SCUBA Diving the Great Blue Hole in Belize
A Beautiful Morning
Last Tuesday, I woke up at 6:00 a.m. on a beautiful island off the coast of Belize. Palm trees were blowing in the wind, and I was preparing to go SCUBA diving at the Great Blue Hole.
Don’t know much about this giant, visible-from-space, sea hole? I didn’t know much about it either. But Jacques Cousteau deemed the Great Blue Hole one of the top dive sites in the world and Charles Darwin has described the reefs in Belize as “..the richest and most remarkable coral reefs in the entire western Caribbean.” What else do you need to know? With endorsements like that, you’d be crazy NOT to dive in Belize.
Blowing my travel budget out of the water, I signed up to dive the biggest sea hole in the world.
The boat pulled up to the dock on Caye Caulker just after 6:30 a.m. The day was overcast. Having not used my dive certification in a few years, I had done a couple dives the previous day to get my skills back in top form: I could clear my mask, recover my regulator, and achieve neutral buoyancy (more or less) like a champ. I was ready for this.
As I stepped onto the boat, a deck hand offered me his arm and another asked if I wanted a hot cup of coffee. Um, yes please! There were spreads of fresh fruit and sweet breads.
The boat filled up with SCUBA divers and snorkelers and soon we were zooming across turquoise waters. I have always loved boats. I have always loved being on the water.
The Open Sea
Things started getting choppy. One girl made her way to the back of the boat: the designated puking spot. I’d never gotten seasick before, but my stomach started to churn. I looked ahead (is that a thing on boats too?) and took slow, intentional breaths of air.
We hit an exceptionally large swell and seven or eight people flew out of their seats and landed in the middle of the boat: one girl giggled wildly, everyone else looked shocked, pissed.
We all hung on to the boat a little tighter after that and tried our best to hang on to the sweet bread and pineapple in our stomachs.
The Blue Hole
“We’ll be arriving at the Great Blue Hole in roughly eight minutes,” someone announces. “Start putting your wet suits on.”
I am thrilled. We had made it: I had not vomited in front of a boat load of strangers.
My dive buddy and I make our way to the back of the boat where our rental gear awaits us. We had asked for full wet suits, but instead I am given two shorties. I just wear one. The long pants were to protect my skin from stalactites… not necessarily for warmth. My buddy’s suit is far too tight and we laugh as she struggles into it.
They begin to brief us on the dive: we have three minutes to drop to 40 meters. I have never been that deep before. “It will be dark,” they warn us. “It may take your eyes a minute to adjust.”
Everything happens quickly. “Make sure your air’s on,” they say. Before I know it, I’m in the water.
“If you have trouble equalizing, get started now.” I’ve never had trouble with my ears, so I wait for further instruction. Within seconds, it’s go time.
Everyone starts descending quickly. I realize immediately that I’m the least experienced diver in the water. I’m not going quickly enough. I look down and panic. It is very, very dark and murky. I have already lost my dive buddy, and I can barely see any of the other divers. I briefly contemplate bailing on the whole thing and going back to the surface.
A feel a tap on my shoulder: it’s the dive master. “You okay?” he signals. I feel the panic leave my body. I am not alone in the Great Blue Hole. “I’m okay,” I signal back. We descend the rest of the way together and within moments I find my dive buddy and the rest of the crew.
The dive master inquires about my air. It’s only been like 10 minutes, I think, but I check it anyway. Holy crap! I’m already down to 1,000 psi. Panicking + a 40 meter descent uses up a lot of air. He nods. I’m going through my air too fast, but knowing he’s watching out for me and has a whole extra tank on his back, I remain calm.
We swim under the famous stalactites, where the skin is gently scraped off the back of my left calf. Damn this shortie wetsuit! My dive buddy and I take photos of each other with her underwater camera. And although we see very little marine life, I actually begin to enjoy the dive.
But then it’s time to ascend. As quickly as we went down, it’s time to go back up. Especially me. Short on air, the dive master ascends with me a bit and then signals for a safety stop. Three minutes later, I head for the surface, and it’s done.
I have dived the Great Blue Hole.
Though scary as hell, surviving the Great Blue Hole has given me confidence. I am confident the worst is over, and I’m looking forward to a couple of reef dives.
Besides breathing too much, I always have problems with my mask. I’ve heard that you have to relax your face. I know you should not smile underwater. I’m clearing my mask again when I hear the dive master banging on his tank to get our attention. When I finish clearing my mask, I see that directly below me is a shark.
Have I mentioned I’m not a very experienced diver? This is my first shark encounter. The shark is not huge and doesn’t act aggressive, so we just watch.
The shark leaves for a minute and then comes back… or is it a different shark? I do not know, but I am running out of air again. We are only a few meters underwater so I ascend and finish watching the shark, “snorkeling” from the surface until the others join me.
Before the third dive, we stop for a lunch of rice and beans with chicken on Half Moon Caye. Half Moon Caye can be summed up in one word: paradise.
As we walk to a picnic table for lunch, a coconut falls from a tree and lands right in front of us with a loud thud! The dive master, now laying out the food, looks up. “You should probably buy a lottery ticket today,” he laughs. We joke about me cheating death, twice now, in one day.
“Half hour left!” comes the warning. “If you want to go see the birds, now is your chance.” I don’t know what birds he’s referring to exactly, but I decide I want to see them. One of the deck hands leads us to the other side of the island. He tells us about the hurricane of ’61 and shows us that the path that we’re walking on is actually a coral reef, or at least was. When you looks closely, you can see brain coral. The path is littered with hermit crabs.
The birds turned out to be a pretty incredible sight. I don’t know much about bird identification, but I was told that the ones closest to the viewpoint were red-footed boobies.
There were perhaps hundreds of birds perched in the trees and flying about: baby birds and grown-up birds, birds of all different colors. Perhaps this is why Darwin was drawn to the area.
By now, the dive master knows I’m going to run out of air. I felt like I was breathing calmly and cooly during the entire second dive (even with the sharks!) so I am not quite sure why I am going through my air so quickly.
Like many places in the Caribbean, lionfish have become a problem here, so the instructor brings a speargun and hunts for the little buggers.
He catches several and then holds them out for other fish to chomp on. We look for sharks to feed, but alas, there are no sharks on this dive.
I signal to the dive master when I have a few hundred psi left and he swims over and gives me the regulator to his second tank.
This allows me to stay underwater for the duration of the dive and it gives me a front row seat to the show. The dive master pulls out a pair of scissors and cuts all the spines off the poor little lion fish and I watch as they float slowly away in the water.
The Ride Home
I’m not looking forward to the rough seas again, but I am looking forward to a good nap and perhaps a cold beer.
The ocean is even choppier on the way back. I start to feel sick again. I take deep breaths. Someone moves to the back of the boat to the puking station.
We hit a swell and my dive buddy flies off her seat and lands in the middle of the boat. She decides to stay seated on the floor for now.
A few minutes later she looks at me and she knows: she knows I’m about to lose my rice and beans. The deck hands warn us not to stand up. There is no more moving to the back of the boat: it’s too dangerous. I carefully slip down to the floor and trade places with my buddy. I am now situated next to the garbage bag that we’ve been using to throw our watermelon rinds in all day. Within two minutes I have lost my rice, beans, and most of my pride into a black plastic bag.
“Don’t look at her,” warns the deck hand to the French girl sitting only a foot away from me. He knows from experience that once the first one goes, others often follow quickly in her footsteps. I feel better. The dive master that’s been bailing me out of situations all day gets me a water.
My dive buddy puts her hands out to indicate she would also like a water. She goes for the catch as the boat tips violently. She flies through the air again, this time elbowing me in the face and landing on her already-bad knee. We still have an hour and a half to go.
With both puke stations full at the back of the boat and the only handy garbage bag in my hands, things really start to get interesting. The whole boat can recognize the look now: someone else is about to barf. He motions to me for the bag, but the bag is tied to the boat. The French girl tries to untie it, but it’s a losing battle. The guy is getting desperate. She tears the corner and hands the guy a bag of watermelon rinds and vomit.
I only have two minutes to feel sorry for him, before I realize I’m not done yet. That water I just drank? Yeah that’s coming right back up. I need the bag back, but he’s still actively puking into it. A deck hand finds me a new bag. I hurl into it over and over again.
My stomach calms down. I don’t drink any more water.
Even though I’m part of the chaos, even in the moment, I see the humor. At least half the boat has lost it now. One girl frantically leans over the side and vomits… into the wind. She is covered in her own puke and so is half the dive equipment.
I look down and realize my barf bag is leaking. All that effort to find a bag and yet, there I was sitting in a stream of rejected rice and beans.
I tell my dive buddy and she tells the deck hand. The poor guy goes from cleaning up the girl who vomited into the wind, to mopping up my mess. How he’s able to balance on the boat is beyond me. The guy is a champ.
We hit the calm part. There is a calm part between the two rough patches. They ask if anyone wants rum punch. No gracias. None for me, thanks. The few remaining people, those who aren’t sick, imbibe.
I move closer to the back of the boat while it is safe to do so. We still have a long way to go, but I am semi-confident there is nothing left in my stomach.
From my new “seat” on the floor, I see that the lionfish is still on the end of the speargun and they have it displayed proudly off the back of the boat, like a pirate flag. As the boat rocks back and forth, I watch the lionfish blowing wildly in the wind.
Sea water pummels me constantly. I find a 5-gallon bucket and pull it close to me, just in case. The dive master keeps using the SCUBA signal to ask if I’m okay. Never better, I think to myself sarcastically. I’m definitely not okay, but we both know there’s nothing he can do for me.
“Only 25 more minutes!” he yells. Twenty-five more minutes on a boat ride from hell. I brace myself with my left arm, clutch my bucket with my right, and keep watching that damn lionfish.
“You made it.” I look up. We are not to the dock yet, but now safely in the reef, the last ten minutes will be smooth sailing.
I take another deep breath. “There any rum punch left?”
He smiles. “Someone get this girl a rum punch!”