Lighthouse Atoll, Belize
17° 12.505 North
087° 35.875 West
Breakthroughs At The Reef
By Bernadette Bernon
- It's weeks like this one I'll remember, years from now, as I think back on our days at the reefs in Belize and our time with friends on Dutchess and Gabrielle. So much happened.
For the past month, every time we all went snorkeling or diving together with Erwin and Kris, or with John and Brigitte, I've realized how much I've missed by not being a scuba diver. I hadn't felt these pangs at any other place we've been, but Lighthouse is a little different than most spots in the Western Caribbean; the best reefs here are deeper than I can get to free-diving. So I see the beauty from afar. But underwater, even on the clearest, brightest day, you want to be close up to fully enjoy the coral and sea life. Every time Douglas or our friends emerged from the deep with stories of the amazing things they'd seen, and the leisure with which they could linger, as Jimmy Carter once said, I've had lust in my heart.
Among other lessons, this reminded me that with the internet today, we all have access to great research, and inevitably it's our own responsibility to gather the facts for ourselves. and manage our own health care. This winter, I intend to become an expert on this subject. When my doctor didn't get back to me, I thought, oh well, so be it. Leave it alone, enjoy your excursions on the surface, and count yourself lucky.
Until Lighthouse, I was satisfied with that.
Our friend Erwin on Dutchess, who's an experienced diver and a mechanical engineer, unbeknownst to me, took it upon himself to scout out much of the atoll and find a spectacular part of the reef that was fewer than 20 feet from the surface, which means I could go to that depth without experiencing any significantly increased pressure-in other words, without risking ill effects to the pacemaker on which I am totally dependent. Douglas and Erwin talked about it; Douglas has been diving since he was 10 years old, and is as thorough as Erwin, if not more so. We all talked about it together. I decided this was a minimal risk, and I wanted to go for it.
"Alright, that's it," said Erwin, finally. "Are you ready?"
"I'm ready," I said with more conviction than I really felt. The truth is that snorkeling was looking better and better to me.
"Let's go," he said.
The first few minutes with all the gear on, and breathing though the regulator, and trying to remember what the different buttons were for, and the hand signals, was a little hairy. But slowly I stopped hyperventilating, calmed down, and when I was ready we began our decent. The pain in my ears from the increased pressure was huge, and over and over again I pinched my nose and blew out to equalize them, as Douglas had taught me, and as I always did while free-diving. At about 15 feet, we knelt in the sand for awhile to calm down and check that all was right. I looked up. Wowee Zowee! Above me, I could see the sunlight dancing on the surface of the water. I'd never been this deep this long before. I felt great!
I held my nose and blew out a few times, till the pain disappeared, and when Erwin saw that the freaked out look on my face was gone, he motioned for me to come along with him, and we headed slowly toward the reef. I felt a bit of panic as we moved away from where the dinghy was anchored - like heading away from the safety of the campfire into the forest -- but I carried on, at a snail's pace.
The coral reef was spectacular. As we swam up to the formations, and to the schools of fish, rather than darting away as they usually did when I snorkeled down, most fish eyed us curiously, and went about their business. Amazing. Erwin showed me miniscule red and white cleaning shrimp hiding inside some barrel sponges. We watched them for a few minutes, then carried on. Being able to gently linger at a formation or near a fish totally changed my experience of being underwater. I felt more a part of this silent world, rather than taking quick splashy hits.
We moved on, and on, and during the 45 minutes we were underwater we stopped here and there to admire ivory tree coral, staghorn formations-with moose-like antlers, lacey pink coral sea fans, queen angel fish with their bright iridescence, blue tangs, spotted trunk fish, and an eagle ray accompanied by two loyal remoras, one of them stuck aboard and hitching a free ride.
I'd just done something I'd dreamed about for years, and thought I'd never be able to do. I burst into tears and gave Erwin a big hug. There were tears in his eyes, too. I wanted to hold onto this moment and these feelings forever.
The next morning,
as we do every morning, Douglas and I tuned our single-sideband radio to
8188 at 1400 Greenwich Mean Time, and listened to the Northwest Caribbean
Net. There are cruising nets like this all over the world. Essentially they're
long distance round-tables, in which a central person moderates (that's the "net
controller") as different boats take turns checking in and talking to
the group and each other. (It's an eaves-dropper's paradise.) Most every
cruising boat from southern Florida down through Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Honduras,
Guatemala and Nicaragua tunes in to find out who's going where, what the
weather is, what's new, and to chat with friends. There is an ordered flow
of the program that does not vary from day to day, regardless of who is the
net controller for that morning.
First, I made the request for emergency or priority traffic. There were none, thank the Almighty. Then I called for check-ins from boats underway. I asked for and recorded their latt/long positions, weather and sea conditions, and queried them whether or not they wanted "traffic" with anyone else. So far, so good.
Then, some fishermen did come "on freak" (short for "frequency," as we professionals say in the net-control business). I told them that this was a net, and asked them to switch. They ignored me completely, and (my biggest fear) I had to face taking the whole net up three megahertz to 8191. After I moved up and checked that no one was broadcasting on that freak, I came back to 8188, and told everyone to switch up to 8191. Then I checked to make sure everyone came up with me, and handed the broadcast over to Dave Waltz. As Dave did the weather forecast for the region from Calabash Bight in Roatan, Honduras, I tried to regain my composure.
So, it's been a week of breakthroughs here on Ithaka, but these excitements are hiding a sad reality. Our sweet days at Lighthouse are coming to an end. In a few days time, Douglas and I will pull up the anchor, say good-bye to our friends, and sail north. In the world of cruising, that's the hardest thing we do, leaving people we've come to love and never knowing when or if we'll see them again. For us, for now, it will be hard to find people we care about as much as these cruising friends. It will be hard to find another Lighthouse.