Sunday, April 14, 2013

Return to the Sea

Traveling Companions

Sea Turtles

Red-footed Booby Baby


Sting Rays

Little Blue Heron

Map to the Blue Hole

Reaching Out

Rainbows on Coral

Fish Fest

Green Sea Turtle

Look, Ma. Five legs!

Snorkeling–because I still can.

Black Howler, Endangered
Winter in New Mexico seemed long and cold this year. In March, if I can swing it, I like to fly off to my favorite island in the Caribbean, Caye Caulker off the coast of Belize. I first went down there to become certified as a scuba diver and liked it so much that I returned again and again. This year, for the first time, my son Alex came with me. I felt lucky to have this tall, good-natured companion beside me, taking photos, helping with the luggage, sharing the misery, the laughs and adventures.

For me the point of this trip was to film the coral of the Great Barrier Reef with my JVC underwater camera. I also wanted to introduce Alex to snorkeling and the strange world under the sea. During the first ten days–when it wasn’t raining and we weren’t nodding off–we took snorkeling tours with some of the best guides Caye Caulker had to offer. Juni took us out in his sailboat to Shark-Ray Alley, a marine reserve, where we swam with the nurse sharks, played with the manta rays and took photos of huge leatherback and green sea turtles. Juni, a nut-brown man in his senior years who guides every day if the weather permits, dove down about 15 feet and coaxed a couple of green eels out of their hole under the coral. He also played with sharks and rays that followed him around like puppies.

We braved a day out at the famous Blue Hole at Turneff Island and Half Moon Caye. The two-hour ride outside the reef in open water was rough, with wind and high waves, but at last we slipped into calm waters to snorkel the edges of the Blue Hole. This coral has not suffered as much damage from the hurricanes and looks almost as good as it did when I first came down to dive 16 years ago. From the air, the Blue Hole, at the center of Lighthouse Reef, looks like a meteor crater. It’s actually a sinkhole 400 feet deep and over 1,000 feet across. According to my guidebook, it began millions of years ago as a cave with impressive formations. But at the end of the last ice age sea levels rose 350 feet and flooded the cave; then the ceiling collapsed.

Alex and I reveled in the quiet beauty of Half Moon Caye where we snorkeled the coral in shallow water and chased lots of colorful fish. Then lunch at the white picnic tables: stewed chicken, beans and rice–traditional Belizean fare. Followed by a stroll down a sandy path to the bird sanctuary to climb a high platform for a view out over the treetops where the red-footed boobies and frigate birds nested in bewildering numbers while their mates soared overhead. The booby babies were about the size of mature ducks, but white and fluffy as Easter toys. The male frigates showed off their bright red, balloon-like sacs to attract the females. Which seemed to work. The one with the biggest balloon got the girl.

The last ten days of our sojourn, we took a bus south to Placencia, which has a real beach, compared to Caye Caulker, which is a mangrove island with docks and lots of birds, only a mile from the Great Barrier Reef.  Our hotel in Placencia was right on the beach so we could listen to the waves shushing the sand–except for the live band at the nearby Tipsy Tuna that boomed on and on until midnight. (Friday and Saturday night only, folks!)

On our last day in Placencia, as the wind died and skies cleared, we signed on for the Monkey River tour with the renowned "King of the Howlers," Percy Gordon, aka Rambo. This sharp-eyed middle-aged black man was quick to tell us about his Barebones Tours that had been written up in Esquire Magazine. He picked us up in Placencia–with ten other ecotourists. We were barely into the lagoon when we spotted a dolphin leaping from the water with a big smile, just like Flipper, a visitation that left some of us giddy. Then we snaked through a maze of mangroves and zoomed across silky water that mirrored the luminous clouds until we came to Monkey River, a village of about 200 where Gordon was raised and his relatives still live. Traveling up the Monkey River, he pointed out endangered black howler monkeys high in the trees, bats clinging to tree trunks low to the water, slider turtles enjoying the morning sunshine, an osprey, a little blue heron. He said if he saw a crocodile he would try to catch it and bring it aboard for us to see. We thought he was kidding. Suddenly he leapt into the water and raced for it, but the croc got away. To the relief of some of the passengers. Soon we came to a narrow corridor in the greenery. Gordon tied up the boat and we followed him along a leafy path into the rainforest looking for howler monkeys. He carried a machete (pronounced down here, ma-chet, two syllables.) In the distance we could hear the terrifying roar of the monkeys, like the suck-in breath of a giant vacuum cleaner, a primal ripping sound. Gordon challenged them with a guttural “Whup! Whup! Whup! Waaah!” Some of them “went ape” and started down the trees toward us. Others hung high in the 100-foot canopy, puzzling over our antics. Mosquitoes feasted on my fingers as I struggled to hold the camera steady. I had to hand it over to Alex who got some cunning photos.

We trotted after our guide along the rough path–“Watch out for that armadillo hole!”–into a tall, arching bamboo forest. I was in awe, having never walked through a real bamboo forest before. Gordon is a “medicine man” or shaman who knows the plants and explained the many uses of them. He pointed out a vine of cat’s claw, una de gato, which he said could cure cancer. Then he cut a branch from which water flowed and offered us each a drink. We tipped back our heads while he dribbled the sweet, clear liquid into our throats. I immediately felt energized and so did some of the others. He also scooped up a handful of termites and offered us some. “ I eat bugs!” he declared. But we wrinkled our noses and declined.

In the boat on the way back to Monkey River, Gordon poled us to within three feet of a crocodile that was half buried in mud so we could hardly see it. He splashed it until it blinked and dove under. Downstream, he beached the bow on a sandbar and invited us to take a quick swim in the cool, clean water. I, for one, couldn't resist. Delicious! After a great lunch at Alice's Restaurant, (his mother is Alice), laughing at Gordon's wild stories, we buzzed back up the coast. In the depths of the lagoon, we stopped to observe the gentle manatees, cows of the sea, as they surfaced, sucked in a breath and dove to the bottom again. (They can hold their breath up to 20 minutes!) By late afternoon we landed at the dock in Placencia. If you follow up with some aloe for your sunburn, an exotic tree lily tucked behind your ear, and a seafood dinner at a local restaurant you might discover that you've just had one of the best days of your life!

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