Today there was quite a bit of wind, leading to choppy seas, which in turn lead to a delayed start to our second mission-critical dive. By 2 P.M. we hit the seas, and headed south about 7 miles from our dive dock. Spirits were high, and since we were diving inside the protection of the reef today – with tiny six inch swells – stomachs were easy. Compared to yesterday, with ten to twelve foot swells outside the reef at the Buena Vista site, and not without substantial surge on the bottom, this was a pleasure. Yesterday, when there was a mix up with BCD’s (buoyancy control device) on the dock, I had to dive with a medium sized BCD even though I can barely fit into an extra large. However that was just the beginning of the horror story for me. First, my main regulator was continuously leaking, so I did the first 20 meters of surveying our transect line using air control methods, but with the surge and swells, the seawater in my mouth made me extremely nauseous. I got fed up with that, so I decided to use my alternate air source for the survey. Then I had problems equalizing, which lead to a headache. After I had taken off my mask, cleared my nose underwater, and dealt with that issue, my alternate started leaking slowly, and continued to get worse slowly. Luckily, it was only about as bad as the main air source by the end of the dive, so I managed to hold off on my emergency surfacing until after I had finished counting gorgonians (around 2000 in total on my half of the transect line). Back on the boat, I checked the gear and determined that the primary stage of the regulator, the portion which attaches to the tank, was defective – allowing water into both of my secondary air sources. However, the mission was a success, and after a queasy boat ride home, we were all in high spirits. Today, I made sure my BCD was on the boat, and my tank had sufficient air for our survey. I had 3000 PSI when I checked on the dock, but when I got to Coral Gardens somehow my tank had purged down to about 2200 PSI. It was going to be a tight budgeting act in regards to air today as well. Coral Gardens is only in six feet of water, and although it’s generally a snorkeling site, due to the nature of our work, I was recommended to use the SCUBA apparatus anyways. I rolled off the boat, and when I emptied my BCD of air, I did not sink. This was because I only had 12 lbs of weight in it, although I needed 20 lbs. So I took off my gear in the water, got the dive team to give me some more weight, and managed to get about 20 lbs into the BCD. I was about to start swimming the 100 yards or so to the transect line (we had to anchor far away because we didn’t want to hurt any coral with the anchor) when Professor John realized I didn’t have the proper partner for the gorgonians. He “tapped in” Alex, and I thought we were golden. However, on the swim over, some of my weights must have fallen out, so when I got there I had no choice but to snorkel in SCUBA gear. It was manageable for the most part, but my tank was also very high on the BCD, so when I attempted to surface dive to determine if what I was seeing was a gorgonian or sponge, it kept hitting the back of my head. I managed to get good data, head back to the boat, and lied down completely exhausted for a few minutes to recover a bit. After an hour or so, the rest of the team started coming back to the boat – also exhausted. Most had very low PSI left in their tanks, because there were so many invertebrates to count. We recorded our data down off our slates, and called it a day. We have been itching for a night dive the entire trip, and thus we headed by Hol Chan to check the current dive conditions around 5:40 P.M. As we approached the MPA, we saw a small 17 foot boat capsized on the reef. We called it in using Shorty’s cellphone, and using a pair of binoculars, identified it as the “Baby Rose”, a boat which our good friend “Biggs” owns. We spent about thirty minutes looking for people, or perhaps bodies; capsizing outside the channel is near certain death at Hol Chan because the waves would pummel even the most skilled swimmer into the reef in such shallow waters. After scanning the water for thirty minutes or so, we determined that no one – alive at least – was there. We scanned all the way home, in case someone was miraculously swimming back to the island for dear life. When we got back to the dock, we found out that Biggs was indeed on his boat when it capsized. A group of snorkelers had gotten sucked out of the channel by the strong current, and he had attempted to rescue them. Luckily, there were other boats there, and everyone was saved! I am going to take a long hot shower, go get some food, and sit and reflect on the past few days over a few rounds of celebratory drinks on the Professors. Data is good, everyone is safe, and life is good!
Today, yesterday, and the day before, I have seen some of the most beautiful and inspiring ecosystems in the world. I was expecting mostly algae covered reefs (because of the impacts of climate change and anthropogenic impacts) with maybe a few spiny lobsters and perhaps an eel or something like that. Less than two hours ago, I was in the middle of 15-30 nurse sharks, all in a frenzy over some fish bits that another dive team brought down. The other group of divers were petting them and I could almost swear that I heard them purring. One diver even had the gall to yank on one shark’s tail. Professor Savage was video taping them because he thought that the divers were just asking to get bit. We went to 85 feet at the deepest point.
Yesterday, the first day in scuba gear because of rough seas and weather, we went to the Hol Chan dive site, which is inside the reef (minimal surf), shallow (about 28 feet deep at the deepest), and in a Marine Protected Area. Because we were inside the reef, we saw our first nurse sharks, massive groupers, many yellow tail snappers, schools of grunts, and an EXTREMELY large Moray eel (who was a little bit too friendly for our first dive, in my opinion). After, we went to ‘Shark Ray Alley’ to do some snorkeling. When we pulled up, there were hordes of yellow tail snappers, which the dive team played with by smacking the water with ropes. Every time they did this, the fish would all swim up hoping for food. Pretty soon, the nurse sharks were swarming around our boat, and the dive master told us to hop in before the wildlife realized we weren’t going to feed them. We snorkeled for an hour or more, taking many pictures and videos, before going back to base to take a surface interval.
After, we went to the Tuffy dive site. We went down to a depth of 60 feet and practiced buoyancy control techniques, under water communication, and fish identification for about 45 minutes. As I rolled off the boat into the water, after less than two seconds, a remora fish (shark sucker) tried to latch to my face. Since Professor Savage warned me that they were waiting under the boat for us to jump in, and guessed that it would choose me as a target because I was one of the largest divers and had long hair, he recommended that I shouldn’t let it latch onto me. I swatted it away once, then three seconds later it was trying to latch onto my leg. After swatting at it again, it circled around and tried for my face one more time. By this time, I had enough of the fish’s game, so as it was going for my face again, I had no option but to punch it in ITS face. It left us alone after that.
Now, we are gearing up for a night dive at Hol Chan. I’ll leave that dive story to someone else. Santa Maria!
Belize is a developing country with a culture as diverse as its gorgeous coral reefs. Like the mutually dependent ecosystems which allow the biodiversity found throughout the region to flourish, the different ethnic backgrounds of its citizens work together here to grow the economy. It’s a two-to -one currency exchange ratio (2 $BZ to $1). So far I’ve met people who were born and raised on the island, Jamaican craftsmen, Honduran shopkeepers, Ecuadorian beach-goers, a Chinese barkeep, Brazilian snorkelers, an old English bloke, a young couple from France, Koreans, Lebanese restaurant owners, Israelis, overheard a Pakistani businessman talk to a Mexican construction worker in Spanish, Argentinians, and many Americans from all parts of the country while I’ve been here. Somehow, I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface of the culture here.
Up until about a century and a half ago, there were no permanent settlements on Ambergris Caye. Prior to the establishment of San Pedro, the ancient Maya inhabited the island. There are at least thirty-two confirmed sites of ancient Maya dwellings (Dr. Herman Smith, http://ambergriscaye.com/museum/digit11.html), although many have been covered by two to three feet of water, because the leeward side of the island has been sinking for the last thousand years or so. Construction has unearthed historical evidence to point out that at one point, Ambergris Caye was a booming trade community for the long-canoes which connected the Mayan and non-Mayan worlds. Although the ancient Mayans never invented the sail, they still transported pottery, smoked/dried fish, salt, textiles, and shells, using the ocean-faring canoes called dugouts.
Although quite interesting, the dugouts were only PART of the trade system set up in and around San Pedro, long before it was named that. The Maya people would use small canoes to navigate the shallow waters of the inland rivers, and negotiate their way to the highlands of present day Belize (and further). Coming back, there is evidence that they brought obsidian and jade, basalt and furs, forest based products, feathers, and perhaps precious metals for redistribution along the coastal zones.
By the time the Spanish came here, the Maya trade days had severely changed for the worst. Around 1300 or so, most of Ambergris Caye was abandoned, due to unknown reasons. However, there is a strong possibility that a few Mayans inhabited it until the Spanish came in the 15th century. I’m going to look into more about San Pedro’s cultural anthropology tomorrow. So sad we didn’t get to dive today, however – I learned a bunch about San Pedro.