clearly saw us as easy targets for his sad but rather lame schemes. Suffice to say we dealt with him firmly, and without rancor.
The sun broke out hot and welcoming, promising a fine, flat day on the reef. But of course it was Saturday, time for us to head home. Oh well. We did enjoy our rest, the atmosphere of the island, the quiet and bucolic surrounds of the as-yet-untrammeled areas north of the cut, the warm and friendly people of San Pedro and of course the snorkeling.
The relatively quick trip from San Pedro to Atlanta (about 7 hours total travel time) had us home on Saturday evening in time for me to unpack my dusty carry-on, repack it with business attire, pack the laptop and Blackberry, catch a few hours of sleep, then head back to the airport for a week of business meetings in Las Vegas.
As much as I enjoyed meeting with and getting to know co-workers, the rapid change of pace, time zone and atmosphere resulted in jarring, noisy, and smoky culture shock. Under other circumstances I might have enjoyed the trip, but the contrast between what I had just left to long hours in recirculated hotel air and the man-made, manufactured, heavily populated, noisy casino bustle was, at best, off-putting. In any event, the days and nights I spent in meetings with (delightful) co-workers were lengthy and tiring. Late at night, when I laid awake, still on Belize time, I found myself drifting back to Ambergris Caye, to a quiet afternoon spent soaking up the sun at the Palapa Bar, sipping a cold concoction, eating fish tacos and listening to the sound of the ocean breaking on the reef, while waiting for the perfect moment to click a photo of that stunning sunset over la Isla Bonita.
I almost missed Anguilla when planning for our 2010 Caribbean vacation. The scale of the online map of the Caribbean I first pulled up to peruse the Eastern Caribbean had reduced this petite island to a spot, barely noticeable next to the overly large text proclaiming the location of Anguilla’s “back yard” neighbor ST. MARTIN/SINT MAARTEN, nearby SAN JUAN and Antigua and Barbuda islands.
A recessionary budget and our desire to avoid overly-trammeled and expensive islands left St. Martin and Antigua off our list. Puerto Rico was similarly out of the question. I found myself looking at Barbuda as a possible destination- but pretty soon came away disappointed, because even at the height of the Big Recession, accommodation prices on Barbuda were just a bit pricey for our humble pocketbook.
Once I started exploring the possibilities that Anguilla offered, I was hopeful that I’d found an out-of-the-way, overlooked island destination that was scenic, safe, with friendly people, great snorkeling, clean and plentiful windward and leeward beaches, and decent grocery stores. Of course flight and accommodation costs needed to fall within our Reality Check realm.
If at all possible, it would be terrific if the island was not too big (no cruise ship terminals but big enough to have at least 1 airport and to explore with a rental car) and not too small (pinched resources, limited infrastructure and too few Places to Go and Things to See), yet with a unique Caribbean character– a little “something” that would make it stand out in our memories. Too much to ask, right? Not for tiny, terrific Anguilla!
What’s so special about an island 16 miles long, 3 wide, with 13,000 human inhabitants, floating way out in the easternmost reaches of the Leeward Islands? Well, for starters, this is an island that sports a coat of arms with 3 orange dolphins against a simple white background, cavorting above a blue ribbon of representative Caribbean Sea.
No fluff, no heavy-handed laurel wreaths, raging lions, menacing raptors, crossed swords, no curlicues and embellishments against busy, pretentious backgrounds. Just simple, clean design. I liked it. Looked good on a t-shirt, so I got one.
By the time we arrived at Ku’, our needs-a-bit-of-a-facelift resort accommodations situated on a wide stretch of white, firm, pristine windward Shoal Bay West beach, we were hot, hungry and just plain tuckered out from an 11 hour travel day. Our hegira took us from car to long-term parking near the Atlanta airport to a lengthy layover in a cramped, airless Ft. Lauderdale terminal to the airport on St. Martin, and thru interminable Customs and Immigration lines.
We caught a van to drive us a few blocks to the ferry dock (still on St. Martin), where we eventually caught a shuttle boat to take us the 20 minute ride over to Anguilla—after a pause at the waterfront Police station so that our passports could be collected and scanned in to some massive database.
Arriving at the ferry landing in Blowing Hole on Anguilla, we found our rental car guy (arrangements having been made via email some weeks in advance), checked the “Little Car That Could” for dings, grabbed the keys, loaded in our carry-on bags, drove half the length of the island, took a wrong turn, found a grocery, and grabbed some goodies.
Somehow we made our way to Reception at Ku’- it was all a bit of a blur. Robin reported that I managed to keep enough presence of mind to drive on the left and dodge giant potholes, and the odd goat or ground dove that would suddenly materialize in front of us.
Dinner that evening was at a neighboring restaurant, Zara’s, where we had a delicious grouper meal. Unfortunately, the fish was a bit “off”, which put a real damper on our first full day. But of course we weren’t aware of the eventual effects of dinner when we later busied ourselves pulling the cushions off the couch in the living room of our smallish suite at Ku’ to add a measure of padding to the otherwise park bench-like “comfort” of our beds. But hey, we had central AC (!) fresh water in the full kitchen and the bathroom (even if the shower water pressure was barely a steady trickle), and a nice 2nd floor balcony with comfy chairs with a partial view of the beach.
Our room selection somewhat away from the beach was at the heart of how we got such a great deal on the accommodations for the week. A helpful Anguilla resident who frequented the Aguilla Guide Forum also produced a hand-drawn layout of the resort, which helped me choose a specific room number to request, to ensure we were at least on the top floor and on a corner position! You just gotta luv the Internet and especially local forums populated with helpful island residents and frequent visitors. Simply treasure troves of info.
Rain, giant ocean rollers, windy conditions and our iffy tummys led us to spend most of the first day languishing around Ku’s lovely pool. We did drive into Sandy Ground, the main commercial center on the island to grocery shop and we also drove further down-island to find a couple of sandwich shops and beaches I’d read about on the forum. However, a mostly “down” day was a Best Bet, considering the iffy fish and still being worn out from the effort to get to our lovely corner of the British West Indies.
The following day (Monday) featured persistent heavy seas and high winds. We planned to snorkel offshore and were aware of several possible locations on the leeward side of the island. When I checked with the dive master at Ku’s dive shop, he kindly directed us to a place we weren’t familiar with–nearby Sandy Hill Bay where a lovely strip of reef, situated at the mouth of the bay, offered consistently good snorkeling in somewhat protected water.
We wandered around a bit on the narrow roads but eventually found the narrow, rocky, rough path that led off the paved road and down toward the water at Sandy Hill Bay. I gently coaxed Little Car That Could over the sharp pinnacles of ancient reef that constituted the track, trying to avoid puncturing the three matched tires and the fourth, under-sized tire that kept making a thunking sound as we slowly bumped along in 2nd gear. Once at the bottom of the track, I was thankful to be able to turn the car around in a small area of firm beach sand and point it back up the hill. Backing up that steep track may have proven to be a bit more excitement than I had bargained for.
Having the car so close meant we didn’t need to do our usual trekking down a lengthy beach to reach a convenient place to enter the water near a promising point of the iron-shore, where snorkeling is typically the best. In fact, the reef was less than 100 feet away from the car.
We stood on the beach gripping our snorkel gear to keep the wind from snatching it away and squinted at the sight of giant waves breaking on the outer part of the reef, which jutted off the beach and ran straight out into the bay for well over 400 feet. A good two or more feet of reef showed above the water, and as the waves slammed into the side of the reef facing the ocean, curtains of spume fanned up and out, creating a heavy mist that hung above the reef like a fog bank. Above the bay, low clouds scudded along, bringing relief from the mid-morning glare on the water while threatening certain rain.
We waded into the bay and donned our gear in shallow water. When I rolled over on my stomach and saw the sandy bay bottom slowly sinking away to deeper water, I sighed and grinned around my snorkel mouthpiece. It felt like coming home, being embraced in warm ocean waters, bobbing up and down on the waves, my body unconsciously orienting itself to the surge and slight onshore current. For someone raised on and near the ocean and the Gulf of Mexico in Florida, it’s hard to go a year or more in-between tropical snorkeling excursions. I guess missing such experiences ensures that I do my best to try to save up every memory I build.
On the way to the deeper section of the fringing reef we paused to float above two isolated coral “heads” (really chunks of the nearby reef) sitting on a bed of sand in about 20 feet of turbid water. We cruised around the heads, checking out the tropical fish and corals, then we headed over to the back side of the reef. We slowly made our way into deeper water, swimming against the moderate current as the waves pounded the opposite reef face less than 10 feet away. The force of the wave action coming across the top of the reef toward us was a bit scary, as was the sight of the thick cloud of bubbles and the booming sound created by every wave crash. We were careful to stay several feet away to avoid being pulled and then pushed into the coral wall.
As we finned along, the sand dropped away to 40 feet, and the reef started looking less beat-up. More live coral appeared, and the fish population grew in numbers and variety. Gazing down the length of the reef, I noticed that although the visibility was less than 70 feet, we could easily see the denizens of the reef nearby. I spotted three trumpet fish moving slowly along with the current, trying their best to look like benign floating objects rather than the opportunistic, rapid-attack predators they are. As I let myself drift closer, one of the three must have spotted me because it snuggled up close to a sea fan that was waving in the current and surge. I watched to see if the trumpet fish would shift colors to blend in a bit better with the sea fan’s color but the fish must have decided my level of threat wasn’t high enough to make it worthwhile to expend the energy to crank up the chromatophores.
Before long we started to get chilled. We’d been in the 80-degree water for 30 minutes or so, and it was time to turn around and catch the free ride down current, back to where we’d approached the main reef. We passed now-familiar landmarks, including a large pile of bleached out and broken coral that had tumbled down the reef face. There was the section where dozens of dinner plate sized spiny sea urchins had been uprooted from their anchor points, and were now lying upside down, scattered along the base of the reef like so many discarded toys. I knew that most would right themselves and eventually find a new home on the reef, but I thought that they might want to wait a day or so until the big seas dropped.
Passing back by the two isolated coral heads, I pointed out a squad of seven cuttlefish to Robin. We hovered just up current of the cuttlefish, watching to see what aquabatics they might perform. I recalled a larger “squadron” of cuttlefish we had watched while snorkeling off the island of Roatan in Honduras, as mentioned in my Roatan post.
Before us, this group appeared to be content to hang in the current between the two coral heads, all at the same depth, spaced apart like a squad of soldiers at inspection. They didn’t twirl or dance or change colors like the formation had off Roatan, but every once in awhile one did extend its tentacles and snatch some unseen tidbit from the water column. We floated, shivering; finally gave up and swam in, ready to sit in the sun to warm up.
The next morning we returned to the same reef, found two of the trumpet fish where we’d last seen them and waved hello to the cuttlefish, who were in the same spot, doing the same thing and thoroughly ignoring our attention.
By Wednesday the seas had settled and the weather had turned from cloudy to sunny and hot. Early that morning we joined eight other vacationers aboard Chocolat, a 35-foot catamaran. We were headed six miles north of Anguilla to Prickly Pear cays for some snorkeling, chilling on the beach and lunch at the little bar and restaurant.
The ride over was breezy and pleasant, made all the more cheerful by lively conversation with our fellow passengers. We dropped anchor at Prickly Pear, joining four or five other large catamarans in the shallow, protected bay in front of the tiny beach Tiki bar tucked under the shade of sea grapes. The aquamarine color of the water beckoned, and as we dingied in to shore we counted 40 or more people snorkeling along the lengthy fringing reef.
Stepping out of the warm water and onto the beach was like standing in front of a giant oven door- the heat on this lee side was beyond stifling, with barely a breeze stirring. A handful of people wilted and sheltered under the few rental chairs and umbrellas perched on the broiling sand. We set our snorkel gear down on our chairs, stood in line at the Tiki bar for a drink and returned to our little patch of super-heated shade to sweat and gulp greedily at our now not-so-frozen drinks. Lunch was to be served in 45 minutes, so we quickly finished off our drinks, grabbed our snorkel gear and got in the water to cool off.
I swear I could hear my skin sizzle as I lowered my body gratefully into the cool water.
From shore it was a bit of a swim out to the reef, and the further we swam the stronger the current against us became. Pretty soon I was quartering the oncoming current, trying to discover a route to the deeper water where I suspected the current wouldn’t be as strong.
Turns out we were in Olympic Snorkeling mode, much as we had been last year off the island Anagada in the BVI. All the hard swimming really didn’t bring the reward of enjoying a pristine reef and lots of critters. Most of the reef was broken off and a lot was bleached and dead. Obviously big storms had wrecked damage. Fish were scattered and not very plentiful. We soon tired and headed in to shore.
I gave up on the patch of umbrella-heated shade and instead stood in the natural, and much cooler, shade of a large sea grape and chatted up fellow Chocolat passengers, a married couple who were from New England. Although they had bought a condo on Anguilla several years ago, they still seemed to be figuring out their home-away-from-home. The wife, in particular, was startled by the friendly and downright fearless behavior of the Banana Quits, tiny birds also called Sugar Birds, common throughout the eastern Caribbean. A quit flittered around my head, chirping and bugging me for a snack, then sat on a branch of the sea grape. I reached out slowly to see if I could entice it to alight on my hand when I spotted the quick darting movement of a small native Ameiva (lizard).
“Eck! A lizard!” the wife exclaimed in horror before I could point out the harmless little critter. As I herded the reptile with my hand around to the side of the branch where hubby could see it, the wife waxed about her abject fear of “all these lizards” found in the islands. I nodded in sympathy then grinned as I caught sight of a rather large green iguana that was shuffling along the hot white beach sand behind her, apparently headed for welcome shade—right under the picnic table bench where she held forth.
“Um, I’m glad you mentioned that you’re afraid of lizards”, I ventured, trying to figure out how to gently inform her about the approach of her nemesis. It was seconds away from contact. Before she could interject, I added “You may want to lift your feet up… ” and I pointed behind her. Hubby leaned down from his bench seat to see where I pointed. Looking surprised and not a little frightened, the wife nearly tumbled off her seat as she tried to lift her feet and spin around to look in the direction of the approaching danger.
I chuckled as the iguana scooted just past where the wife’s feet had been seconds ago and darted into the scrub. “That was a big one,” the husband said gravely, as he gave me a small wink.
Soon our group was invited to approach the restaurant and enjoy a hot (!) meal of BBQ chicken, plantains, and veggies under the partial shade on the wooden deck outside the building. The lack of breeze, the heat bouncing off the rough wooden decking and the sun beating on the shoulders of those unfortunate enough to arrive too late to secure the little shade made available under the tattered thatching overhead, and the heat radiating from our hearty, hot meal ensured that everyone ate rapidly, all too eager to return to the relative cool of the water or a piece of sea grape shade.
This wasn’t the first time I ran into the peculiar penchant of Caribbean hosts to “treat” visitors, especially those held captive on an organized trip, to a hot, steamy, heavy, meaty mid-day meal in a typically windless and shade-deprived setting! The few times I’ve been offered cool, refreshing fruit, light salads and ample cool water were on chartered sailboats during a day-sail excursion. Not a biggie but I wonder if the tendency is a cultural thing or an attempt to provide added value when a meal is included in the trip price.
Soon it was time to get back aboard Chocolat and make our breezy way back to Anguilla. The return trip was a bit more rough than the outgoing leg on our tired bodies. Once again, we day-trippers perched or leaned as best we could on the sides of the vessel in the shade of the main sail. While roomy, Chocolat’s design did not afford the comfort of a large cockpit ringed by seat cushions. The softest seating was in the (airless, hot) cabin or in the direct sun shining on the trampolines. Our group looked a bit like worn-out birds on a tree limb, crouching down into bits of shade, shifting position as the sun crept up already bright red feet, legs, and arms. After a hot day in the sun, a few drinks, a hearty meal and the constant bracing against the movement of the boat, everyone appeared tired, hot and ready to call it a day. Conversation was, understandably, minimal.
Our last two full days on the island were likely the best of our trip. Because the seas had settled, in the morning we were able to secure a lift in a small boat from Crocus Bay to nearby Little Bay (just up the shoreline) to enjoy what I had read in the Anguilla forum was the best snorkeling from shore. Calvin, the boat owner, was a taciturn but not unfriendly boat captain, who pointed out the best area to snorkel- as we passed it. And kept going. I thought he was challenging us when he said we “looked fit” enough to swim all the way back to the spot from Little Bay, where he would drop us off.
We putted along, not 30 feet from the iron shore, which presented a 50-foot high steep, rough, barren, blackened and threatening façade. Over the eons the wave action had carved narrow canyons and valleys between what appeared to be finger-like extensions of ancient coral. We passed one small valley some 30 feet wide at the base, where a narrow, coarse shell-and sand mix of steeply sloping “beach” looked like it was loose enough to swallow a person up to their thighs. Little did I know then that the shallows mere feet from the sand would soon produce a delightful surprise.
A bit further along, we entered the mouth of Little Bay, which proved to be as scenic and secluded as we had expected. Calvin turned his boat around and held the stern off the sandy beach as we clambered over the transom with our snorkel gear, beach bags and cooler. He asked what time we wanted him to return, we said in 2 hours, and with a nod, he climbed aboard, cranked his outboard, and putted away, the sound of the boat engine dwindling as he rounded the corner and slowly made his way back toward Crocus Bay.
The engine sounds were soon replaced by the calls of gulls and terns swooping around the cliffs that towered overhead and the splashes of pelicans as they dove into the clear waters to catch a mid-day snack. The beach was as broad as the opening to the bay, some 300 feet, with waves gently lapping on hard-packed sand that gave way above the high tide line to boulders and large rocks lying half-buried in loose, fine sand that squeaked underfoot.
Tucking our gear in the shade afforded by the surrounding wall, we sipped drinks from the cooler and looked around, enjoying the scenery and the quiet.
Robin spotted a rope trailing down from high above, draped over the edge of the razor-sharp coral wall and dangling down to the sand some 40 feet below. “Must be the rope we were told about that the locals use to get down here,” she said. I walked over and, in my bare feet, gingerly stepped over the rock to grab the rope. I craned my neck to gaze up the incline, which was almost vertical, and shook my head, imagining the ruined vacation that would result from one small slip on that literal razor-edged “trail”. We decided it was well worth the $15.00 per person we had paid Calvin to deliver us safely to Little Bay!
The water was deliciously cool and clear as we finned our way around the southern point of Little Bay and slowly made our way back toward the “best snorkel spot”, the first of what turned out to be seven “fingers” that we would pass. The wall to our left sloped down to sand some 20 to 30 feet below us. The angle of the sun at mid-day lit up the bright sandy bottom apparently devoid of life. I studied the variety of small tropical fish and soft corals that decorated the wall, then turned my attention to the sandy bottom, noticing a rather large patch of the signature holes of garden eels, which I pointed out to Robin. The eels were, not unexpectedly, avoiding feeding in the light of the mid-day sun. If we were snorkeling earlier, or later in the day, we would likely have witnessed hundreds of them, their bodies extended from their holes, waving in the currents as they fed on passing tidbits.
As we crossed the mouth of each bay, the water got deeper where the currents had dug out a channel in the center. There, we saw a few small schools of fish and a couple of isolated coral heads topped by sea fans and decorated with the usual juvenile tropical fish found in the shallows. So far I wasn’t bowled over by the scenery, but the swim was effortless and the water, unusually warm for this latitude this time of year, was a comfortable temperature.
As we approached the southern point of the “best spot” snorkeling bay with the tiny beach, I noticed a large coral head near the base of the wall. Both the head and the wall were covered by soft corals and large sea fans, and many more tropical fish than I had seen yet snorkeling the waters in and around Anguilla. Things were looking up!
Suddenly, at the edge of the visibility curtain, between us and the wall appeared a large school of silversides, or “bait fish”. The closer we got to the fish, the more I began to realize that this was no mere school- it was a huge shoal of thousands of shiny fish, ranging from a few inches to just under a foot in length. And it was thick- so thick that I couldn’t see through the bodies to the wall just beyond. The shoal stretched from the water’s surface down more than 30 feet to the sand, and wound its way along the shoreline as far as I could see.
Robin floated nearby and we both looked on, entranced, as the fish darted, shifted and swirled as one mass. They seemed to generally be winding their way along the shore, hugging the wall and staying as closely packed as they could for protection. Pelicans dived into the densely-packed fish bodies from above as predators below waited for their chance to make a snack of any fish that fell away from the formation.
Knowing that predators would be lurking around such a large gathering of “bait” fish, I suggested to Robin that we avoid getting between the shoal and the wall, to reduce the chance of any part of our anatomy being mistaken for a yummy morsel. As we slowly swam next to the shoal, I looked down and out into the gloom to see if I could spot any predators. Ah, there was a small group of jacks with toothy grins, swimming parallel to the shoal in the opposite direction of the shoal’s general line of travel. And there was a barracuda- and another one, smaller. And, yep, there were the inevitable snappers, looking to snatch up any pieces that might be left by a larger predator.
Suddenly I spotted a tarpon. Then another. Then another. Before long I counted six, ranging from 3 feet to almost 5 feet in length. I pointed them out to Robin, who nodded, her brows raised inside her mask. Suddenly, at the edge of the visibility screen, a really large tarpon emerged. Longer than I am tall, and thicker around the middle than my thigh, it had a large scar around the right side of its mouth, clearly from damage done by a hook. I know because I got a good look at the damage as the silver torpedo came within 6 feet of where I floated, my body (and breath!) suspended.
Although I know the fish posed no threat to us, I was still startled and not a little discomfited by the sheer size of it. The last time I swam this close to anything that big was just last year, but that was a nurse shark headed away from us after being disturbed from a nap on the bottom of a bay. This fish wasn’t going anywhere except around and under the shoal of silversides, apparently completely ignoring our presence. I decided it was up to us to steer clear of any interference, so we allowed ourselves to drift past the busy point of land and into the shallows of the small bay nearby.
Here the water quickly went from over 30 feet in depth to less than 2 feet close to the beach. Peering through the constantly shifting wave of silversides curving around the inside of the bay, I was delighted to discover a thriving reef, chock-full of soft and hard corals of every color, and small and large sea fans, each with its attendant snail, waving briskly in the current. Purple, green, red and orange sea anemones trembled in the wave action from the surface and the currents below. The sun glinted brightly off the sand in the channels between coral heads and lit the top of the reef like a stage light.
Entranced, I tried to drink in the visual overload all at once, while carefully avoiding being shoved into the sharp coral by wave action. I moved my flippers just enough to keep them near the water’s surface and to maintain steerage way as I floated in the shallow water covering this amazing underwater oasis, my belly within inches of contact with razor-sharp coral, some of it tipped by fire coral.
Suddenly I spotted a young Hawksbill turtle floating in the small grotto carved between coral heads. My approach startled the youngster and as it darted away I saw its companion, who was floating in another canyon a bit farther on, take off. Both turtles sported a bright red metal tag on the leading edge of each flipper. I figured they were both about 3 years old, based on what we’d learned during our visit to the turtle sanctuary on the island of Bequia three years ago. There, we spent a morning learning everything you wanted to know about turtles, and especially Hawksbill turtles, and we became pretty adept at estimating this species’ age based on its size. Jacques Cousteau would be proud of us!
We’d been in the water for over an hour and were getting chilled, but it was still hard to say goodbye (for now) to this amazing little corner of the shoreline and head back down the coast to Little Bay. But leave we did, passing the now-familiar pack of predators lurking around the seemingly never ending flow of silversides.
We were so captivated by our experience that we told Calvin we’d like to do it again the next day. He asked skeptically if we’d made it all the way back to the snorkel spot he’d pointed out to us. When we said we did, and went on to describe what we’d seen, he actually seemed to warm to us a bit. Guess we might LOOK like two middle-aged-pampered-white-American-tourist-gals but hey, don’t judge a book by its cover!
That afternoon we found our way back to Gwen’s Reggae Bar, our favorite place to chill on the beach, which was conveniently a couple of miles away from Ku’.
Tap, the cook, had the yummy BBQ chicken and ribs on the grill as we climbed the two wooden steps from the sand to the welcome shade of the open “beach shack” restaurant and bar. After a couple of frozen Pina Coladas and a delicious BBQ chicken and pasta salad lunch, we walked in the soft sand to the large and shady coconut grove situated next to Gwen’s. There we wiled away the afternoon in lounge chairs or a hammock strung between two tree trunks. We chatted and read books and dozed, the beach virtually to ourselves except for a few people strolling by on the beach below or the pelicans diving into the shallows. As beautiful as the water was, we didn’t swim because the breeze was brisk enough that we didn’t need to cool off. What a perfect place to hang- absolute bliss, and one of the most relaxing places I’ve found on any beach in my years of Caribbean travel.
Our last full day, Friday, mirrored the previous day. Little Bay was hosting two other couples when we arrived, but we didn’t stay to visit as we were anxious to get back to that magic little snorkel spot. Along the way there, I picked up a tiny, bright yellow Damsel fish-like attendant. It swam furiously right next to my jaw, apparently attracted by the bright yellow shirt I was wearing to protect my back and shoulders from the sun. When I would stop swimming and just float, it would dart in front of my face as if to say “Come on, let’s go!” I felt somewhat like a shark with its remora. Robin shook her head, giggling at the antics of my little pal.
As we arrived at the point of the pretty little bay, I was surprised to discover that the shoal was still there, accompanied by the same predators, including the tarpon gang featuring Big Daddy (or Momma). Amazing! We spent more time swimming around the bay, studying the reef and the critters and hanging just off the shimmering shoal of fish, watching the ballet created by the flashing patterns of the ever-shifting mass.
Later, sitting in Calvin’s boat as we put-putted our way back to Crocus Bay, I felt a twinge of sadness as I mentally waved goodbye to the fish beneath us. This being our last full day on the island, I knew that snorkeling for this trip was over. We would go on to enjoy a delightful lunch at the Ferryboat Inn near the (duh!) ferry landing, and spend our last quiet, breezy afternoon lazing about in the shade of the coconut palms next to Gwen’s. But as the evening came on and it was time to shower and pack our stuff for tomorrow’s lengthy travel day, we were both dragging around, not chatting much, the anticipation of the week’s vacation now replaced by lassitude and a touch of melancholy.
However. The excitement wasn’t quite over. We ended up spending over 2 hours in the nearby hospital emergency room because I managed to drive a large plug of earwax up into my Eustachian canal (while trying to REMOVE the annoying thing). After Robin went so far as to use two small straws from the bar to blow water jets into my (by now) painful ear to try to dislodge the plug, with no results, we realized it was either call the Doctor on call to Ku’ ($$$$$$) or go to the nearby hospital for proper lavage treatment.
The 1.5 hour wait seemed interminable. I was the only patient, so after I completed some initial paperwork, we sat in plastic chairs in the breezeway created by the wide open doors of the rustic hospital entryway, anticipating a short wait. The waiting area was peopled by two policemen, obviously there to provide security, who looked bored and hot, leaning against the makeshift registration counter. They were joined by a comatose male “receptionist”. The three were watching a soccer match blasting from a TV hung high in a corner of the waiting room. My plugged ear didn’t help reduce the cacophony of the noise, which soon ratcheted up beyond comprehension as a large family blew in with a cloud of dust from the parking lot. Grand kids, mom, dad, sisters, brothers, uncles and aunties of a very pregnant girl soon chased the policemen off and put the receptionist to work, shuffling papers, and irritated by the need to speak with all of the adult family members at once.
A woman sporting surgical scrub shoe covers bustled into the waiting area from behind a set of swinging doors to our left, passed through the area without a glance at the mayhem, and disappeared behind a different set of swinging doors at the entry to the opposite hall. This happened several times. Once she stopped for a second to get a paper cup of water from a standing water cooler under the blaring TV. Then she disappeared. It reminded me of a play in which various actors pop in and out of doors on the set, coming and going across the stage, maybe pausing to do a bit of business apropos of nothing, then scurrying away again.
Soon the woman-of-the-shoe-covers led the pregnant girl away through one of the sets of swinging doors. The noisy children went outside to play in the dust of the parking area. A couple of men settled in behind us to watch the soccer match. The women drifted outside to watch the children. We sat and waited.
Eventually I was seen by the doctor on call, a stern woman who was apparently disappointed that I wasn’t in need of her level of skills. Frowning, she motioned for me to sit in a chair and, wordlessly, she motioned to an assistant (nurse? hard to tell- no uniforms, no name badges), who was soon admonishing me, with humor, about causing my own problem. “Didn’t your mother tell you to never put anything in your ear?” she teased, in her soft island accent. In between squirting units of saline solution into my ear, my medical person told Robin “Next time you see her put something in her ear, you beat her!” While we laughed, I fleetingly noticed Robin wearing an appraising expression. Just for a minute.
Several units of saline solution and $58.00 later, my throbbing ear unplugged, I was happy to be driving the few miles back to Ku’ and grateful that the hospital was as close and as well stocked and staffed as it was! I could think of several islands I’ve stayed where the outcome would have been neither as quick nor as relatively painless.
The next morning we said goodbye to the friendly staffers at Ku’. Like everyone we had met on the island, they asked us if we had enjoyed our stay and to come back. We knew we’d heartily recommend Anguilla and the people who live there to anyone who desires a delightful, refreshing, relaxing, scenic, friendly, out-of-the way vacation spot.
We departed Anguilla with a sense of faint foreboding for its fate. Like other places we’ve discovered, we suspected our visit was barely in advance of the inevitable Tide of Progress crouching just over the horizon, waiting for the global economy to recover from the Great Recession before overwhelming these unique, but fragile, specs of land floating in a blue-green sea.
Put me in, on or near the water and I’m happy as a clam. Unless of course, there’s a gale blowing and I’m hanging onto the edges of my bunk for dear life to keep from being flung to the deck while outside the cabin portholes an angry, tossed and foamy wall of ocean is going down, down, down past the porthole then rising quickly up, up, up to arrive at the precipitous lip of yet another gigantic wave, seeming much taller than the flying bridge of our 50 foot Hatteras motor yacht. A gust of wind blows sea foam and not a little sea water through the portholes, soaking my friend Anni’s bunk below. She won’t be pleased to discover a wet bunk, if and when we ever get out of this mess and make our way safely back to Miami and the relative calm of the dock space at the yacht club.
We were aboard the Sailor’s Hat, owned by my friend Anni’s parents. Some three weeks earlier Anni and I had driven down to Miami from Ocala, Florida to join her folks and the “fleet” from the yacht club on the annual Spring Cruise. This year, 1985, the fleet was to spend a month, more or less, cruising the Berry and Abaco islands of the Bahamas. Months of preparations developing itineraries, establishing which boats were leaving when, and deciding on rendezvous points and communications protocols led to the eventual leave-taking of around a dozen sailboats and motor yachts, heading out of Biscayne Bay and across the Gulf Stream to points east and south.
We spent a couple of days at the sprawling Coconut Grove home that Anni’s dad, Cap’n Pete, had built after WWII. I helped Mother Dunan cook and freeze food and pack linens and kitchen ware. Anni helped Cap’n Pete effect some last-minute boat repairs and schlep load after load of tools and all manner of gear needed to keep the boat afloat and self-sustaining for the coming weeks.
The fateful day for departure came, with a cooperative weather forecast promising a calm crossing of the Gulf Stream. As Anni and I gathered in the bow and stern dock lines and Cap’n Pete slowly backed the ‘Hat out of her slip, our little group waved goodbye to members gathered on the great lawn of the yacht club to see us off.
It certainly felt like a momentous departure, at least to me. For several years I’d been regaled with stories of previous Spring cruises, complete with photo albums stuffed full of terrific shots of people cavorting aboard boats and yachts, big and small, and exploring unpopulated specs of islands floating in turquoise shallows in various Caribbean island chains. I couldn’t wait to join my adopted family to spend several weeks in relative isolation aboard a boat with shared spaces equivalent to less than an 800 square foot apartment.
Actually, we got along very well together, which is a good thing, because we were going to spend a great deal of time in each other’s company. And along the way I was to be reminded just how critical teamwork would prove to our safety and well-being.
Once the ‘Hat was topped off with diesel fuel, ice, beer and the all-important fresh water, our first hurdle was the crossing of the Gulf Stream. Sometimes the crossing could be smooth as glass, others the waves could stack up to well above 10 feet. Numerous skippers’ wives, who had been through a crossing or two, opted to skip the crossing and instead meet their boat on an island with a convenient air strip. This meant that some boats would initially make their way to one of the islands in the Abacos or Berry islands that offered airports. Other boats with their full crew would make their way east to Hole in the Wall, then “around the outside” and north again to the inside, protected Ababco Sea passage threading the chain of islands.
I had applied a scopolamine patch behind one ear the day before our departure, hoping to ward off the evils of mal-de-mer. Once we hit the Gulf Stream proper, the waves towered to the point that we lost sight of a cruise ship less than 4 miles away every time we dipped into a trough. And this was a “calm” crossing!
My vision was getting blurry and my speech slurry from a reaction to the medicine, so off to the port stateroom I went, to lie on my bunk fighting off sea-sickness for the next five hours or more. At one point I staggered up the companionway steps leading from the galley to the salon, to find Cap’n Pete perched on his high-boy wicker chair, which was carefully lashed to the starboard bulkhead, his bare feet planted firmly on the edge of the steering console. Anni was perched much the same on the port side on her own high-boy chair, serenely looking out over a vast, wave-tossed watery domain.
Wind whipped massive gobs of foam off the tops of what appeared to me to be giant waves that churned willy-nilly, with no apparent pattern or determination, beyond that of tossing our little craft about like a bobber.
Cap’n Pete had engaged the automatic pilot but was keeping a careful eye on our drift rate as the Gulf Stream pushed the boat northward. As he explained why he was having to correct our course, my brain had difficulty processing the information through a fog of scopolamine. Also, the lurching and corkscrewing of the boat was more pronounced in the salon, and pretty soon I was headed back down to my bunk. Along the way I passed Mother Dunan, who was comfortably jammed into the corner of the booth of the galley dining table, playing solitaire. Sympathetic to my plight, she assured me we would be clearing Customs at Chub Cay by 4pm. I was looking forward to solid land again and a quiet night tied to a stable dock!
My vision and speech problems persisted, even after walking about on dry land for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until that evening that I figured out I had a reaction to the medicine. I removed that damned patch. It took 2 more days for the stuff to finally wear off. I decided I would just bite the bullet and hope to develop sea-legs naturally, without the help of any medicine. Which worked, just fine. So well, in fact, that I developed the opposite problem – getting sea-sick on land!
After several lengthy days at sea, I discovered I couldn’t tolerate sitting still on a beach or in a building without the world spinning faster and faster. Luckily, the best food on the trip was Mother Dunan’s cooking aboard.
Although the itinerary called for different groups to meet at several restaurants on different islands throughout our trip, I never managed to sit for long without being assaulted by land sickness. I was much better off on the boat. Even if we were in a slip, the slight motion of the boat was just enough to keep me comfy, and I was fine as long as I had a cold beer and a good book to read!
Our “deserted island” adventures began on the third or fourth day, as I recall, at Frozen Cay. It was mid-afternoon and I was below, again, trying to develop those sea-legs by distracting myself listening to my Walkman, when I felt the boat shift course and I heard the distinctive sound of the twin diesels drop below a roar– no surprise, since our stateroom was located just aft of the port engine.
From previous weekend and week-long trips aboard the Sailor’s Hat, I had been trained to respond to any change in the boat’s movement or the pitch of the engines. In a matter of seconds we left the tossing of the ocean and entered protected water. I headed up to the salon to be met with my first experience of approaching a deserted, quiet anchorage in the dangerous shallows of the Bahamas.
I was quickly asked to put my eagle-eyes to work to help Cap’n Pete carefully pick our way up sandy passages in-between coral patch reefs and rocks that could hole the boat like the antique wooden craft that she was. Anni was doing her best to “read the water”, which for land-lubbers I might describe as the fine art of staring into the sun’s glare while attempting to make sense of the cat’s paw pattern of wind as it moves across the surface tension of the sea. Depending on whether the pattern was unbroken, or formed a swirl or any number of other esoteric shapes, one might suspect an obstruction, like a big rock, to be lurking just under the surface. Or, you could do like I did and climb up to the flying bridge and with my handy-dandy polarized sun glasses, I could actually see those patch reefs and big, dark rocks and shout down directions to Anni.
It must be noted that the flying bridge was just that—a bridge, complete with a steering station. But on this boat, it was uncovered, so the boat was driven from the steering station in the shade below, in the main salon, which was far preferable to cooking in the hot sun!
I soon appreciated there was more art than science at work here, but somehow we managed to maintain sufficient steerageway to dodge obstacles and bring us across more than a mile of water, deep inside the protected anchorage. Whereupon it was “anchor drill” time, when Anni and I got to do our thing.
Anchor Drill consisted of a little dance: lifting that damned giant Danforth anchor (with extra lead poured into the crown) out of its slot on the bow while avoiding crushing our bare toes. Using well-honed technique, Anni would pull out and carefully coil on deck quite a lot of line (depending on the scope Cap’n Pete wanted). Then, carefully grasping the chain attached to the ring at the top of the shank, she would dangle the anchor and a few inches of chain over the lip of the bow, awaiting Cap’n Pete’s signal from the bridge to “let go”.
My job was to stand about, close enough to relay messages between Anni and her father through the open salon doors, but not in a spot where I would obstruct Cap’n Pete’s view. Oh yeah, and of course to hector Anni to “be careful, don’t trip on that combing, don’t drop that anchor on your toe” or else make smart-ass remarks or dry observations about the anchorage if we were in a lull of time while Cap’n Pete was slowly driving us up to the absolutely ideal spot of sand for the anchor to be dropped onto. Whereupon the heavy beast was dropped with a big Splash. The coiled line would pay out, and Anni would lash the line to the cleat after Cap’n Pete signaled satisfaction with the scope of the line, then we’d scoot back to the salon (I always went through the starboard doors, Anni went through the port doors, we had it down pat after awhile) to await further orders from Cap’n Pete.
Our skipper was a retired Navy man, had been the Commodore of the yacht club time and again over the years, and was considered the most learned and senior of all the boat owners at the yacht club. Living up to his reputation for Safety First, he always came out on the bow to check his anchor, to feel the boat underfoot, to sense her movement in the wind and any current or tide that might be running. All this before he would ever shut the engines down. Anni and I would remain alert, rather like two hunting dogs waiting to be let loose, until those engines were shut down and Cap’n Pete, a man of few words, would give us a small wave or grunt “Ok, good” or something equally weighty.
I soon learned on this trip that the end of anchor drill didn’t exactly signal time to go swimming or crack that first beer. Rather, my job became that of window cleaner. Because we spent almost all day out on the open ocean, the boat would be coated in sea salt, so I got to sponge a little of our precious fresh water, mixed with Joy dish washing liquid, onto the massive acreage of glass encasing the boat’s salon. The job entailed being out in the broiling sun, with nothing on but quick-dry shorts and a tiny crop-top cotton shirt, sponging and squeegeeing until the glass shone like, well, glass. I soon learned to glop on sun screen, don a hat, and work efficiently. Eventually I reduced the task down to less than 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, as soon as we hit calm water, Mother Dunan typically started her stint as “Galley Slave”, prepping a tray of appetizers, which Anni would ferry up to the salon to spare her mom going up (and down) several galley steps, making the turn on the little landing, then proceeding up (and down) several more steps. Boating could be hard on one’s knees!
Sometimes Mother Dunan would begin dinner preparations, depending upon what time of day we arrived at the anchorage. Or, on numerous occasions, we might join, or be joined by, another boat of our little fleet, in which case the already-scheduled host boat would trot out the appetizers, ice and drinks while the guests freshened up, donned their nicest “among friends” evening boat attire, then would dinghy over to the host boat for cocktail hour.
One such occasion found us tied up at a slip in Hopetown Harbor, rowing the dinghy over to the evening’s cocktail boat anchored in the center of the harbor. The host boat, a 30-foot sailing vessel, served as a stable, if cramped, platform for the 20 or so guests, who perched on any available flat area, trying to balance paper plates of goodies and plastic cups of wine.
The sun was sinking into the west, setting the famous lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor aglow and bathing us in the last of the day’s heat. Anni and I were chatting about the name of a nearby boat, the Carpe Diem. I said something about the appropriateness of the name for a day-sailor when an elderly gent on a comfy cushion in the cockpit behind us said to his companion “Look, Carpe Diem. Doesn’t that mean Fish of the Day?”
I had just taken a hefty bite of a cracker balancing a tasty slice of sharp cheddar and nearly choked as I let out a sputtering guffaw. The gent’s companion said something like “Now there’s a young lady who must know her Latin. Tell me, Miss, isn’t Carpe Diem Latin?” I laughed and said “Yes—Latin for Live for the Day, I believe”. Silence from behind me. Anni lifted her eyebrows quizzically. I turned around, faced with two older gentlemen who looked surprised and, I thought, a bit pained. I didn’t understand why they were so obviously put off until the companion laughed and said “Of course! Live for the Day! How could we forget?” And here I thought I’d overheard a clever pun!
It wasn’t until later that evening, back aboard the ‘Hat, that I learned that the Fish of the Day gent was a recently retired director of the Smithsonian. And yes, he was quite serious and did really believe his version of the Latin translation. I don’t recall seeing that particular fellow again during the cruise. He may have been one of many who flew into Marsh Harbor to join the fleet for a leg or two of the journey, to return to Marsh Harbor to fly away again; apparently to a place where they don’t know their Latin.
Then again, he may well have been aboard the tres’ expensive, modern, fiberglass 60-something foot Bertram motor yacht, which joined us and another member of the fleet sometime later in the cruise.
It was late in the afternoon, once again, when we approached a tricky, narrow anchorage between two of the dozens of tiny, low, scrubby islets that make up an area of the Abacos called Double-Breasted Cay. The only protected anchorage there is quite narrow, with a typically high current at tide change. Knowing this, Cap’n Pete determined to arrive ahead of other boats to secure a safe spot for the ‘Hat. He explained that, due to the likelihood of significant tidal currents swinging the boat onto exposed reef/rocks on either side of the narrow passage, we’d set two anchors off the bow so that we could swing a bit on either one in such cramped space.
As Designated Diver, it was my job on this occasion to don snorkel gear and dive some 30 feet down in the (luckily) crystal clear water to the sand, reposition the thousand-ton (it felt like) anchor and dig the flukes well into the sand—in the correct direction, of course. Only after the main anchor was set to Cap’n Pete’s satisfaction would the second anchor be placed in its proper position.
This was one of the more challenging assignments I was given. There I was, feet planted firmly in shifting, fine sand at 30 feet, using the weight of the anchor to steady me as I craned my neck upward, trying to see Cap’n Pete through my fogged mask and the patterns the wind was making on the surface of the water. He was hanging over the stanchions at the bow, gesturing for me to move the anchor “over that way”, holding his arms wide to indicate the distance the anchor needed to be moved. Ok, I thought, I can do this. But I need more air. So back up I went, floating in front of the bow while Cap’n Pete gave succinct directions. Back down, plant my feet, lift that big-ass honkin’ anchor, grunt out a precious large bubble of air, glance upward, see him gesturing again, move the damn thing once more then back up, in a hurry now, for more air. More discussions ensued. Back down. This went on for far more time trips to the bottom than I had bargained for. Not to mention my breath-hold capacity was dwindling precipitously each dive.
One last galvanic effort and the thing was set. Anni was at the transom, watching me crawling, exhausted, onto the swim platform. While I caught my breath, she quipped “Hey, wanna go snorkeling before dinner?” Very funny. The only thing I was ready for was a brief fresh-water shower and a cold beer.
About this time here came that big Bertram, barreling into the narrow passageway. Cap’n Pete observed something dry and not too complimentary about the careless approach. Sure enough, as we watched and Cap’n Pete predicted, the boat’s skipper was positioning his boat to be anchored way too close to us for any margin of safety, especially if either boat dragged anchor or even swung more than a bit on an anchor. Much discussion ensued between the skippers. We left it to the men to work things out, as Mother Dunan shooed us below to help prepare for the group cookout slated on a nearby islet.
A third boat, and perhaps a fourth (my memory hazes) joined the line-up, and our little group crowded the protected anchorage. Too bad if some other group showed up, we had the prime spots. Now, off to the cookout!
The four of us crammed into the 12 foot Jon Boat-cum-dinghy. And now a word about that much-rightfully-maligned boat. Usually, the Sailor’s Hat was the largest boat in the fleet. You’d think she would sport a lovely little Boston Whaler, complete with electric start engine and steering console, but no. The utilitarian and humble little aluminum Jon boat perched on the after section of the fly bridge, sitting out in the sun and baking in temps hot enough to cook meat, her white paint oxidizing so that every article of clothing or strip of bare skin that came in contact with the surface would come away with an almost-impossible-to-wash-off white chalk!
The dinghy further endeared itself to those who had to balance on the often slippery deck of the bridge while wrestling with the somewhat rusted and recalcitrant tackle used to winch the thing over the side. Next, the single stroke little-engine-that-could would be brought out from its storage area, bolted onto the dinghy’s transom, topped off with precious fuel and cranked. Or so we hoped. Actually, the thing needed work during the cruise, and I believe it wasn’t until the fourth or fifth island stop that we finally got a working engine to save on the rowing duties, which I was exempt from, having had absolutely no experience in the fine art of rowing. I could paddle a canoe through the proverbial eye of the needle, but rowing left me confounded, describing ever-widening circles or sketching a snake-like course over any distance I attempted to traverse.
So, there the four of us were in the dinghy, Mother Dunan perched precariously on top of a coffee table cadged from the salon, gripping a large bag of foodstuffs. A group of a dozen or more people were making energetic preparations to clear flotsam from the only narrow strip of sand on an island otherwise covered with thorny, low scrub. The resident sand flies waited to strip the flesh from the unwary who wandered a few feet away from the water, which proved a problem as the tide began to come in.
We’d barely managed to distribute food stuffs, and the portable charcoal grill was still warming up, when everyone decided to abandon the island for the comfort of our boats. Darkness having fallen, we splashed through shallow water, loaded up the dinghy, got Mother Dunan back aboard her coffee table, waved goodnight to everyone and high-tailed it, as fast as Cap’n Pete could row, back to the ‘Hat. Yet another case of a land-based mishap, as far as I was concerned.
Fast-forward to the end of our Abaco and Berry Islands trip. We were met with glassy, calm waters as we cruised west most of the day across the Gulf Stream back toward the east coast of Florida. It was late afternoon and we were miles away from the coastline when we first spotted the tops of thunderheads just above the horizon. Throughout the afternoon, as the twin diesels worked to move us steadily to the west through the eerily calm, deep aquamarine blues of the Gulf Stream, the thunderheads grew into severely-bruised appearing massifs, arrayed in a towering wall as far as we could see across the horizon to our front. The weather reports went from bad to worse. The closer we got to the coast, the more lightning we could see firing from cloud to cloud. After awhile, it looked as if there was a massive artillery barrage as far as one could see, with colors ranging from deep magenta to orange to a sickly, too-ripe banana yellow to shades of greens, purples and blues.
I was awed and increasingly alarmed as I watched the Florida land mass appear infrequently at the bottom of the cloud wall. It eventually disappeared altogether. Only my faith, or dread, of knowing the coast was There lent reality to the scene.
The obvious question is, why in the world did we keep going? Why not just turn back or head north up the coast and away from the storm front? Well, going back wasn’t possible – we had only so much fuel and Cap’n Pete calculated that the return trip back to any close port in the Bahamas would mean an almost head-on push against the Gulf Stream, which would consume a helluva lot more fuel. Not to mention he would need to be at the helm of the boat for likely most of the coming night. At 70-something, with eyes that were scheduled for cataract surgery, our skipper determined that a return to the Bahamas was a foolish and very dangerous option.
A change in course to follow the north coast of Florida and duck into the intra-coastal waterway at, say, Cape Canaveral or Jacksonville, might be a likely choice, considering our present course and fuel consumption. However, the storm front stretched virtually the entire length of the state; we had stumbled into a late spring cold front, one that was rapidly developing into a very dangerous storm for all residents of the east coast of the state. Tornados, flooding, downed power lines and wind damage reports soon frequented every radio station we tuned in. The marine weather forecast had been trumpeting small craft advisories since we’d first spotted the thunderheads.
So after listening carefully to every snippet of weather information he could get, Cap’n Pete’s best judgment was that we should go for it, drive under that massive, anvil-shaped storm front and into the gloom of the looming wall of rain. We were just a few miles offshore, and once we ducked into the intra-coastal waters, we should be able to safely navigate “the ditch” down the coast to Biscayne Bay and, eventually, the home slip for the Sailor’s Hat. However. First we had to get the boat, and ourselves, through what was likely to be a very hair-raising couple of hours of boating.
As Cap’n Pete monitored the weather reports, Anni set to checking the lashings on the dingy and securing every moving thing in the salon. Mother Dunan and I scurried about the galley and checked the staterooms and heads, securing movable items in every storage space available and stuffing pillows, blankets and clothing into the galley cabinets where glasses and crockery were stored. I tried to secure the portholes in the stateroom I shared with Anni, but two were so corroded that they wouldn’t batten down.
As soon as we came under the anvil storm front, the conditions rapidly deteriorated. We were headed inexorably into a maelstrom that looked like the end of the world to this gal, who got bug-eyed over 5-8 foot seas on our first Gulf Stream crossing. I could barely keep my feet, even though I was hanging for dear life onto the rails of the stairs leading from the salon to the galley. I peered fearfully across the steering console, where, over the bow, that dark awfulness loomed. The seas all around us were tossed and turned, churning will-nilly. All thoughts of sea-sickness flew from my brain. I remember feeling like we were so small, so tiny, and being literally swallowed into the gigantic maw of a massive beast that would never, ever let us go.
Cap’n Pete had closed the windward salon door but lashed the lee salon door open – a ready escape route, I figured. None of us had life jackets on, although we all knew where they were stowed, under seats on the afterdeck. Of course, if anyone ventured out there now, they’d be washed overboard.
The boat bucked like a bronco, struggling up one side of a wave, tottering at the pinnacle, then rushing down the other side, to come crashing down in the trough with a massive “Boom!” that caused my teeth to snap together until I learned to anticipate the blow.
Mother Dunan was laid out on an air mattress, in the middle of the salon floor, on her back with her arms and legs splayed but planted as firmly on the deck as possible. The ship’s bell on the afterdeck clanged like a fire engine bell. In the gloom of the salon, Anni and her father’s faces were mirror images of each other, tensely peering through the now-slamming rain to try to determine any hint of a pattern the waves might offer, any indication of which course to follow to reduce the rocking, tilting, slamming and wild gyrations the poor old boat was going through.
I heard a loud “thump” from below and Cap’n Pete told me to not try to discover the source of the racket, but to go down to my stateroom, jam myself into my bunk, and stay there. Which brings me full circle, to the opening of our little tale of a spring cruise.
Cap’n Pete managed to drive us through that wet, dark hell straight to the mouth of the river at Fort Pierce, some 130 miles north of our final destination. Once we hit the intra-coastal, the relative calm and silence were startling, and as the darkness of the storm was replaced by the late afternoon light, we made our way slowly south down the intra-coastal. Waiting for bridges to open was lengthening our trip home to another 6 or more hours, so as evening came on, Cap’n Pete took us through another cut to the outside, where the storm-tossed seas had settled down to a steady chop. We hauled butt down the coast, heartened by the lights of homes, businesses, traffic and civilization off our starboard side.
I remember slowly savoring the sandwich Mother Dunan had made, grateful for a quiet passage and the steady, reassuring thrumming of those powerful diesels, shoving us further south, toward the Port of Miami and eventually, home. But first, we had to again maneuver in the narrow confines of the intra-coastal waterway, dodging small craft that failed to consider that a 50-foot boat can’t stop on a dime and a large tour boat that did it’s best to jam us into an old bridge jutting out from land.
Anni and I spent a good deal of time out on the bow, doing our best to spot the lights of channel markers that were lost in a sea of colors and lights against the Miami skyline. After hours of picking our way along, we finally reached the familiar lights of the yacht club. It was after midnight, and the place was locked down tight. Customs was long since closed, so we left the yellow quarantine flag flying and everyone fell gratefully below to our bunks. It had been a long day, some 18 hours since we had set out from our last port in the Bahamas.
We spent another day in Coconut Grove, schlepping gear back to the house and cleaning the boat. It took me another four or five days to get my land-legs back, and the boat movement remained in my head for another couple of days beyond that.
I was very glad I had come along on the cruise and realized it had been, for me, the trip of a lifetime. I look back at the photos and slides we shot and recall scenes like being dive-bombed by sea birds as we stomped through a large nesting colony on Frozen Cay, making our way to the windward side of the island to catch a glimpse of the sailboats in the fleet approaching the anchorage. Highlights included visiting Revolutionary War era ruins and a large blue hole on yet another deserted island, and walking around Man-O-War Cay early on a Sunday morning, buying freshly-baked Bahama bread from the window of a lady’s house while listening to the choir from the little church, music wafting down the narrow lanes between the gaily-colored homes and cottages lining the harbor.
I got some snorkeling in, as well, on a reef off Green Turtle Cay and some fantastic snorkeling in the currents ripping through and among the shallows surrounding the many tiny islets of Double-Breasted Cay.
But of course the most memorable thing about that trip was the people—spending time with my adopted family, meeting many members of the fleet, and sharing memories. Like the morning we and another boat were anchored in a small bay near yet another deserted island: Anni got up at the crack of dawn, took the dinghy ashore and spelled out a giant Happy Birthday, Janie with seaweed on the steeply sloping, sandy shore. When the folks aboard the other boat in the anchorage arrived topside for their morning coffee, they laughed, called across to us, waved and generally made their delight known.
I also learned about many things nautical, and how to be useful and safe aboard large and small boats alike. Not to mention a great deal of history about the Bahamas, the Berrys and Abacos, and how to read The Cruising Guide and, yes, eventually how to read the water. It was, indeed, a memorable trip, simply messing about in the Sailor’s Hat!
Belize City airport (BZE) is hot at 11am on a Saturday morning in May. After a direct flight on the big Delta bird from Atlanta, we get in line to catch the 30 minute Tropic Air flight over to Ambergris Caye. Some 25 miles long, Ambergris Caye is the largest and most developed of about 200 small islands off the coastline of Belize. Most of the island’s 7,000 inhabitants live in the town of San Pedro, located in the southern part of the caye. San Pedro has the cosy, laid-back atmosphere of a small village with its wooden houses and sand streets.
We buzz over to Ambergris Caye, enjoying the views of the shallows between the reef and the mainland. Spotted a group of 3 sharks swimming in the shallows off an islet and a Mayan Air flight headed back to BZE.
We find ourselves standing out in the hot sun at Ambergris Caye airport, getting windblown and dust-coated and grinning stupidly while waiting for luggage to be brought out of the plane’s belly. Grab a cab and off we go to the Super Mart to get water and beer and other goodies. Back in the cab for a very short ride to the entry of Xanadu, our home for the next week. We’re here!
Alex meets us, grabs our luggage and, after we check in at the desk and chat with Susan, we chill at the pool for a bit while our room is prepped. Soon we’re unpacked and organized in our lovely, comfy and cool digs. Let’s go make arrangements to get on a boat for snorkeling tomorrow!
The week flies by, each day taken up with activities.
We snorkel Hol Chan preserve, visit sharks & rays at Shark Ray Alley, snorkel Mexico Rocks (our fav spot), where we swim with spotted eagle rays and a couple of large, curious barracuda. We spot a sleeping nurse shark and get eyeballed by a passing loggerhead turtle.
One day we trip over to Lamani ruins on the mainland– a highlight. We’re accompanied by a group of middle-school age kids, who are on a romp. One poor soul, Carlos, gets motion sickness at the drop of a hat and between the 2 hour long fast boat from AC to the village of Bomba in the jungle, he’s pretty green with the twists and turns as we zip along, banking crazily around tight turns in the mangroves, throwing up a 10 foot wall of rooster tail.
We get to Bomba mid-morning, where it is hot, still, dusty. Some avail themselves of the “one star” el banyo while others poke their heads into dim, hot huts sporting local crafts that are, IHMO, overly priced and not particularly unique. A local boy is walking around with two orphaned baby parrots on his shoulders. People take pix and chat with the young man, who explains he found the birds in the nearby jungle and is taking care of them. They seem perfectly content to be perched where they are.
We hop aboard the dust express, where, after about 10 mins of roaring down a dusty track, zigzagging potholes, we screech to a halt to let Carlos rush down the steps and outside to lose his breakfast. The other kids peer curiously out the widows at Carlos then, all together, go “ughhh! Argh!!” and make faces. The adults roll their eyes and speculate on what can help settle his stomach. He will keep this up all day, on the bus, on the boat, back on the bus, back on the other boat… it will be a long day for poor Carlos.
The bus arrives at our mid-way point, where we break for the “two star” el banyos (toilets) baking in the heat. A large, open pavilion next to the New River gives some shade and catches fitful breezes as we await the signal to hop aboard the next boat and another fast, windy, twisting and high-banking ride 25 miles up river to where Lamani ruins perch on a high hill overlooking a large lagoon.
Gee, we’re here just at noon, when the equatorial sun is at its zenith. We wilt in the heat under a pavilion, eating a nice, hot meal (!) of BBQ chicken and rice and plantains and oh-my-God I just want a frozen drink. Water and soft drinks are disappearing fast from the cooler. We soon make our way up to the airless museum, where we politely swelter and drip while our extraordinarily knowledgeable guide and boat captain attempts to hold the kids’ attention while pointing out certain artifacts in the glass cases. Most folks wander outside to catch a breeze.
Off down the canopied trails to the ruins. This is the fun part, stomping along these high mounds made centuries ago by these ancient peoples, surrounded by jungle growth, bird calls and howler monkey grunts, groans and growls that echo through the trees. We trip over roots as we crane our necks- look, there’s a toucan! Very cool to spot one in the wild. Our guide knows all the critters by their calls and keeps us fully informed about all things Mayan, including trees and shrubs like the “stink toe” root, which, when cut, smells just as you might imagine—really yuk! Soon we approach the first of 4 excavated temples, one of which is a tomb.
Soon we are looking up at the steep stairs of the largest temple, and of course I break my promise to myself that I’ll not clamber up another danged pyramid again, not after doing my share in Mexico but no, it’s mid-day and the sun is baking me while I start up, up those steep and eroded steps to the top, where I doubt there is a stick of shade but where I know I can count on a breeze and a hellofa view across the jungle canopy to the lagoon below.
Yep, there’s a view after all, and I perch on about 9 square inches of crumbling limestone, with a sheer drop all the way to the jungle floor at least 8 stories below, where I know there’s shade, if only I can get down these dang steps without falling headlong as my head swims from vertigo. Those dang teenagers are frolicking like mountain goats and I feel every bit of my middle age years. Ouch, that stone is Hot!
Safely back on terra firma, sucking on the warm water bottle like a mother’s teat. We catch our collective breath, round up the stray kids and stumble off to the other temples that have been torn from the jungle overgrowth.
We know we are faced with at least 4 more hours of back-tracking, including the flying boat ride down the New River to the bus to the other boat. We run out of water, soft drinks, fruit, food and energy and poor Carlos never gets to keep anything in his stomach, all day. We finally approach the dock at Xanadu just as the sun is sinking rapidly into the sea, tired but happy travelers.
I seem to recall walking up the beach to, I think it was Blue Water Grill, where I intended to slowly sip a frozen Kalua Colada, but which I gulped greedily to “drop my core temperature”. This is critical therapy after a long, hot day’s trek into the jungle, be sure to make a note.
The day drew to a close with a wonderful meal (vaguely recalled), followed by a leisurely stroll (a bit wobbly from the boat movement still going on in my head) under the full moon back to Xanadu, and oblivion. We enjoyed our nightly walks along the beach under that full moon, in a brisk onshore breeze as we went to and from different restaurants.
The sun comes up and the birds start squawking about 5:30 am, so we were up too, getting an early (and s l o w) breakfast at Coconut’s up the beach. Later, we caught a boat to Hol Chan and snorkeled with the crowds – heaven knows what the place is like on season. It reminded me of cattle boats dumping crowds off at any number of sites in John Pennekamp State Park off Key Largo in Florida, my home. Oh well, it was cool and wet, with plenty of fish to see and hear.
Next stop was Shark Ray Alley. If one hasn’t been close to somewhat tame southern sting rays and nurse sharks, it’s a fun stop—perhaps. Personally, I’ve been there, done that after 30 years of diving and I truly don’t approve of grabbing sting rays or any other animal and forcefully holding it and stopping it from locomoting as it will. Much less do I approve of grabbing rays by their sensitive noses, where there are literally thousands of minute sensing cells that they use and need to help them feed. One large female had her tail bobbed off at the root and nobody can convince me that wasn’t done by a human hand—I was appalled to see her mutilation and she was particularly shy of being handled. Good for her!
Subsequent snorkel trips were private charters or nearly so, as we were visiting on off-season. We took a day trip over to Caye Caulker and snorkeled a half day there on broken, beat up, bleached-out reefs lacking the fish life we had seen off AC. Operators on AC told us the business is unregulated on CC and the folks there simply don’t care for their reef as do the operators on AC—I believe it. I’ve seen some pristine reefs in my time and I’ve watched the Florida keys decline from the late 1960s through the late 1990s, when some areas have begun to recover, but slowly. The shape of things to come off CC is not a pretty story- the reef will take decades to recover, if it gets the chance, between storms and being loved to death.
We spent a day sailing and snorkeling up the coast with Steve Rubio, owner of Unity Tours and captain of the No Rush catamaran. Steve is a friendly, knowledgeable and delightful host for an all day excursion snorkeling, fishing and beach BBQ-ing or an evening sunset sail or a ½ day snorkel trip.
Xanadu was our wonderful, relaxing, quiet home, not too far, not too close to the bustle of San Pedro town, which was as close as a walk or a bike ride.
All too soon it was time to retrace our steps, back to Tropic Air at the airport then to Belize City and the shock of arriving back in Atlanta to a cold, dreary, rainy Memorial Day weekend. We couldn’t even show off our tans, hidden as they were under long sleeves and jeans! Wahhh- take me back to Ambergris Caye, “la isla bonita”!
Post Script: We returned for a rainy Xmas week in 2006, where the highlight of the trip was snorkeling Bacalar Chico, a magnificently untouched marine environment up on the north (currently undeveloped) end of the island. If you want pristine snorkeling, get there quick, before the developers do!