By Christiana Hayward
By week three of dive camp our science target sites had been chosen and we were on a roll. We had all passed our science tests with the help, care, dogged determination and humour of Nick our field scientist.
Parallel to the science training was dive training for some with Al managing to fit in an advanced open water course and Emergency First Response and Rescue diver training. With such a small group everyone was involved in the scenarios either being rescuers or victims in and out of the water. Al became more and more creative in his instructions to the victims culminating in a pretend machete cut on the leg with liberal amounts of tomato ketchup being applied for effect!
Back to the diving, by week three we had been joined by Samos another boat captain who is quite simply one of the most amusing, barking mad Belizeans anywhere! However, his knowledge of the Barrier Reef is unsurpassed and his care and humour even at five in the morning was incredibly welcome. Our days started at five fifteen (more or less, depending how long it took you to awaken) this was just before sunrise, the birdlife at this time in the morning is remarkable but more of this later…and as the sun swept the night away we were loading our gear onto our beautiful skiff, Azul.
JJ always made sure we stuck to our timetable, so at six, on the dot, we headed for the outer reef into the sunrise. The mornings in Bacalar Chico were unbelievably beautiful, we would head across the lagoon towards the breakers of the reef Samos niftily getting Azul and her very precious cargo through the cuts and beyond to our dive sites. Frequently we would see dolphins and rays inside the reef or outside towards our destination…. and once, a huge, magnificent leatherback turtle came towards the boat. Al, who is the master of cool, actually squeaked with disbelief… he was virtually speechless.
With the assistance of our GPS system and Samos’ inbuilt GPS we would find the site and laden with tape measures, reels and SMBs and slates we would head down towards the Firing Range (named for the incredible number of Triggerfish), Hot Point (because it was like being in a washing machine the first time); Pig Sty (because of the hundreds of Grunts that congregate there) or to the Alleys and Davey Jones’ Locker, stunningly beautiful boulevards, canyons in spur and groove formations which almost make words banal.
We would then record the benthic (coral and other stuff on the sea bed) every 25cm for 30 metres (four times for each site) the fish along the same transect and then the divers would complete a fish rover on the site recording all of the fish seen within a 30 minute dive. This would take at least four dives for each site, the identification of the site, the benthic identification, the fish identification and the fish rover. I am a diver not a scientist but the knowledge that I have gained while learning the science and recording the data has enhanced every dive and I know now which fish are abundant, which are incredibly rare and of course which ones to get excited about! Sadly we have seen too many lionfish, which are not indigenous to these waters and are eating the grouper fry, our data and records of the sites of the lionfish are to be passed on to the Department of Fisheries who will take the appropriate action to ensure that the beautiful groupers of Belize are not destroyed by the lionfish.
After a first dive at six we would head back to the camp and to the most incredible breakfasts made with love by Martha and Betty; then generally out again for dive two and sometimes three before lunch.
If the wind was too strong to get out passed the breakers we would dive in the lagoon or snorkel gathering the same information for Peccary Patch, so named when David, Nick and I saw peccaries on the beach and named the nearby patch reef after these wild pigs.
We also went snorkelling and diving in the mangroves, collecting data on the coral and juvenile fish. The silence of the mangroves being broken by Samos singing his own composition about Ginger the Pelican, a local pelican who has been in a few scraps and, according to Samos “eats more than he can” “I don’t know how the hell he can!”.
For the divers amongst you, to get the opportunity of diving three times a day mostly on the barrier reef (dependant on the weather) is a huge privilege, to dive with dolphins, huge southern stingrays, eagle rays, turtles, nurse sharks and beautiful groupers in addition to the breathtaking coral formations is perfection! I have been diving in many places all over the world and could never have imagined day after day of such awe inspiring beauty.
To come to Belize on a normal holiday and to complete one day’s diving with a dive school in one of the resorts costs about the same as one week with Blue Ventures, so if you have time and you want to dive in places that sometimes no-one has ever dived in before and experience what we are seeing daily you must come out and join us!
For those who are not just mad divers the Belizean bird life is astonishing, on Bacalar Chico almost daily we saw ospreys that nest within a mile of our camp; the oriels, fly catchers and chacalacs were most active in the mornings and in the evenings the yucatan nightjars could be approached within inches, their huge eyes watching, unafraid.
We walked the beaches of Bacalar Chico, seeing the beautiful herons, the pelicans flying in formation and diving in the shallowest of waters for their ever abundant catch.
After four weeks of daily surprises, lots of science, weekly quizzes and much laughter we packed up and set off back to Sarteneja for the Easter Regatta. We arrived back in the village, which seemed like a huge metropolis after the dive camp, for Good Friday and much activity of the village getting ready for the weekend and visitors from all over Belize and beyond.
The churches (there are fourteen of them in Sarteneja most of them with megaphones) competed with the Garifuna punta and reggae music blasting from speakers around the village. On Easter Saturday there was a football knock out competition which, for Nick, became more knock out than football as he managed to get involved in a clash of heads and ended up with eight stitches and as the hero of his team, the local tour guide association. David and Sean helped the local children get their fish and coral board ready for their display the following day.
Sunday arrived with our setting up the Blue Ventures information stall alongside the stall of the local Tour Guide association and the local fisherman’s association. We took turns in explaining to the large numbers of visitors to the stall what we were doing on Bacalar Chico and what we had seen. The interest in the stall was impressive, particularly as it was a blisteringly hot day and there were many stalls selling locally produced food and ice cold beers and of course most people simply wanted to wallow in the sea!
We joined the celebrations at about five with the greasy pole competition (incredibly dangerous, lots of men on each others’ shoulders attempting to collect a bottle of Tequila from the top of a greased flag pole) we watched, we did not join in! Then came the greasy pig competition! We were assured the pig would not be injured in this game, certainly the pig’s dignity was pretty damaged but I have seen the very same pig since Easter and he is being well looked after before his inevitable fate at sometime in the future.
The pig was greased and released in one of the school yards (because it is one of the only enclosed public spaces) and the anticipation built as darkness fell as the pig snuffled around eating what it could from the large school yard then a number of shirtless men (all of whom had had perhaps more than one Belikan – the local beer) appeared and surrounded the pig. The crowds surged forward and apparently, after a while, and out of our view, the pig was caught by Neto who works in the manatee rehabilitation centre. Much music dancing and drinking followed, for some this went on to the early hours, for the BV volunteers we had to get to Wild Tracks the following morning, so we didn’t stay up all night! This has meant that my nickname in the village is now Cinderella! Wild Tracks is the nearby manatee rehabilitation centre and some of us have spent time assisting with Josie and Twiggy, two young manatees who need feeding, exercising and moving from pool to lagoon every day.
Easter meant that my English language programme was been slightly delayed because of child care commitments however, the informal classes with mothers and children have been very successful, all of my students being incredibly interested in the dive camp what we were doing there and what we saw. Many of the children are very keen to attend Nick’s lectures and at least one has stated that it is her firm intention to become a marine biologist.
The team also arranged for us to have some excitement for the last week, this included a visit to a small cave in the village, David and Al spent the time crawling around the small cave covered in bat poo looking at spiders, rats and bats! We then spent the night in Shipstern Nature Reserve which was absolutely wonderful. En route to the reserve we saw toucans and a solitary eagle, we arrived at the camp in time to catch hundreds of birds, crocodiles feeding and then we cooked over a camp fire before setting off for a three hour trek in the jungle counting the crocodiles in the lagoon as we walked around it. Returning, we slept in jungle hammocks and awoke to the sight of herons, kingfishers, rufus tailed humming birds having their early morning feed.
The end of the expedition sent us various ways, to Mexico, the northern Cayes and for me, Mayan ruins and caves in the Maya Mountains and the beauty of diving out of Placencia in the south of Belize. The joy of Belize is the size which means that one can travel from the north to the south of the country in a relatively short time or north to Mexico in a couple of hours.
Now Emily has arrived for the second expedition and once again Nick is in full flow everyday and when he isn’t Al is! JJ, as usual, has a phone permanently attached to his ear and the village is once again the sleepy calm oasis that we found when we first arrived at the beginning of March.
The most memorable good moments from the first expedition for me were seeing a stingray and her newly born infant on a night snorkel, diving with sharks and dolphins and the hilarity and levity that Nick brings to everything from safety stops where he almost always sings ‘Mysterious Girl’; his mad quizzes and laughing for hours over data inputting.
So, we are off to dive camp for another four weeks from next Thursday, when the flights in Europe are sorted out again and if you want to enjoy pristine coral, unexplored reefs and the joy of spending every day in the water and making a difference, you really should consider joining BV in Belize.