What’s an atoll? It’s one of the most basic questions you should learn the answer to when you’re young, along with “Did God let my kitten die?” and “Why do I have two Dads?” Fortunately, for those of you who never paid attention in Geography class, your Uncle John is here to educate you.
An atoll is a group of coral islands that encircle a lagoon. It was Charles Darwin who first explained how atolls are formed, after whiling away his spare time on his five-year voyage on The Beagle thinking about it (when he wasn’t discovering evolution!). What starts as an extinct volcanic island in the sea slowly subsides over time, and develops a fringing reef around it (which grows upwards as the island sinks), until finally the inner part (the volcano top) sinks under the water while the outer part (the reef) pokes above the water as islands. And Voilà! – one atoll. As the reef-building corals can only live in warm waters, all atolls are in the tropics, with the majority in the Pacific Ocean.
Atolls are great for diving, as the warm temperatures and low depths of the lagoons mean that the inside of an atoll is full of coral and marine life (coral can only grow in shallow water where there’s plenty of sunlight, and the coral attracts plenty of fish). And as most atolls are far out to sea, away from large human populations, they tend to suffer less man-made damage than other reef systems.
The Caribbean Sea has four atolls, and three of them are in Belize. Plus the world’s second-longest barrier reef runs the length of the country. So Belize is a bit of a mecca for diving and snorkelling.
Having already dived in several places on the Belize Barrier Reef, and at Glover’s Reef (the southernmost atoll), it’s high time to check out the northern ones (especially as they’re the closest to Belize City, where I live and work). Due to ear infections, work schedules, competing social events, bad weather, and good old-fashioned laziness, I haven’t yet. But I get my chance when my friend Ruth passes through Belize on her way through Central America, as part of her round-the-world trip.
We spend the weekend at Caye Caulker and arrange to go diving at Lighthouse Reef, home of the world-famous Blue Hole. Shock Number One is the price – I know diving isn’t a cheap hobby, and I know we’re going a long way out to sea, and petrol is expensive here (at US$1.40 per litre, it’s way more than the US$0.80 per litre it costs in Mexico, and more than twice the cost of the US$0.60 per litre you pay in Guatemala). So the US$200 cost of the day means I won’t be diving there every weekend. And Shock Number Two is the schedule – we leave at 6 A.M. Which means we have to be at the dive shop at 5:30 A.M. Which means I have to wake up at 5:00 A.M.! For those of you who don’t know me that well, I’m not a morning person (and I defy anyone to be chipper when it’s still dark outside and not even the birds have awoken).
The next morning (except it’s not morning, it’s still night – it’s 5:00 A.M.!) I haul my distressed body out of bed and into the bathroom. I feel like a small mammal that’s spent months hibernating underground, it takes several minutes before I can fully open my eyes and I’m staggering around like a newborn giraffe. At the dive shop, when the dive master tells us it’s going to be a two-hour journey to the Blue Hole, I have visions of lying down in the boat on something soft, being rocked back to sleep by the gentle motion of the sea. But as soon as we get outside the sheltered environment of the reef, it’s painfully obvious that’s not going to happen – the journey is across open ocean, and not only that, but today it’s rougher than usual. As soon as we get over the reef and out to sea, the front of the boat starts bouncing up and down with such violence that everyone moves (or is thrown) to the back, where we huddle together, lurching up and down and grabbing onto anything we can for support. Occasionally we ride over a wave so large that the entire craft (apart from the propeller) is temporarily airborne – you can feel your body lift off the seat for a few seconds, your hands involuntarily tighten on the side of the boat, then your bottom slam back onto the hard plastic. Never have I wished so much that I had a fat arse. Or a cushion. And for everyone on my side of the boat, we also get the ‘pleasure’ of being sprayed by the sea every few minutes, due to the wind direction. Needless to say, I don’t sleep during the journey, although I’m very much awake by the end of it.
Finally, after two hours of having salty water thrown in my face and being spanked by a 1-tonne boat, we arrive. My face is weather-beaten, my hands are fixed in a claw shape from holding on so tight, I appear to be missing several lumbar vertebrae, my gluteus maximus feels like a piece of steak that’s been pummelled with a meat tenderising hammer, and I think I may have broken my ischial tuberosities.
The Blue Hole was formed over 100,000 years ago, when rainwater dissolved limestone to form a sinkhole, and then the rising sea levels of the last Ice Age flooded it. Seen from above, it looks like a dark blue pupil in the centre of a turquoise eye. Surrounded by a circular reef, there are only two gaps where you can enter or exit by boat (Jacques Cousteau cleared these channels when he first visited in the 1970s). Seen from the surface, you can just make out the shape from the colour difference between the deep dark water inside the hole and the light shallow water around it. But seen from within, it’s more like a wall dive than a descent into a sinkhole – at over 300m in diameter it’s too big to see the other side or get any feel of its circular shape, it’s like trying to see the curvature of the Earth by looking at the horizon.
After donning our gear and entering the water (fortunately that’s easy, as the sea inside the Hole is as calm as a millpond), we descend a few metres to a sandy slope at the edge of the Hole, follow it a few more metres to the rim, then swim over the edge and begin our dive into the inky depths.
The Blue Hole drops away before us to over 120m. The water’s clear, but it looks dark and bottomless down there. We’re not going down that far though, we go to where the shaft bulges out at 40m (that’s still nearly twice as deep as I’ve dived before), to see the Hole’s famous rock formations – stalactites, up to 10m long and 1m thick, hanging down from what was once the ceiling. The other famous thing about the Hole is its resident reef sharks, but we don’t see any today; in fact, the marine life is noticeable only by its absence – there’s not a single fish down here (probably because there’s no coral, it’s just bare rock). The other noticeable thing is the temperature – the depth and lack of water movement means there’s a distinct thermocline, and looking at my fellow divers I can see I’m not the only one shivering.
After diving underneath overhangs and around stalactites for no more than ten minutes, it’s back up to the surface – due to the depth, we spend most of our time descending and ascending, and we stay under for much less time than a shallower dive (because you consume your air faster at greater depths). So we’re in and out in 25 minutes, it’s the shortest dive I’ve ever done.
All in all, the Blue Hole was a little anticlimactic. What’s described as ‘amazing’ and ‘one of the world’s great dives’ was certainly good, but not fantastic or awesome (a word so overused by Americans and teenagers that I can’t even write it without involuntarily flinching); it was more a case of doing it to experience it and then tick it off a list. Maybe it’s better with the sharks. Maybe it’s been hyped up by guidebooks and tour operators to the point where the reality can’t match the superlative descriptions. Or maybe I’m just a cynical Englishman who’s incapable of enjoying anything ;-).
Fortunately there’s two more dives in Lighthouse Reef, and they more than make up for the briefness and lack of animals on the first – healthy and varied coral, schools of colourful fish, plus nurse sharks, moray eels, turtles, rays, and several canyons and tunnels (one of which is so tight that swimming through it necessitates pulling yourself along by hand, while scraping your knees on the sandy bottom and clanging your tank on the rocky ceiling – it’s far more unnerving than the Blue Hole, especially when you can’t see the exit, not to mention anything else, as your view’s obscured by all the sand being kicked up by the person in front of you [memo to self: next time, don’t be polite and wait for everyone else to go through!]).
Lunch is served on the boat at Half Moon Caye, one of Belize’s protected areas. It’s a quintessentially tropical island – sand and palm trees, surrounded by turquoise water. It’s also the home of the amusingly-named Red-footed Booby bird, 4,000 of which live among Ziricote trees at one end of the caye. And apart from the birds, some lizards, a few park rangers, and an information booth, there’s not much else here – so after a brief look around it’s back on the boat for the last dive.
On the way back I make sure I secure a more comfortable spot than I had on the way out – as far back in the boat as possible, and this time in the middle. And I rest my still-aching backside on a lifejacket.
It was a long trip (we got back at 4 P.M.), and a tiring day (three dives plus the tropical heat certainly takes it out of you). But it was still a great day’s diving and well worth the energy, money, and time. And if you’re coming to Belize and you’re a diver, I can recommend exploring Lighthouse Reef (or at least one of the atolls). Just bring a cushion for the journey…