We rolled off the dive boat, drifted down through the crystal blue waters of the western Caribbean and quickly found ourselves in what folks in the scuba world like to call "inner space." All around us were blue and white coral heads, huge barrel sponges and hundreds of odd-shaped fish. If we looked into nooks and crannies, we could see spindly shrimp, good-sized lobster and a few brilliantly colored nudibranchs – gussied-up, sea-going slugs.
Then, out of the distance, three spotted stingrays appeared, slowly drifting with the current. Two moved off, but one stayed put as we moved in slowly for a closer look. The eyes of the creature rotated to keep us in view. It waited for 30 seconds as we kept a respectable distance then gracefully flapped its wings – which spanned nearly six feet from tip to tip – and swan away in a fluid, sensuous motion.
Back on the surface an hour later, Divemaster Winter Morrell told us he’d once seen a fleet of 17 rays soaring over the sandy bottom at that spot, not far off the shores of Blackbird Caye, Belize – a small, English-speaking nation tucked into the eastern shore of Central America.
"They don’t call it ‘Sting Ray Motel’ for nothing," said the former British paratrooper. "On good days, and that’s most of them here, you can see incredible underwater creatures."
When Morrell left the military a few years back, he knocked around the world looking for places he wanted to settle. "I could have gone just about anywhere," he said. "But the diving doesn’t get much better than here. For a Divemaster, this is pretty close to heaven."
Over the past decade, I’d heard similar stories about Belize. Famed for its diving, bird life, fishing, rivers and Mayan ruins, it was high on my list of places to visit.
So my wife, Kathleen, and two diving friends cleared our schedules and met up in Belize City late this past summer. Though we’d been warned that the former national capital was run-down and dangerous, we were pleased to find friendly people and a relatively clean city. The many red-roofed buildings and homes with gingerbread trim were a pleasant accent. They looked as if they could have been on one of many Caribbean islands that were former British colonies.
Because we wanted to do more than dive in Belize, we hired a taxi and set out the next morning for Altun Ha, a Mayan ruin that dates back nearly 2,000 years and covers 25 square miles. It is located less than an hour from town and has temples honoring what the Mayans considered the four primary sources of nature: sun, rain, wind and moon.
Guide Randy Gillette led us up and down pyramids as we sweated in the humid air. Then he showed us how Canadian archaeologists had peeled back the stone ceremonial monuments in places, revealing how generations of Mayan rulers had added to the pyramids to leave their own mark.
The best find of all, he said, was the large jade head discovered at Altun Ha. Diggers found it in the fifth temple called the Green Tomb. When we stood atop this pyramid and closed our eyes, it wasn’t too hard to imagine a time when this mostly jungle-covered ruin had been a thriving commercial and religious center.
Back in the city, we caught our boat and headed east out into the Caribbean. Because of heavy rains washing sediments down from the hills, mud had turned the sea brown several miles out from shore. Then, as if we had crossed some magic line, the water became clear and we could see down 40 feet or more. We zipped past small islands and twisted mangrove trees for an hour. Before we knew it, we were at the Blackbird Caye Resort dock. As the staff helped unload our diving gear, they handed us cool fruit drinks to welcome us ashore.
Over the next few days, we dove at sites called Turtle Ridge, Coliseum, Al’s Hideout and Calabash Cut. The sea life was rich and the undersea walls were covered with hard and soft corals, gorgonian fans and schools of fish. We spent hours beneath the surface watching trumpet fish, angelfish, groupers, parrotfish, rays, moray eels and barracudas. My favorites were the little, two-tone fairy basslets, which were a bright, bluish-purple on the front half and a brilliant yellow to the rear.
No diving trip to Belize would be complete, however, without a least one descent in the famed Blue Hole, a 400-foot-deep cavern in the center of Lighthouse Reef Atoll. Almost circular, the Blue Hole is 1,000 feet in diameter. The Blue Hole was formed 10,000 years ago when the oceans were much lower. Originally a cave, the roof fell as glaciers melted and the sea rose.
Recreational divers don’t descend 400 feet. So when we dropped off our boat, we sank to only about 140 feet – plenty deep for me. There, we found the huge stalactites and stalagmites often seen in pictures from the Blue Hole. According to Morrell, the columns formed when the cave was above the ocean and water dripped down through the limestone over the centuries.
As we peered into submarine caves, several sharks watched us from a distance. Then, after 15 minutes, we rose slowly to the surface, pausing for safety stops several times to let nitrogen gases escape from our blood. We had no desire to get the bends.
Then, in what was one of the trip highlights, we picnicked at the Half Moon Caye Natural Monument Lighthouse Reef. With towering palms and brilliant white sands, it was one of the prettiest little islands I’ve ever visited. Better yet, the north end of the island is home to thousands of re-footed boobies and other birds. After lunch, we hiked through the forest, climbed a lookout tower and found ourselves in boobie heaven. There were scores of the birds nesting in the treetops. And they didn’t mind a whit that we were less than 30 feet away.
We dove again that day and later had a delicious dinner made from fresh-caught lobster. The next morning, we sipped coffee and watched the sun rise over the Caribbean before we caught the boat back to Belize City.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Winter Morrell fella is onto something.
Blackbird Caye Resort