Faith In The Underworld

By Douglas Bernon
June 15, 2001
Southwest Cay, Glover Reef, Belize
16 45.707 N 87 47.001 W

I've been scuba diving for 40 years, and the underwater world at Glover Reef is the best I've ever seen. Bernadette and I have looked forward to getting out here since we arrived in Belize, so when an ideal weather window opened, we skedaddled. This was doubly good fortune because we sailed out in tandem with our friends on Sea Camp, Diane and Harold, who were fresh from an unexpected rudder rebuild in Isla Mujeres that nearly had cost them their whole sailing season. We'd been staying in touch over the SSB and our two boats had a sweet reunion. Within an hour of setting our anchors at Glovers, Harold and I were armed and hunting. Dinner that night was triggerfish ceviche, hogfish fillets, and conch fried rice.

Photo of Glover Reef Everyday at Glovers has been what Harold calls "zero-dollar days" as we've been able to eat from the sea.

My scuba life started at Camp Conestoga in Minerva, Ohio, when I was 12. The lake there was only eight feet deep, and the bottom — dark and mucky — was, we campers were told, dinosaur dung. Despite this, I became hooked and dived whenever anyone would issue me a tank. Twenty years later, when I finally took an official PADI course, my open-water qualifying dives were in a Pennsylvania rock quarry on a snowy day in March. When I compare Glovers with the better places I've dived since those ignominious beginnings — the reefs of Fiji (till now my favorite); the hongs in Thailand; the atolls of the Maldives and French Polynesia; the caves of Tonga; and the reefs of the Bahamas, Eastern Caribbean and Cuba — none holds a candle to Glovers.

There are four atolls in the Atlantic. Mexico has Banco Chinchorro, and Belize has, from north to south, Turneffe Island, Lighthouse Reef and Glover Reef. Chinchorro was beautiful, and great fun, but for snorkeling and scuba diving, nothing to write home about. Turneffe and Lighthouse are easy jaunts for the day-tripper dive boats that come out of and return to Belize City and San Pedro, carrying 20 to 60 divers per boat, so we skipped both places for this season and chose to spend our time in Glovers, which is less convenient and less crowded. Earlier this year we'd met cruisers who dropped a hook at Glovers and hauled it up six weeks later.

Photo of an eagle ray Eagle Ray.

To get here, most cruisers, stopping on their way north from Honduras, Guatemala or Panama, catch both the Gulf Stream and the prevailing easterly trades, rather than sail down against the current from the north. For boats already in Belize, it's a simple trip out to the barrier reef, then out through the cut at Tobacco Cay, for the 17-mile, deep-ocean sail to the shallow southern pass into Glovers, which is definitely a keep-the-sun-behind-you kind of entrance. But once inside the atoll, the coral heads are clearly visible in the bright turquoise water, and we weaved between them, finally anchoring in 30 feet of good sand, about a third of a mile from shore. We could've gotten closer, but we wanted to make the bugs work for our blood. In more than two weeks here we've seen no commercial, live-aboard dive boats, only four other sailboats and two motor yachts in a lagoon that covers 80 square miles with more than 600 coral patches. The water is so clear that just sitting on the boat we've watched sting rays pick their way across the sandy bottom.

Glover atoll, which is shaped something like the profile of a horse's head, runs roughly from north to south, the longest segment being about 15 miles and the widest about six. Depths inside the lagoon drop to 75 feet, and outside the wall, to which it's easy to get by dinghy, there's a sheer drop to 800 feet, and beyond that into the thousands. There are a couple of low-key resorts here. Manta Ray Resort offers PADI-certification courses to an endless list of dive sites that are justifiably named Shark Point, Octopus Alley, Grouper Flats, and Turtle Tavern. I signed up for their advanced dive course, which set me back $200, including gear rental, dive boat, and dive card. Harold decided to take the initial open-water-class certification, which thrilled me because it meant I'd have a dive buddy, and since finishing we've had two great dives together; in one, we spotted a whale shark.

There's always been something magical to me about being underwater. As a kid, my family had an above-ground pool in the back yard, three feet high and 18 feet across. I'd spend long afternoons alone, swimming back and forth underwater. Maybe it was the silence and freedom for reverie, or the untouchability of being there. Whatever it was, I developed an affection for being under the surface, which I suspect influenced my career choice as well.

Photo of a yellow snapper Yellow Snapper.

Bernadette maintains that this proclivity of mine for being underwater is an outward display of the instinct psychoanalysts have to crawl back into the womb and start over. As usual, she probably knows more about this than I like to admit.

Once I discovered scuba diving, I was at home in a voyeur's paradise. Without smell or taste, or very much sound or touch, vision and movement predominate consciousness. With the luxury of time and tanks, you get to dally in a normally forbidden world where, as an alien creature, you're not always at the top of the food chain. Some combination of fright, novelty, and a return to where we all started is mysteriously thrilling, and still gives me an adrenalin rush every time I enter the water suited up.

At Manta, when someone wants a course, a PADI instructor is ferried out from the mainland. Because I was the only one taking the advanced open-water class, I had Charles as a personal tutor, and we did six dives in three days, each one tantalizing. Charles is a native Belizean, movie-star handsome, a lean, black, 35-year-old Rasta whose dreadlocks, down to his shoulders, were woven with silver fish, silver rings, silver cannabis leaves, silver lions, and silver shells. Underwater, in his black wetsuit, red-colored mask and sparkling decorations, he resembled the world's largest Rapalla fish lure. We hit it off from the start. He knew his coral, his fish, and his job. He was a no-nonsense taskmaster who just plain loved to dive and pushed me hard to hone my skills.

For our navigating dive, which involves finding your way from point to point with an underwater compass, we swam down to about 65 feet, weaving through canyons with walls of knobby star coral, boulder brain coral, staghorns as big as cars; green-, brown- and, red-branching elkhorn coral; layers of circular scroll and sheet coral; ivory tree coral and pink pillar coral that was sometimes 10 feet tall. There was also delicate rose-lace coral in white, red, and purple; warty and doughnut sea rod in shades of green; and swollen-knob candelabrum that would've been at home sashaying on Liberace's baby grand.

Photo of gold coral Gold Coral.

The soft coral captured me: four-foot-high white and fusia sea plumes clustered as great feathers and rolling with the undersea currents; yellow and purple sea whips sometimes only inches tall, Lilliputian and elegant; red sea fans with lacey, intricate designs branching like Moroccan geometry.

Throughout every dive we were accompanied by fish who taunted us with their proximity, knowing in their gill of gills that we were unarmed: black groupers, some longer than my leg; and snub-headed permit, always a little dull-witted looking as if they're the seagoing missing link; indigo hamlets, with their slanting blue and white stripes; massive schools of blue tang swirling round us; queen triggerfish whose yellow bottoms, blue tails, and striped upper bodies make them dandies in the deep; and spotted trunkfish — tasty, box-shaped, brown-and-black-spotted critters known here as "chicken of the sea." Sometimes there'd be schools of iridescent, almost transparent squid no bigger than my thumb. At every turn there were hogfish, rainbow runners, and lots and lots of lobster. (God, how I longed for my pole spear.) Everywhere, conch had convened by the zillions for some intergalactic conference. At the end of each dive, it was fun to listen to Harold, who was discovering for the first time what I now take for granted, that diving is peaceful, quiet, and slow. "When I snorkel and free dive," he said excitedly, "everything happens so fast and the fish all scatter. But scuba diving is totally different. You just linger down there close to the fish, and they aren't afraid. You see the detail. I love it!"

The snorkeling here is also excellent, because so many of the reefs rise to the surface. Just a short swim from the boat, in 12 feet of water, we've watched nurse sharks and turtles, schools of the always bug-eyed gobies and a collection of the largest angelfish I've ever seen. One day we saw a squadron of jackknife fish, a foot long or so, with diagonal black-and-white stripes at their head that curve into horizontal stripes on the body, then meld into a black tail with white spots. Rather than stilettos, their black dorsal fins, sticking up like cowlicks atop their heads, reminded me of Alfalfa in the Little Rascals. Yesterday, on another shallow reef, Bernadette and I swam within a few feet of a spotted eagle ray, its brown topsides covered with silver blue spots, lazily plumbing the sand for lunch. There were two remora attached to his back, and none of the three were fazed by a gallery swimming close beside them.

Photo of a branching sponge

Charles and I did several deep dives as part of the class, and these outside-the-wall dives were my favorite. Imagine descending to 100 feet, dropping as quickly as you can equalize your ears, so you can enjoy more bottom time and a leisurely ascent. Underneath you, it's the darkest blue. Behind you, visibility is a hundred feet or more, and then it's the same blue there. But in front of you, facing the wall, every millimeter is alive, a collage of overlapping life forms: azure vase sponges set among branching fire coral, next to brown-bowl sponges like intricate Navaho baskets with inch-long peppermint shrimp loitering inside; orange ball sponges; pink lumpy sponges; rope sponges in yellow, red and green; and branching sponges in colors loud enough to get arrested.

Peering out of their protective daytime homes were the usual scrumptious Caribbean spiny lobsters, but at just under 75 feet I saw my first red-banded lobster, his distinctive antenna giving away his hiding place. There were fragile branching hydroids dwarfed by the giant blue-barrel sponges I could have crawled inside, and always there were fish — not just a few, but hundreds, sometimes it seemed like thousands: groupers and snappers and sharks. I think they were admiring the wall, too. After every dive, and every snorkel, I rushed back to Ithaka, jazzed to comb our fish and coral books, to read about what I'd just seen.

The most dramatic sight on all the dives, however, wasn't one of size or depth or danger, but of breathtaking courage. At no more than 25 feet, I lay for some minutes on a white sand bottom watching several inch-long, striped scarlet cleaning shrimp swimming in and out of the mouth of a great barracuda, cleaning its teeth.

In a world where all too often no good deed goes unpunished, I had witnessed faith.