September 15, 2003
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.

Until now, the delights of scuba diving, with its low impact on the underwater environment, were unavailable to me. (Photo courtesy of Gabrielle)

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.

Staghorn coral
For me, scuba diving has never seemed an option. I've had a heart condition requiring a pacemaker since I was 18, and my cardiologist always advised against it, on general principles of caution, even though he said he had no research knowledge. Fair enough. He said "it wasn't clear" (that famous phrase) what effect the compression of going down several atmospheres would have on the pacemaker. Last summer, while I was home for a family visit - and a checkup -- I'd asked him if he'd check with the manufacturer of the device. But despite several calls to his office after that, he never got back to me before I returned to the boat.

Brain coral (Photo courtesy of Gabrielle)

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.

The lure of the crystal clear water of the atolls
The next day, Douglas gave me a briefing on all the gear, how it worked, and what to expect. I put on his buoyancy-compensator vest, tank and regulator and swam around on the surface, practicing breathing. At around noon, with high sun and terrific visibility, Erwin came over in his dinghy and picked me up. It was going to be just the two of us, to minimize distractions and pressure. He'd brought his wife's vest, regulator, weights, and tank, which I was going to wear. We flew off to a place 20 minutes from the boats, and as we planed along I felt lightheaded from excitement and fear.

This mola, by a Kuna Indian woman in the remote San Blas islands of Panama, where men fish only by free-diving, shows her idea of how scuba diving works.
At the reef, we anchored the dinghy, and Erwin reviewed the gear; how the vest and regulator worked to add or take away buoyancy and make me go up or down; how we were going to communicate with each other using specific hand signals underwater; how we were going to stay together, checking with eye contact that everything was going according to plan. There was a lot to keep straight.

"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.

A school of blue tang
One thing Douglas and I really like about Erwin is that he's a do-er. He's not afraid to try new things, or to push himself, and he expects a lot from the people around him. His confidence in me was inspiring. I didn't feel like chickening out. I felt like I could do this, that I'd be OK.

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.

Queen angelfish

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.

Eagle rays have wingspans reaching six to ten feet
All the while I kept thinking, "I'm fine! I'm really fine! I'm doing this and I'm not having a heart attack or exploding or anything!" Finally we returned to where we'd started, slowly swam upward, emerged into the splashing, noisy, churning wave-filled surface, and flopped back into the dinghy. It was like going from the calm of the womb into the chaos of the world.

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 single-sideband radio is our connection to cruising friends far away, to daily weather data, and to cheap email.

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.

In the "Information Offered Or Needed" section of the broadcast, the net controller grabbed my attention. He announced that they were looking for a new controller to take over Saturday and Tuesdays. Buoyed by my feelings of success diving, I stopped making my tea, and looked at Douglas, who was sitting at the nav desk. He smiled, handed me the mike, and without even thinking about it, I spoke up and signed up.

Douglas with Erwin from Dutchess, and John from Gabrielle
Immediately, I became a nervous wreck. The next day was Tuesday, my first day on the job, and I hadn't written down the script or the order of anything. Douglas and I got together with our friends, and we pieced the broadcast together. I made notes. We translated some sentences into Spanish - in case Spanish fishermen also were broadcasting on 8188, and I'd have to ask them to change frequencies. The next morning, with a stomach full of butterflies, I opened the net, and rock and rolled through that broadcast.

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.

Gold coral

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.

Brigitte from Gabrielle, Kris from Dutchess, and Bernadette
When Dave turned it back to me, I asked if anyone had any "information offered or needed." A few people shared some new facts about customs fees in Belize. Then I asked for "general check-ins," got my pad and pen ready, and held my breadth. This is the part of the broadcast where the net controller has to keep several plates spinning in the air at once, while connecting different boats with each other, repeating all kinds of information, and providing relays for folks who can't hear each other. To my horror, several boats had bad propagation, and needed relays (oh, sweet Jesus), but I didn't mess that up too badly, and somehow got through it. All in all, 27 boats checked in and gave their locations, and before I knew it, it was over, and people were coming on the radio and saying it went really well. I strutted around the boat all day, feeling like Mick Jagger backstage after a Stones concert - wiped out, but totally pumped. Dutchess and Gabrielle came on the VHF after the show and had nothing but kind things to say, and Kris felt sufficiently inspired to volunteer the next day herself to take over the show on upcoming Saturdays. (She was great.)

Too soon our days at Lighthouse Atoll were coming to an end. It was time so say good-bye to our friends and sail north.

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.