Belize Trip Report
Feb. 18 - 26, 2005

I had wanted to go to Belize for sometime, ever since I learned the second largest barrier reef, and longest in the northern hemisphere, lay just offshore. My whining finally wore my dive buddies down and the Abyssmal Divers planned their 2005 Expedition to Belize.

Getting There:
We chose to fly TACA Airlines, primarily because it saved over $200.00 per ticket. We connected in San Salvador, which appears to be a hub for TACA. My suggestion would be, unless you are saving significant money on your ticket, it’s not worth the trouble to fly TACA.

We arrived at LAX 3½ hours early, and for the first time in my life we needed every minute of that time. It took nearly 2½ hours to get through the check-in line. At the TSA security inspection we found a new ruling was in place, prohibiting flashlights in checked baggage. At least one of our party arrived in Belize to find TSA had confiscated his Underwater Kinetics Light Cannon. We arrived in the boarding area with about 20 minutes to spare.

The plane finally backed away from the terminal about 30 minutes late, and wheels up right at an even hour late. This made our connection in San Salvador a bit dicey, we deplaned and walked across the terminal and walked right onto our next flight, praying that our bags made the connection, which as it turns out they all did.

The flight itself was another thing, first off we had chosen a red-eye to get there figuring we could sleep on the way down leaving the day to do something in country. Never have I heard so many announcements, so much for sleeping. Then as if to ensure a lack of sleep, about 2 hours into the flight they turned on all the cabin lights to serve sandwiches, and only charge you a mere $5.00.

Our return flight went a little smoother, only about 10 minutes late leaving both Belize and San Salvador. There was a little confusion as two folks in our party found their seats already occupied by someone with an identical seating assignment. A little juggling and a bump to1st class for one of them solved everything.

But, upon arriving at LAX everything came to a grinding halt. As we were in the customs baggage area, the carousel stopped leaving probably 100 passengers from the flight missing at least one bag, including about half of our group. To make matters worse, no one from customs seemed willing to help, and there was no way to get a hold of a TACA representative. Finally, about an hour later, a customs agent with a radio happened by, and was surrounded by angry passengers from TACA flight 520. A few radio calls and the bags were magically found. All was well, just another screw up in a long line of screw-ups.

Now I just have to wait to see if they apply the miles to my Continental account as they said they would, I’m not holding my breath.

We spent Friday night at the Radisson Fort George, which as it happens, is right across the street from the pier where the Sun Dancer ties up. The Radisson was clean and comfortable and is likely the finest accommodations in Belize City. There is a restaurant on site, and several within easy walking distance to the hotel. The staff was courteous, and very helpful. They also have Internet access in the hotel for a modest cost. Note, however, it’s not the fastest connection. We found a much faster connection just up the street at the Belize Native Handicrafts Museum, which has an internet café in the back, and charged the same amount.

Entertainment and other Interests:
We were able to arrange cave tubing, and zip line tour through Barb’s Belize before our departure to Belize, both of which were conducted by the Jaguar Paw Resort. Friday afternoon after our arrival we did the cave tubing, which turned out to be perfect given the lack of sleep on the plane. The tubing was very low key and relaxing. Our guide, a young Belizean named Pedro, was exceptional. He explained the local flora to us, explaining the local names of the plants, and the origin of those names as we walked to our entry spot on the river. In the river he warned us before any obstacle, in several instance where a rock was submerged he would exit his own tube and stand in front of the rock to push us safely around them.

The following morning we took the zip-line tour through jungle canopy. Harrison and Edgar were our guides on this tour. Safety was foremost on this tour, with all guests tethered at all times while above ground. On the zip line they had triple redundant safety lines. If there was any negative to the zip-line tour, it would be the lack of wildlife in the canopy, but in retrospect, it makes sense there would be none. The pulley’s used on the lines are quite noisy, so why would any animal or bird want to be anywhere near all the noise and commotion.

When we returned Friday afternoon we were able to book a tour from the boat to Altun Ha, an ancient Mayan ruin about an hour outside Belize City. Our driver, Rudy, picked us up at the end of the pier, and took us to Altun Ha, which means Rock Stone Water. The ruins have been partially restored, and are well worth the time and expense to get there.

By the way, the tour we set up from the boat was quite a bit less than the ones we set up from home. That difference can partly be explained by two trips to Jaguar Paw, and lunch being provided on the tour we booked from home, but my guess is there is an additional charge for the booking from the states (somehow Barb has to be paid).

Dive Operator:
We chose Peter Hughes Sun Dancer II for this trip. What can I say, the boat, the crew, the food, the service…OUTSTANDING! If Sun Dancer II is any indication of the rest of the Dancer fleet, I would take another charter in an instant. The boat is a converted sport-fishing vessel that was purchased by Peter Hughes in 1997, and gutted to the waterline before being rebuilt as a diving vessel. A great deal of thought went into the layout, and hence, diving from her is a pleasure. Staterooms are right off the dive deck; the salon is one deck up, and the sun deck up one more.

Captain Alan Cull is a well-seasoned veteran with over 18 years of experience, has commanded the Sun Dancer II in both Palau and its present port of call, Belize. He has also run dive boats in Southern California and the Monterey Bay area of California.

Allison Seymour, a native Californian born in Bakersfield, who goes by Ali serves as the boats head purser. She is also does duties as one of the divemasters and is a certified instructor. She also is the primary shop keeper in the ship’s boat-ique, where you can acquire any number of Sun Dancer II related gear and clothing as well as any needed sundries, and some dive related equipment (fish id charts, hose protectors, slates, etc.) for a fairly hefty price.

Divemasters John, Juan, and Elvis were always available to escort you on a dive otherwise you were free to explore the reef on your own, but one of them was always in the water during a dive. The only dive that was escorted because of its depth was the Blue Hole, were John lead the group and Juan trailed behind to make sure everyone was ok.

The deck crew was awesome, with Chef Jerry Carcamo, cooking up some truly delicious cuisine. His soups are to die for, and every meal was a dining experience.  His chocolate-oatmeal cookies were a definite high point in the post-dive treat department. Everybody fought for them. Elia and Barbara serve double duty, cleaning your cabin, and making your bed daily (as well as turning it down before bed time and placing a candy kis on your pillow), as well as dining room serving duties. At dinner the entire crew gets into the act, they don their dress white’s to serve dinner, pretty awesome.

Last but not least is Ferdie, a native of the Philippine’s, who serves as the ship’s head engineer. You don’t always see him, but you know he’s around by how smoothly the ship’s equipment operates. Our only problem all week was a water de-salination problem, when a membrane blew out in the reverse osmosis system limiting the amount of water that could be desalinated each day. Obviously not something you can easily repair at sea.

Nitrox is available, and I highly recommend it for the additional safety factor while doing as many dives as are possible, and at $150.00 for the week, it’s a bargain. Sun Dancer uses a membrane blend system with a bank of 4 very large bottles below the dive deck to make refills fast and efficient. All fills were between 31.8% and 32.2%. The only dive of the week done on 21% was the Blue Hole dive due to its depth.

The cabins are roomy, at least compared to my previous live-aboard experience. No bunks, but two beds. Plenty of stowage for your clothing, bags, and spare gear. Each room has its own bathroom with shower, and a large window over looking the ocean. Each morning there is coffee, tea, and/or juice delivered to order to your room at 6:30, quite a nice treat.

The Diving:
Unfortunately, the wind blew pretty steady for 5 of the 6 days we were there, forcing us to stay on the lee side of Lighthouse Reef. We tried once to get to the windward side, but quickly retreated. On Wednesday, we were graced with diminished winds in the morning allowing us to get into the Blue Hole. We ended the week at Turneffe Reef for two dives Friday morning before returning to Belize City.

Don’t expect to see large pelagic’s in Belize; most of the large game fish have all but been wiped out by over fishing. I didn’t see a single shark all week, though someone in our group claims to have seen a leopard shark on one of the dives. We did have a manta sighting the first day, it would turn out to be the last. But the reef themselves are in great shape and smaller life abounds, with lots of macro opportunities for those so inclined. About the largest fish we saw were the Tarpon that came in every evening during the dusk dive (about 4:00 PM). They would take up residence under the boat looking for their evening meal. On the night dive they hang out near you, waiting for you to shine your light on some tasty morsel. If you didn’t they would swim by very close, almost bumping you, as if to say “Come on, show me something. I’m hungry.”

The Blue Hole, considered by many to be the 8th natural wonder of the world, and protected by the Belize Audubon Society gained notoriety when Jacques Cousteau visited in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s. The Blue Hole was featured in one of he documentaries, and therein lies one of his most heinous acts. Wanting to get the Calypso into the hole itself he committed the most non-environmentalist thing he could have done, he blew a hole in the reef large enough to maneuver the Calypso through. The people of Belize do not speak highly of Cousteau in this regard, and rightly so.

Diving the Blue Hole is something you have to do…once. Because there is little water exchange within the edifice, there is little life there. It’s dark, deep, and cold (if 77º F water is cold). The stalactites start at about 110 feet, with some extending well below 130 feet. The dive was planned as a decompression dive, and our divemasters kept bottom time to 8 minutes, before ascending slowly to a depth of 30 feet for our first of two planned safety stops. Having done it, I can say “I dove the Blue Hole”, have entry in my logbook showing a new depth record (for me) of 140 FSW, and pay $20.00 for a “I Dove The Blue Hole” T-shirt.

Aside from our problems at airports, the trip was extremely relaxing; with your every wish taken care of during the week. One word of note, for those of you who still shoot film, Sun Dancer II no longer provides E6 processing onboard. The digital age has made it uneconomical for fleets to offer this service to its guests. I was one of two folks on board still shooting film, and had to wait till I returned home to get any feedback on my technique

The diving was effortless; your gear stayed together at your assigned station the entire week. Once suited up you were, at most, a dozen steps from the water. Visibility ran a fairly wide range, from a low of about 30 feet to over 80 feet. Water temperature were a bit on the cool side for a Caribbean location, at least to me it seemed cool, running from a low of 77º F to a high of 79º F, with 79º F being typical. Currents were mild to non-existent. The walls were shear and could be quite deep, we tended to keep depths 100 feet or less on the walls. The top of most reefs were 40 feet, with one in particular running from about 20 feet to less than 6 feet.. Large life is not very abundant in Belize as mentioned above, but smaller life is. There are plenty of photo opportunities, especially for the macro photographer.

Would I go again? That’s a tough one. We set the bar pretty high last year with our trip to Yap and Palau. It’s not that Belize as that bad, it’s just the ”WOW” factor was missing. But for someone looking for relatively calm diving aboard a first class operation, Peter Hughes Sun Dancer II and Belize is hard to beat.