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May 14 - June 4, 2009

Belize

Lighthouse Reef

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 carnivores.

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 the calm

One of Linda's orchids at the BluHole Lodge

Another orchid

Crossing from the shallow atoll basin, over the reef, and into deep blue water.

Half Moon Cay, Lighthouse Reef

Frigate bird nesting at Half Moon Cay. The frigate birds are "pirates" of the
sky because they attack and steal food from the boobies.

Feathered pirate in training

Brown red-footed booby

White red-footed booby

Gecko at Half Moon Cay

Iguana portrait

Leaf-toed gecko

This is Sal, our stowaway gecko who came onboard in Colon, Panama. We like having him around to eat insects. Sometimes we'll kill a fly for him and put it on a napkin in a certain place. One morning we noticed Sal hanging from the shelf above the empty napkin. He had that same hungry, expectant look Dakota has when he stares at his empty dog bowl. So we opened the screen door to let in a fly, which Nick killed and placed on the napkin. In a few minutes, Sal reappeared and promptly attacked and devoured the dead fly. So I guess we have yet another mouth to feed.

A pelican searching for dinner

Sunset at No Name Point lagoon

Underwater photos:

 

Black Durgeon

Queen Angelfish

Turtle on the reef at Long Cay

Scorpionfish portrait

Big Lobster in the protected marine park

Rock Beauty

Four Eyed Butterfly Fish

Sea fans and other soft corals

Big enough for a hot tub! Barrel sponge on Half Moon Cay Wall.

Queen Triggerfish

Stingray

Barracuda

Spotted Eagle Ray. On one dive we saw two of these beautiful rays circling
each other as if dancing in a ballet--a breathtaking sight!

Deanna and her new dive buddy, a barracuda, do their 15-foot safety stop.

Deanna swims through a channel in the wall.

Unusual double Barrel Sponge

Colorful sponges

Tarpon portrait. Nick said this was the biggest he'd ever seen.

Tunicate

Queen Triggerfish

Gray Angelfish

Feather Duster

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