Late in 2019, I put up a notice for a RAID Freediver course at Scuba North, the local dive shop that generously hosts my courses here in Northern Michigan. I was banking on more or less the same sort of weather as the previous September when I was schooled in the ways of instructorhood by no less than the mighty Emma Farrell of Go Freediving in the UK. Back then, possibly due to the aforementioned August-ness of Emma, the water was downright balmy.
Not so this year.
It’s funny how a cold north wind, huge waves, and rain can discourage some people’s thoughts of freediving. I’d pretty much given up on a class when a guy named John called.
He and I spoke a few times and I explained that we could do a private class, but open water was unlikely to work out until the following spring. He wanted to improve his skills sometime before November when he headed for a winter residence in Belize – where he dives the second biggest barrier reef in the world with a pod of accomplished local spearos.
We went back and forth for a while and then I got an email:
“How about if I fly you to Belize, cover food, lodging, boat gas, etc. and pay you to teach me and my pals…”
Um….well..okay I guess…
To document our adventures I prevailed upon intrepid photo-journalizer/supply-boy, Jason, who was up for the job – relieving me of the need screw up my hydrodynamics with a camera.
Down and almost safe in Belize City, Jason’s ‘full-disclosure’ personality resulted in dangerous math and gratuitous declarations on the customs form (which, to his credit, appeared written for people who were already familiar with it…) – all of which were ardently corrected by an animated Scottish ex-pat in the next line. Thanks to her we eventually made our way through Belize International and onto one of the kick-ass “Short Take Off and Landing” (STOL) turboprops operated by Maya Airways; their flat-bladed props tuned for dodging anacondas off short strips hacked out of the rainforest.
As we flew toward Dangriga I looked west across the lush, green, mist-shrouded mountains and was beset by visions of howler monkeys, poisonous snakes that spit and will run your @$$ down leeches the size of school children, haunted Mayan ruins, heat, humidity, bugs, naked middle-aged white people tripped out on ayahuasca and tequila running naked through the jungle amidst parting flocks of fleeing wildlife… (I ran this passage by Jason – he said it was pretty close to his dream vacation!)
Below and to the east – The Sea; flat, clear, and unbearably inviting in the shelter of the barrier reef.
My mind drifted.. here in my bag is my wetsuit, mask, snorkel… Against the fuselage just behind me, my monofin (wouldn’t fit in the luggage bin)… I wonder if I could just swim the rest of the way…
I think it’s obvious where my priorities lay.
At the Dangriga airport we munched on fabulous banana bread baked by the wife of one of the guys working the counter, it helped ground us after hours of flying and standing in line and helps support sending his kids through college (his wife has been making and selling it for 18 years).
We gathered our luggage in the sweltering heat and prepared to wait for our host, who pulled up in his snorkel-equipped jeep before we could even wonder why he was late.
Now, in Northern Michigan where I come from a snorkel on one’s Jeep is an affectation. A discreet inquiry alleviated that possibility as John explained that he and his jeep are occasionally called upon to ford swollen rivers – an assertion reinforced by the presence of an actual spot of rust on the un-carpeted floor, two things that would never be tolerated by the effete aspiring 4×4 snorkelaros back home.
As we drove John gave us an insightful briefing covering everything from local culture and economy to the personalities, backgrounds, and motives of the guys attending class. A couple of them wanted certifications – toward one-day becoming instructors – while the rest were interested in learning stuff that would help them dive better and safer.
After some jet-lagged, disoriented, shopping we arrived at John’s spectacular house on the beach just outside of Hopkins. He introduced us to our well-appointed apartments on the ground floor and I commenced to resign myself to the reality of NO. AIR. CONDITIONING. There was a fan, but the dense, hot, air-like substance it shoved around seemed more like some kind of punishment than anything that could be construed as refreshing.
That night some of my prospective students showed up. Skilled and experienced, these guys are some of the most open-minded and interested students I’ve had the privilege to teach. They pretty much created the class with their informed and thoughtful questions.
A short trip past the mangrove thick, crocodile-infested, banks of the Sittee river brought us out into increasingly choppy open water. After a kinetic and sweltering boat ride to our first dive site, I threw myself into the warm embrace of the ocean and was immediately recharged.
Accustomed to shallow diving in the cold, cloudy, lakes of Northern Michigan, I’m always surprised how at home I feel in the sea – and how much easier diving is in clear warm water. Always in the ocean there is a paradoxical sense of profound intimacy and unfathomable spaciousness – of being part of a vast, yet intimate and familiar, sensory intelligence.
Sometimes you get in the water with people and feel an immediate connection, as though you all share a secret that is felt and seen more than heard. There is joy in that silent camaraderie, and ease of being that is hard to describe.
Looking around at my fellow divers/students my concerns about supervising such a largish group in unfamiliar water evaporated.
For the first open water session, I found myself mostly in the role of spectator. I’d no sooner think of the next thing I wanted them to work on than, before I could say a word, they were practicing it and correcting one another.
During no-fins practice Marlon, a young man who has been deaf since infancy, revealed himself to be an extremely quick study. I watched him ascending and caught his eye, miming a few pointers. He immediately put my corrections into practice with results that would bring a smile to Will Trubridge’s face.
After our first open water class, it was off for some hunting on the reef. The boat ride, while less choppy as we got further out, started slipping into motion-sickness territory, with very large swells as we approached the barrier reef; over which mountainous waves were breaking as the wind blew spray off their peaks.
At this point, my stomach began to inform me that it did not agree – with anything. I ignored it, jumped in, and was overwhelmed by the richness and scale of the most spectacular underwater environment I have ever seen. The top of the reef in this spot was around 60 feet (20M), rapidly dropping off to over 100 feet (30m+) on the inside. To the east; the intense, inviting deep space rush of ‘blue water’. I spotted a large grouper and a school of Rainbow Runners swirling far below me. The visibility, even with all the turbulence, was still over 100′ (30m).
Below the waves and cruising the exquisite reef environment at around 70 feet almost convinced my stomach to reconsider its previous commitment, but riding massive swells on the surface made short work of that.
Luckie (who runs a local tour business; ‘Happy-Go-Luckie-Tours’) swam up beside me and generously offered me his speargun – I had to wave him off because the act of just looking at something that close threatened what little control I had left.
Back in the boat we quickly got out of the swells. It was then that I began to notice a strange phenomenon – I was starting to intuit the faintest possibility of not being completely miserable in the heat! Did seasickness reset my inner thermostat?
Bad Weather and Statics
The next day we did statics in the small pool kindly lent us by Belize Underwater Adventures. Everyone hovered in two-to-three minute territory but Alrick – aka ‘Monster’ – stood out with a truly monstrous 3’40 on his first try – despite a sudden ‘cold’ front and rain during his breathe-up.
With the rain came waves of fierce weather. Lashing gales turned the two-story screened-in porch on John’s house into something like the back of a waterfall.
During the prohibitive weather, we had a few more classroom/get-to-know-each-other sessions.
Classes settled into a relaxed, conversational format and we covered the material while exchanging anecdotes, eating, playing with the ever-popular pulse-oximeter, etc… I learned that Monster has been hunting this reef since childhood. Ralph, who seemed so natural in the role of safety during statics, told harrowing tales about a couple of SWB rescues and a panicked-scuba-diver recovery that ended in a deco chamber (Ralph, Monster, and Luckie all work doing scuba and snorkeling tours). Clancy became officially the only person I’ve ever heard of who was attacked by a Nurse Shark – twice! Johnathon made us Rainbow Runner Poke – which stood out even amidst the outstanding cuisine we enjoyed every day.
To a man, they underestimated their abilities. At one point Clancy told me he hoped to make it to 100′ (30m). After watching him in open water, I was pretty sure the only reason he didn’t think he’d been there already was the lack of depth gauge. Gliding up and down a line in calm water is a far cry from dislodging a holed up grouper at 90 feet (28m) under 8 foot (2.5m) swells. Every one of these guys had some serious chops.
We were landlocked for several days, but it was a great time to chill (haha – get it?; chill..?). One of my favorite things, between storms, was going up on the roof and doing Taiji in the pre-dawn sea breeze while pelicans slid by silently at eye level.
A Blue Hole!
Next trip out we went to a small blue hole John and the guys had discovered. They were all a little creeped out by it, but it sounded like an ideal place to do some depth work for the advanced class. We headed out in the calmer seas and anchored nearby.
I swam over to the hole and watched with interest as a large Cobia worked it’s way languidly along the rim. Looking up to see if anyone else noticed, I witnessed a frenzy of flailing fins and frantic loading of spearguns. They managed to scare the Cobia into barfing up a ray – and may have bounced a spear off of it before it left under hot pursuit.
Both they and I were right about the hole: Great place for the class; Creepy. The creepy part was that it narrowed to a crevasse at about 70 feet (21m) – and then did it again near 90 (27m). It took me a few tries, but once I could see some detail on the other side of those forbidding passages I was able to get all the way down, where it branched off into the inky darkness of a probable cave system. Creepy.
Once again everyone started working very systematically on technique, Shallow Water Blackout rescue, safetying one another during Personal Bests’s (of which there were several), and the other skills that are part of the RAID curriculum.
Last day in the water
Our last day was also the calmest. We visited the hole again, where Monster joined me as one of the first people ever (as far as we know) to plumb its depths. John and Ralph each pulled off impressive Personal Bests and I brought a camera down with me to record the creepiness.
Once More Unto The Reef!
This time we went to a shallower area of the reef. Again; spectacular – not as rough as the last time, but we still had to be careful to avoid getting dropped onto coral in less than 12 feet of water.
Jason and I wandered around checking out the incredible abundance of colorful creatures, while the other divers hunted under the watchful eye of our boat captain, John.
I watched Monster swimming with his very distinctive, and deceptive, style. The quintessential stalker, he can cover an incredible distance while looking like he’s casually drifting. I was thinking he was bound to come up with something interesting when I noticed he’d stopped moving – then Marlon began sprinting toward him from around a hundred yards away (seriously, Marlon’s situational awareness!). I made my way over and saw the biggest grouper I’d ever seen – a ‘small’ Goliath grouper.
Fish cleaning party back on the dock, then it was time to pack and say farewell to the guys, and to our awesome hosts – John and Laurie. My thanks to them both, for their hospitality and for introducing me to such a great pod of divers.
Off the plane at Belize International from Dangriga, I was touched when one of the baggage handlers came up to me and told me where my fin was, and that he’d set it aside. Among all the thousands of people and bags he must deal with every day, he remembered me and my strange fin from my arrival 10 days earlier. In the human frenzy of a busy international airport, such thoughtfulness seemed almost surreal.
Chicago’s O’Hare airport was crazy. Broken scanners and COVID-19 just starting to shake things up in late January. We were rushed through various belts, scanners, and procedures by improvised signs and shouted instructions without really knowing what the hell we were doing – barely making it to our connection. (Jason finally succeeded in getting waylaid with customs – and came sprinting through the throngs at the gate with mere minutes to spare.)
Finally down in Traverse City, I scraped nearly two feet of snow off my car, then called the airline to secure the location of my lost monofin. An icy late-night drive and I was home at last to a glass of wine and good company.
What a trip!
If you find yourself in Hopkins and are looking for lodging and/or want to do some diving – get hold of Happy Go Luckie tours – some of the nicest humans you will ever meet. Luckie is an incredible diver and a skillful spearo (now RAID certified Advanced). You could be in no better hands.
My gratitude to Emma Farrell, for flying to Michigan and training me as a RAID advanced instructor! Her generosity of spirit is exceeded only by her relentless wit and oddly enigmatic British-ness.
Last but not least – thanks to our hosts – John and Laurie. They thought of, and provided, literally everything.