Diving Blind into the Blue Hole

As you may remember, last year I scuba dived into Belize’s Great Blue Hole – an underwater karst sinkhole that’s famous for its perfectly round shape and enormous speleothems (huge stalactites, stalagmites, and columns).

You may also remember that Rowan Garel, one of the BCVI’s Rehab Department’s clients, is a regular fundraiser for us, having completed such feats as climbing Victoria Peak (the country’s second-tallest mountains) in 2011 and walking across Belize from the Guatemalan border to the Caribbean Sea in 2012 (he continued his money-making perambulations by walking across San Pedro).  And as I mentioned in my last post from Caye Caulker’s Lobsterfest, and in my post about the Agricultural Show, fundraising is a vital part of the BCVI’s financial strategy, as it’s a charity and non-profit organisation that provides (among many other things) free rehab services to any visually-impaired person in Belize who needs them.  So Rowan’s efforts cannot be overstated, and the money raised from them goes a long way towards helping the BCVI provide its vital services.

This year, Rowan and his family decided that 2013’s fundraising exercise would be for him to learn to scuba dive and then dive the Blue Hole, becoming the first blind person to do so – a serious undertaking for any sighted adult, a major (but not impossible) task for a blind teenager.  But Rowan isn’t your average teenager, and having climbed mountains and walked cross-country, this was just another challenge…

For those of you have learned to dive (by completing the PADI Open Water Course [or maybe even the SSI or NAUI courses!]), you’ll remember that you spend time in the classroom and in the water, and have to do a theory test and a practical assessment at the end.  At least, that’s what I did when I learned to dive 10+ years ago in Thailand.  Nowadays, like learning to drive, the classroom courses and tests are all online, so completing the e-learning section is as easy as using a computer (and thanks to various software packages that read screens and speak commands [we use NVDA], a blind person can learn to use a computer as well as anyone else).

As far as the practical skills go, you’ll also know that, under the water, communication is done by hand signals.  Which is great, so long as you can see.  Poco problema numero uno.  Fortunately, the good people at JICA (the Japan International Cooperation Agency – a Japanese government agency that’s similar to Britain’s VSO or America’s Peace Corps, and which operates in Belize) contacted those clever people at Casio, who provided an underwater communicator, which has been on the market for less than a year, and which allows normal conversation between divers (even with the regulator in the speaker’s mouth).  And with the use of some old-school equipment (including an old-fashioned pressure gauge that can be measured by touch), Rowan ended up as well-furnished as any sighted diver.

Unfortunately for Rowan, like all trainee divers, he still had to go through the same exercises as everyone else, from the pleasant floatiness of the fin pivot to the panic-inducing terror of the mask clearing (which nobody seems to enjoy, but which is probably the one thing taught on a dive course that everybody has to get accustomed to, as masks fog up and fill with water far more frequently than divers run out of air or lose their weight belts or get their heads stuck in giant clams.  And at the end of the course of pool dives, sea dives, and theory tests (and with expert tuition from dive instructor John Searle from Sea Sports Belize), Rowan, plus his sister Aesha, and Carla from the BCVI, were all qualified open water divers.

The original date for the dive was July 14th, but it was postponed several times due to bad weather (June – November is Belize’s hurricane season, and, although there aren’t always hurricanes, there’s plenty of turbulent weather throughout the summer).  Finally, Chaac stopped swinging his axe long enough for there to be a few days of settled weather.  And on July 26th, we’re off.  At 6:30 in the morning ;-(.

Today also happens to be the last day of the BCVI’s annual Summer Camp, where the Rehab Department provides two weeks of education and entertainment for over 50 of Belize’s blind and visually impaired children (which is an important part of Rehab’s yearly budget, and something that Rowan’s fundraising is helping to subsidise. And at which yours truly was once again let loose among small children without adult supervision [incredibly, I was the adult supervision!], teaching them everything from computer skills to long division).

So, all the children, plus their families, volunteers, and staff, are at the dock to see Rowan off, before they head back home.  The two dive boats (loaned by Ramon’s Village Resort and Ambergris Divers, both in San Pedro) are being loaded with equipment and supplies (which includes, much to my pleasure, a cooler of sandwiches and several cases of beer).  And after the photo calls, the interviews for TV and radio, the checking and double-checking, and the goodbyes, we really are off.

Belize’s barrier reef runs parallel with, and close to, the shoreline.  So it’s not long before we leave the shallow reef waters and are out in the deep open sea.  Fortunately, unlike last time, we’re in big boats, so it’s much more of a stable ride (although there are still plenty of hold-on-tight-to-something-and-then-get-hit-with-a-facefull-of-sea-spray moments).  And as the Blue Hole is inside an atoll (Lighthouse Reef), the water there is as calm as inside the barrier reef.

It’s not even mid-morning when we arrive; but the sun is high, the early-morning clouds have burned off, and the sea is as flat and reflective as a mirror.  As we enter one of the two channels in the circular reef that surrounds the hole, you can see the curvature of the hole and the reef, and see the contrast of the deep blue water inside the hole and the turquoise sea around it.  The vivid colours and calm water remind me that the reef is my favourite part of Belize.  A representative from Belize’s Audubon Society (who manage the Blue Hole as a protected area) gives a short introduction, then Rowan has another round of interviews for TV and radio, then divemaster John gives a briefing, and then it’s time to get our gear on and get in the water.

The Blue Hole is over 120 metres deep, and the famous rock formations start at about 40 metres down.  But we won’t be going that deep – at Rowan’s not old enough, and he (and several others) have only just qualified (an Open Water certification allows you to go to a maximum depth of 20 metres).  But we still go to that depth, and that allows us to descend to the sandy floor surrounding the Hole, and then go over the edge and a few metres into it.  The sudden drop into the depths, the seemingly-endless vertical wall of rock and coral, and the contrast between the bright water above and the inky darkness below make for a dramatic dive.  In fact, I enjoy myself more than the first time I was here.  I may not see the famous speleothems this time, but the coral (that’s only around the Hole’s rim) means that there’s more marine life up here – including plenty of fish and a three-flippered turtle that we follow around for a while.  And watching a blind child scuba dive on his own, with only the occasional assistance from his dive buddy, makes me realise that, even with a disability, there’s almost nothing that you can’t do, and almost no activity that you can’t enjoy, with preparation, support, and the right attitude.

We do another dive shortly afterwards (after Rowan has given more interviews!), this time at Half Moon Caye Wall (another famous dive site in Lighthouse Reef).  Although not as well-known as the Blue Hole, this site is equally good, as the extensive coral patches support a huge variation in marine life, from fish to rays to sharks (and we have several large reef sharks follow us for much of the dive).

And after a short break on nearby Half Moon Caye to eat lunch and check out the island’s resident Red-footed Booby colony (or in my case, to stay on the boat and avail myself of the aforementioned sandwiches and beer), it’s back to Belize City, after an enjoyable, successful, inspiring, and history-making day.





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