Belize (San Pedro Island)

When I visited Belize, I actually only went to San Pedro Island, which sits off the coast of this tiny nation. This was fine with me, as the island rests inside the fourth largest coral reef in the world. The Caribbean Sea lies beyond the reef and offers myriad opportunities for scuba diving for those so inclined. Within the reef, snorkeling sites abound including on underwater National Park: Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

Hol Chan contains a large variety of colorful fish species, including but not limited to: yellow tail, angelfish, barracuda and nurse sharks. There were many more represented but memory fails, as this narrative takes place more than a decade ago. The barracuda gave me pause but the nurse sharks were harmless, even laughable. These stuck their heads under rocks whenever approached, seeming like small children to believe that if what they couldn’t see couldn’t see them.

As I say, the barracuda were another matter entirely. Snorkeling guides advised that they were only dangerous when cornered. I recalled this advice when I happened on one poised beneath a fishing boat at anchor. He turned his toothy leer toward me seeming to grin at my quandary, watching me as closely as I watched him. I finally swam off, leaving this potentially dangerous fish unmolested, as thankfully, he returned the favor.

Back at Hol Chan, the snorkeling guide transported us in a glass bottom boat, the better to observe the schools of strikingly multi-colored fish. On arriving at the reserve, the guide took us out to a cut in the reef where, peering down the wall of the reef, we observed scuba divers rising along the wall, their air-tank bubbles preceding them.

Belize shares the Yucatan Peninsula with Mexico and is home to a variety of Mayan ruins, which I am sorry to say we neglected to visit, choosing instead to occupy ourselves exclusively on the island and the encircling reef. There were plenty of options with which to avail ourselves so this seemed a good decision at the time. Besides snorkeling at the reserve, we also opted for a boat trip to the “Blue Hole”, a prime wall diving site that we read about in our trusty guidebook. This proved to be quite the adventure.

We contracted with a boat company that employed an old shrimp boat as a dive boat. This fifty-foot retired flat-bottomed shrimper seemed in reasonably good repair. This trip coincided with the super-storm made famous in the book cum movie “The Perfect Storm”. While our adventure paled in comparison, it certainly did not lack for drama. On the morning of our debarkation, the weather did not look good and a big blow seemed in the offing but when questioned the skipper seemed unfazed, so deferring to his expertise, I went along with his recommendation and we set off.

As we neared the cut in the reef, I started having qualms about my determination but decided the skipper must know what he was doing. Still, being an old seafarer (I spent time in the Merchant Marines) I went up to the bridge to ride out the coming bad weather. Later on, this proved prescient as the waves washed over the stern, badly shocking the other members of the diving party.

During the height of the storm, the skipper wisely put in at a small atoll to wait out the brunt of the storm. After providing a lunch of cold cuts and sodas, and further appraising our chances, the skipper, with our agreement, made the decision to turn back for port. Thus began one of the most harrowing experiences I have ever had at sea. Fortunately, the skipper possessed formidable sea-smarts, as he subsequently displayed.

Once we were back out on the open Caribbean, the true measure of our predicament became apparent. The sea-swells rose to nearly thirty feet. I had been in storms at sea before but in large freighters not in flat-bottomed crafts like this without a keel to stabilize us. As each mountainous swell approached, the skipper turned the bow into the wave, the better to ride up and over the crest. At the top he came about, the better to slide down the backs of these monsters.

Whatever the case, he managed to get us out of the mess, steering us back through the cut and into the calmer waters of the protecting reef. Back at the safety of the dock, I assembled the shaken party members and marched them back to the tour boats’ offices, there speaking up for myself and the others (back when I could speak) about getting our money back.

The representative there argued that there were costs incurred for food (the aforementioned cold cuts and sodas) and fuel. Our argument hinged on the fact that they should have been aware of the folly of setting out in such conditions. In the end, standing as a group paid off, as the rep finally relented and reimbursed us all in full. Later on, as members of the party told tales of the colossal waves crashing over the stern, I realized the wisdom of my staying topside throughout the ordeal.

Notwithstanding the sights we missed on the mainland, San Pedro held enough to capture our hearts on this blissful vacation idyll. Long wooden piers running out into the shallow waters of the enclosed reef, flanked by tall swaying palm trees and pristine white beaches were plenty to sate our urban-weary need for relaxation. The above-mentioned adventure only served to offset the peaceful tranquility with some memory fueling excitement.

© Stephen Alexander 2008

Belize (San Pedro Island)

stephen hewitt

Lanexa, United States

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Artist's Description

An adventure in Belize

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  • Richard Lawry
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