A Breathtaking Reef
From West End, Roatan, we sailed overnight to arrive at a
destination we had long dreamed of visiting: Lighthouse Reef
in Belize. Nick came here many years ago on a liveaboard dive
boat and dove the famous Blue Hole. Lighthouse Reef is one
of Belize's three offshore atolls. An atoll is a ring of coral
rising from great depths to surround a shallow basin. In some
areas the reef rises above the sea, and in others it is below
sea level. To enter the basin, mariners must find gaps where
the reef is deep enough to cross over. As we approached the
west side of Long Cay, a small mangrove island within the
atoll, we crossed an area about 12 feet deep. The coral reef
below our keel, magnified by the crystal-clear water, appeared
much closer. I held my breath as we passed over the reef,
expecting to hear the sickening crunch of fiberglass meeting
coral at any moment.
We spent a week at Long Cay on both the east and west sides
as the weather dictated. During this time we did a couple
of dives on the west side of Long Cay and found a lovely and
healthy reef wall. At the dive site called "The Aquarium,"
huge schools of Sergeant Majors and Chubs practically assaulted
us looking for handouts, which we didn't have. Nick explained
that the Chubs are often called "Shitters." The
reason for this nickname was quickly obvious. The Parrotfish
have nothing on these guys!
After the weather settled, we spent a second week at Half
Moon Cay, a lovely palm island where we anchored over bright
sand. Half Moon Cay is a marine park, and we paid $10US a
person to be here for as long as we stayed. Some cruisers
avoid anchoring in the park to save the fee, but we thought
it was money well spent to support a good cause and enjoy
a spectacular reef.
Half Moon Cay wall is hands-down the most beautiful reef
we've seen on our cruise. From the dive mooring, we swam across
a sandy plateau toward a dark shape looming in the distance.
I had to remind myself not to hold my breath (the big no-no
in scuba) as a massive wall of coral rising 20-feet above
the sand came into view. As we swam through a sand channel
draped with coral, a spotted eagle ray passed by on the outside.
Reaching the outer wall, we saw prolific coral ledges hanging
over the deep blue abyss below us. Many of the fish were the
largest we'd seen anywhere, although I think Roatan still
takes the award for large grouper. With air fills from the
marine park and the liveaboard dive boat Sundancer II,
we were able to complete seven memorable dives on Lighthouse
Reef. We also become friendly with Celso #1, Celso #2, and
Ryan, three of the park staff who filled our scuba tanks and
brought them to our boat for conversation and free beer.
Can I Interest You in Some Swampland?
We spent one afternoon strolling along the paths on Long
Cay. Here we met Linda, the American proprietor of the BluHole
Lodge, a three-bedroom rental that she and her partner built
on the island. She gave us a tour of her home and the lodge,
all built on stilts as required so as not to interfere with
the indigenous inhabitants: iguanas, lizards, and crocodiles.
Both homes used wind and solar panels to charge a battery
bank, much like a boat. She had all the conveniences, including
a full-sized refrigerator/freezer. We were amazed by her description
of a rare sighting of two crocodiles mating. In fact pets
are prohibited on the island since they draw out these hungry
As we strolled past the big resort, closed and up for sale,
and down a long board walk, we were amused to see signs posted
over the swampland identifying lot numbers for sale. This
brought to mind a Jerry Jeff Walker song:
"His land is still a mud hole where you sink up to your
knees, and he's just another gringo in Belize."
The Day the Earth Moved
In the wee hours of May 28th, our 10th wedding anniversary,
the earth shook. Literally. I'd like to claim that after all
these years we can still "rock the boat," if you
know what I mean, but alas we were sound asleep and cannot
take credit. We were awakened by one of the park employees
calling us on the VHF radio. "Did we feel the tremors?"
he asked. No, we hadn't felt a thing. We wondered if Ryan
and the Celsos hadn't been drinking too much cane juice, but
then our anchor drag alarm went off several times. The wind
was howling and a choppy fetch rolled beneath our hull, but
we weren't dragging our anchor. Was this just a coincidence?
We didn't sleep much for the rest of the night wondering what
might be happening.
Sure enough an earthquake was the big news on the Northwest
Caribbean Net the next morning. Two underwater tremors measuring
7.1 and 4.8 had occurred northeast of Roatan, Honduras, the
night before. Tsunami warnings had been issued but were expired
by the time we heard of them. Along the mainland of Belize
several cruisers had felt the quake, and there was property
damage throughout Central America.
Inside the Barrier Reef
After two weeks at Lighthouse Reef, we decided to take advantage
of settled weather to move west and finish our trip inside
the second longest barrier reef in the world, which stretches
from Belize to Mexico. At this point our focus was on our
ultimate destination: the Rio Dulce River in Guatemala where
we planned to spend hurricane season. Most monohull sailboats
must cross the river's shallow sand bar on a high tide. This
high tide must be in daylight and preferably in the morning
to avoid spending the night in Livingston, where the holding
is poor and dinghy thefts are a problem. This means that only
a few days each month are doable, and our target was the second
week of June.
Sailing inside the barrier reef is usually a pleasant beam
reach on calm seas with plenty of places to stop along the
way. We made stops at Colson Cays, Sapodilla Lagoon, and No
Name Point Lagoon (north of Monkey River Town). These were
all mangrove islands or lagoons, which offer good weather
protection but murky water and, frankly, not much fun. However,
fun was no longer our priority. We were being driven by impending
squally weather that might or might not be ahead of a developing
tropical low pressure system. Would this be the first tropical
storm of the season or just another false alarm? We intended
to learn the answer from the safety of the Rio Dulce, if we
could just get there ahead of the bad weather. It was a race
to the finish. Would we make it?
From No Name Point, Belize, we motored in light wind to Bahia
Graciosa in Guatemala, yet another large mangrove lagoon with
all-around protection in case the forecasted squalls arrived
overnight. While mangrove lagoons don't offer clear water
for swimming and snorkeling, they are peaceful and beautiful
in their own right. Having decided to put Caribbean Soul
up for sale, we watched the sun disappear into wisps of cirrus
clouds and wondered if this would indeed be the final night
of our cruise. What would our future hold? From deep in the
mangroves, the familiar call of howler monkeys broke the silence.
An unusual bird song we'd never heard joined the chorus. A
full moon was already high above the horizon casting a shimmering
light on schooling bait fish boiling up the water nearby.
Flashes of lightning danced across the towering cumulus clouds
shrouding the mountains to our south. What other lifestyle
could possibly offer such peaceful solitude in a place of
pristine beauty? To this question, we found no answer.
While at Lighthouse Reef, we had several
days of northwest winds and squalls. When the easterly trade
winds reestablished, they were preceded by several hours of
eerie calm with no wind. The boat was surrounded by a haze
as if, with no wind, the clouds had fallen from the sky. The
water was still and as clear as a bathtub. For a hundred yards
around the boat, we could clearly see a dozen stingrays and
a barracuda. Nick took this picture above and below the water
with the anchor chain in the foreground.
For sale: Lot #394
Self-portrait of the photographer's feet
taken from a hammock on Long Cay
Another photo of Caribbean Soul during