The next day we crossed the swing bridge to the landing of the water taxi. The coast of Yucatan and Belize has a 300-mile barrier reef system and there are many islands along the length of it. We got a shuttle to one of the smaller islands, Caye Chaulker, with only 750 residents. This former pirate lair was recommended by friends as an excellent place for diving.
We left the noise and ugliness of Belize City behind and sped across the water for an hour. Fishing shacks raised above the water on slits slid by in the distance, and we weaved between several uninhabitated mangrove islands. Finally we approached an island with brightly colored houses and pulled up the Caye Chaulker dock. The picture above shows Serena with our gear. The boat next us bellows to Capitan Jacko (who will enter the story later).
We headed up the dusty unpaved streets of town looking for the hotel we'd reserved. Again we had to ask for local help, this time from a guy cruising leasurely on an old bicycle. This is the town hippies would build if they lived on a tropical island. In fact, it seems like laid-back but pragmatic Belizeans and Koreans have built it. But a lot of young hippie tourists are passing through. There are only about 3 gas powered vehicles on the island. Golf carts and bicycles are the rule.
Our hotel is a long-sought refuge, and over the next few days we will spend a lot of decompression time here. The room has A/C, but better than that every room has a porch and hammock. Lying in that hammock over, I read a thick anthology on the naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace. The owner's Pomeranian dog would wander the yard. Locals would come by before sunset to sell fudge, popcorn, or (my favorite) fresh banana and pineapple bread. We also befriended
Caye Chauler was also full of semi-wild cats. They were lean, but unlike many tropic places we've seen, they were in good health. No worms and all were spayed. Those that had been spayed or neutered had clipped ears - and there were a lot of clipped ears. We befriended two local cats, who would sit with us in the hammock, and share a beer on the porch at night. We were also visited by this geko in the thatch above the porch.
The reason we'd come here was for the diving. We stopped by the only dive shop recommended by our guide book. This was not like signing up a scheduled dive trip in the US. The variables were the wind and our interests. We wanted to do a night dive? Tonight would be best. Are you ready? So that's what we did...
Scuba is an amazing thing. When I learned I partly expected myself to be claustrophobic underwater (my certification dive was in an Indiana rock quarry where I couldn't see beyond my out-stretch arm). Instead, I have always found breathing underwater to be one of the most exhilarating experiences. As we motored in the dark one of the reef's edge with our guide Edwin, I wondered again whether dark water would feel menacing. The first plunge was strange - I think it always is - but once I had equalized buoyancy I felt that calm fascination.
Edwin led us along the edge of a reef, and we search with our lights for interesting creatures. Edwin soon found a Spanish lobster, which pulled in its legs to its flattened, armoured carapace as Edwin gently handled it. The eyes of spiny lobsters reflected our purple at us as we passed through caves. Fishes had a strange look, moving slowly. Edwin found several sea slugs and sea cucumbers. I saw what I think were a number of long thin nemertine worms. Tiny crustaceans tickled my hand as like buzzed my light like moths at a summer porchlight. Towards the end of our bottomtime, we came upon the highlight of that dive. An octopus about the size of my hand squiggled along the coral. She flowed like water and shown a translucent green in our lights. She squeeze through a creavace, but we manuveured over the small outcrop and saw her come out on the other side. Sadly few of my pictures from that dive came out, and I had run out of film by our encounter with the octopus. We returned to our hotel room enraptured and exhausted.
The next day we relaxed. Caye Chauler is a mangrove island, and so it doesn't have much in the way of beach front. What there is mostly doubles as main street. However, in the early 1990's a hurricane cut the island in two, driving a deep sandy channel just north of the town. This isolated a few people's houses, but the up-shot was that people then had a sandy place to swim. We hung around the channel in the morning as figgit birds circled with an eye for fish. Heading into town for lunch we ran into our British companion from the Chetchumal bus station and traded stories and plans for the coming days. Then back to the hammock for siesta.
The next day we had signed up for a snorkeling trip. We are not drivers who get excited by going deep for its own sake. Plenty of cool things caan be seen in shgallow water without the danger or time limitations of scuba. Anyone can snorkel, and so this trip doubled as a booze cruise for many of the young visitors to the island. He crew of the sailboat consisted of two young crelo guys who looked like experience scuba and snorkel guides. The captain, Jacko, was introduced, but didn't say much. He looked older, with short sun-bleached dreads and strangely blue eyes for a weathered crelo.
We made several stops. Each was amazing, and it was obvious that the coral here was healthy and growing. Our first snorkeling stop was led out along a reef ridge above a deep channel. As we swam, a school of tarpin passed below us - each fish was at least six feet long. The wall of the reef was amazing, and many of the more adventurous in the group dove down to scrutinized some bit of coral or group of fish. Serena started getting annoyed that one guy kept diving down and touching the coral. He was an amzing diver, who could stay below for several minutes and would fearlessly swim into the larger crevices. Now coral and other sessile invertebrates grow when their larvae settle onto rocks and bits of dead coral or places where they can out compete algae or bacteria. So in a very really way, every surface (except the sand bottom) of a reef is alive. Serena dove down to tap this guy on the head and sign "hands off". Peace restored, we continued...
The next stop was shallow water, and this was the only place in the barrier islands, which is otherwise protected, where the guides routinely feed sharks and rays. Several green nurse sharks showed up for a free meal of conch and rays started circling the water to clean up scraps. "Who's going in first?" taunts Capitan Jack in a strong Carribean accent. With trepidation and excitement we don fims and masks and in we go. I get a picture of one of the few lingering nurse sharks. The rays are much more social and will tolerate being pet if they're also getting food at the same time. Many people mob one ray apparently okay with the attention. I manage to touch a passing ray which somehow feels more satisfying. Eventually, we fan out to look at the surrounding fish and coral heads that are no less amazing.
After lunch and one more snorkel stop, the crew breaks out the booze and we start the slow motor back. While we have been seeing the sights, one of the crew has caught a conch and made ceveche. This is a carribean dish in which raw fish is "cooked" in the acids of a salsa. I know enough about parasites to know that conch ceveche is probably a bad idea if I waqnt to avoid liver flukes or hepatitis. But we are sitting near the hatch and Captain Jack, who is becomes much more animated, literally pops up, dreads hiding his eyes, "What you doing up here? You must have the ceveche. I the Captain. You must have the ceveche!"
I've had a few cups of rum and cool aide, and I give in his manic request and try to avoid the conch.
"You must have the conch!"
At this point, I decide that if I drink enough rum, it will finish any sterilization that the salsa might have missed and go for it.
As it turns out we are sitting next to the coral-toucher. He is apologetic and interested to hear that we are biologists. He and his friends have just graduated from engineering school in France, although he is Morrocan. We chat pleasantly with this young French group. Captain Jack joins in after one of his frequent pops up the hatch. The ride back is great, until on of the Frenchmen seems to insult Captain Jack with a little too much sarcasm and he heads toward the bow to brood. At the dock, all is forgiven and forgotten as we finish the rum.