Snorkeling The Great Blue Hole – Lighthouse Reef Belize!

19 05 2014
snorkeling the great blue hole belize

A lush ecosystem just under the surface!

On my vacation with Island Expeditions to Half Moon Caye Belize, my favorite snorkeling spot by far was The Great Blue Hole. It is featured in Lonely Planet Publication’s recent book, “The World’s Great Wonders.”

Made famous by Jacques Cousteau, The Great Blue Hole lies in Lighthouse Reef, 55 miles off the Belize mainland. He said it’s one of his top 10 dive sites in the world. Physically it’s 1,000 feet wide and 400 feet deep – whereas the rest of Lighthouse Reef is 22 miles long and 8 – 10 feet deep. The outer ring of the blue hole is an amazing forest of coral just below the surface. Click here for a wonderful time snorkeling amongst the corals!

blue tang swim in the great blue hole belize

A school of blue tang

No diving gear is required to explore this lush paradise of fish and coral. Divers can descend to explore the many caverns below. Click here for blue tang synchronized swimming!

The Blue Hole wasn’t always a hole. Turning the pages of time way back to the Ice Age, Lighthouse Reef was an island several hundred feet above sea level. At that time, the Blue Hole was above sea level and it was a cave. It was a great cathedral with side caverns filled with growing stalactites and stalagmites.

stoplight parrotfish at great blue hole belize

A female Stoplight Parrotfish pauses at a “cleaning station”

Then the earth warmed, the Ice Age ended, and as glaciers melted, the sea level rose. The island was submerged under water and became Lighthouse Reef. The roof of the cave collapsed, and sea water entered, creating what we see today.

Our Island Expedition guides shuttled us out to the Blue Hole as it’s pretty far from Half Moon Caye.

shuttle to the blue hole belizeOnce there, we slip on our flippers, don the dive masks, and somersault into another world. Once I adjust my mask and focus, a wave of excitement washes over me! This spectacularly preserved ecosystem is but a few feet below the surface, and I can swim right through it.

This is the healthy reef system I was longing for – everything I wanted to see. It is the ultimate snorkeling experience. Snorkeling the ring surrounding the Great Blue Hole, you witness healthy brain coral, staghorn coral, sea fans, barrel sponges, great barracuda, reef sharks, midnight parrotfish, grunts, blue tang, hawksbill turtles, angelfish, fairy basslets, eagle rays, and much much more!

Wrasse living near a sea fan blue hole belize

Wrasse and a sea fan

We spent three hours at The Great Blue Hole, but I could have explored a full day there. I knew that down below snorkeling level, there are great predators. Great Hammerhead Sharks, Bull Sharks, Lemon Sharks, and more spend time at depths in the Blue Hole. But the examples of these species are juveniles – they come to this spot for protection from predation by the full grown members of their own kind out on the ocean side of the reef.

brain coral at the blue hole in belize

Brain Coral, on the right

For this snorkeling trip, I purchased an underwater camera capable of video. It is the Fujifilm XP60. Like most point and shoot cameras these days, it only has a video screen. I am far sighted. So it was difficult to know, looking at the blurry screen in front of me, if I was definitely in focus, or even had the subject correctly framed! Add to that my body bouncing on the surface, or down under, holding my breath. Further, fish don’t just pose for pictures. They are always moving. I learned to listen to the beeping sound for focus.

Another factor I learned about is that underwater, the further you are away from your subject, the more blue-tinged the photo shall be. The closer I took the photo, the more the real colors showed up. Andy, one of our group, knew how to free dive. He could go down 20 feet and just hang out down there and got the most incredible close up photos of fish.

colorful sea fans at the great blue holeAnother factor in getting good photos of fish is their behavior. Fish tend to retreat into their hideouts when you approach. But if you linger a bit, they come back out. Lingering underwater with lungs full of air is pretty hard because your body tries to float up. Andy’s trick is to hold onto something like a rock.

He gave me some tips on staying down longer. Instead of using your air/energy do go down by kicking hard with your flippers, get completely vertical with your head down and legs straight above and let the weight push you down. When you are feeling pressure, pinch your nose and blow out to equalize the pressure. Now that you are down, and equalized, you have more time to stay down…and you can grab a rock to keep you from floating up too fast.

I tried this and many times, I got so comfortable down there I lost track of how far I had to go up to catch a breath! It was fun, and a new thing for me.

The Blue Hole was certainly well worth visiting! But it’s far offshore. So I recommend spending a few nights on one of the islands out on the reef. You can always book with Island Expeditions! They’ll take good care of you.





Snorkeling around Half Moon Caye Belize!

8 05 2014

I chose this trip because I had learned Belize has some of the Atlantic’s only coral atolls – and that their reefs are super healthy. It was all true. Snorkeling just off Half Moon Caye Belize is super easy. Simply slip your mask, snorkel, and flippers on, and a mere 50 yards from shore amazing underwater wildlife thrives.

Queen Triggerfish at half moon caye

Queen Triggerfish

This blog post covers some simple snorkeling just off the island. On the west side of the island, Lighthouse Reef’s 8-10 foot lagoon sports countless coral heads, which are home to dozens of species of fish, turtles, lobster, and squid.

Blue Chromis on lighthouse reef belize

Blue Chromis

Yellow grunt at half moon caye

Yellow Grunt

On the east side of the island, it connects with the reef ringing 22-mile Lighthouse Reef. Our first snorkel took place out there. Right off, I was rewarded, witnessing so many brightly colored reef fish living out their lives in this protected reserve.

Grunts are very common on the reef!

Lots of grunts on the reef!

Some of the most common fish on the reef are grunts. There are different variants, but a frequently seen grunt is the Blue-Striped Grunt.

Blue Striped Grunt

Another fish I saw lots of is the Blue Tang.

A blue tang seen while snorkeling Belize

The Blue Tang – ubiquitous reef inhabitants

 

Spotfin butterflyfish snorkeling belize

A pair of Spotfin Butterflyfish

Rarely seen are the Spotfin Butterflylfish.

There were sharks, too. And rays. And Parrotfish, and Barracuda. And Squid.

Nurse shark seen while snorkeling lighthouse reef belize

I swam right over this Nurse Shark – I almost didn’t notice it!

I brought an underwater camera along for this trip. I was learning to use it as the trip progressed, and I was able to get some video of underwater wildlife.

In this video, I was shooting for images of parrotfish and blue tang on a coral head – but I did not know I was about to have my first shark encounter!

In this video, I simply swam 50 yard off the beach and saw parrotfish and trunk fish!

Here, you can see a beautiful Stingray I encountered just off the beach!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





Kayaking Lighthouse Reef and Half Moon Caye Belize

2 05 2014
wet exit lesson island expeditions half moon caye

Tisha gets a wet-exit lesson!

A week kayaking and snorkeling on Half-Moon Caye Belize guarantees a return to natural rhythms – awakening to the sunrise, sounds of gentle surf and rustling palm fronds, paddling sapphire clear waters, snorkeling amidst nature’s underwater splendor, and no hashtags. Plus, the 80+ degree water doesn’t hurt, either!

Lucy paddling out to the wreck on the reef lighthouse reef

Lucy paddling out to the wreck on the reef

Paddling Lighthouse Reef is definitely living a fantasy. The water is utterly sapphire clear and it’s warm. Inside the reef’s 22-mile long ring, the lagoon is only 8-10 feet deep. The protected waters are packed with an array of life. Our guides were of Garifuna, Mayan and Mestizo ethnicity – and they’d switch between English, Creole and Spanish at will.

Kayaks in the Island Expeditions fleet

Kayaks included Necky single or tandem polyethylene kayaks, Seaward tandem fiberglass kayaks and a few Boreal Design polyethylene single kayaks – and SUPs. The tandem kayaks were set up for sailing.

Island Expeditions paddling accessories

They also had a selection of Kokatat and Astral PFDs. A good portfolio of equipment for a tour operator, I thought.

Our agenda shifted each day depending on weather conditions. Sunrise was followed by 6:30 a.m. yoga with Tisha, from Vancouver BC. After breakfast, we would launch kayaks and paddle out to the reef, where we would snorkel.

Day one was mandatory snorkeling and kayaking introduction including wet exits and rescues.

DSCF1213One big question for me: Considering my back and hamstring injuries, which I’ve been working diligently to resolve, how will they handle trying to roll a kayak or do a rescue? The only way to know is to try. So upon launching, with the guides observing, I proceed to successfully roll my kayak five times! No back pain. Then, I try a re-enter and roll. A re-enter and roll is performed with the kayak upside down floating on the surface. I take a deep breath, get into the kayak upside down, and roll it up. Voila! I did it, no pain! Now to try an assisted rescue. In this case, with someone else stabilizing the boat, I pull myself onto the rear deck face down, inchworm my body/legs into the cockpit and then corkscrew right side up. OUCH! That was NOT GOOD! That exercise positively zonked my hamstring. But otherwise, paddling went well.

One afternoon we tried kayak sailing. We used ruddered tandem kayaks, and the sails were mounted in between the cockpits. I have to say it was fortunate I have a lot of sailing experience, because the guides pretty much said, “Here you go. Sail down to a big stick down the reef and then come back.” I steered and held the sail and my “crew” was Tisha. Remember that sailboats have keels or centerboards, which are like a fin in the middle of the boat. Kayaks don’t have them. So sailing a kayak is more an exercise in getting there without paddling, but not efficiently or in any way IMHO satisfyingly. We all arrived at the stick within one minute of each other…but that was the more downwind leg. On the way back, it was what we sailors would call a close reach – meaning we were more or less with the wind coming from the side. The return leg really “separated the men from the boys,” and I had to use every trick in my sailing skills base to get that kayak going straight instead of sideways, and to land on the island and not miss it entirely and wind up in the ocean. When we turned around at the stick, Half Moon Caye was almost invisible. I had to hold the sail as low and stiff as possible, using my outstretched arm, to spill air, whilst pushing the rudder with my feet so we had the correct angle. Lucky for me I was wearing my Astral Brewer shoes. Others got blisters! We learned to lean into the wind to keep the boat tilted right. Anyway we were so focused we simply doubled down on getting back to the island, and never looked back. When we landed, we were amazed that the others were dots on the horizon! We KILLED IT! We had 30 minutes of swim time before anyone else landed. After the experience, though, I say sailing is for sailboats!

Here’s a video of Tisha learning to wet exit her kayak!

Here’s a video of kayaking off Half Moon Caye…!

Next post – we’ll explore snorkeling Lighthouse Reef Belize!





Half Moon Caye Belize on Lighthouse Reef with Island Expeditions

25 04 2014

If you have seen “Gilligan’s Island,” then you might have imagined Island Expedition’s small operation on Half-Moon Caye. It is a true slice of paradise! No more than a mile long, coconut palm forested Half-Moon Caye sits in the southeast edge of Lighthouse Reef.Calm Day  North

Just off its eastern edge, the water drops to 12,000 feet deep. But inside the 22-mile long lagoon, the water is no more than 10 feet deep. This creates some interesting explosions of sea life, which we’ll explore in later posts.

Half-Moon Caye and several square miles around it are a World Heritage Site. The caye hosts a colony of rare red-footed booby birds.

These birds are amazing acrobatic aerial fishermen. Every day hundreds issue forth to forage in the ocean.Image

They bring back food for their young, but they are never alone.

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Red-Footed Boobie

Red Footed Boobies are symbiotically connected to Frigatebirds, which steal the food for themselves.

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Like an F-15 the Frigatebird wheels to steal some food.

Frigatebirds are even better fliers than boobies. But they have absolutely no fishing skills. They are completely dependent on stealing food from the boobies. So much so, that frigatebirds defend the entire colony from other scavenger species such as sea gulls or petrels. Oddly, the boobies seem OK with surrendering food.

Island Expeditions had about 12 platform tents arranged along the east side of the island, facing the ocean. Just beautiful, with coconut palms overhead.

 

ImageI certainly enjoyed my tent, which had two twin beds inside. ImageIt was simple yet thoughtfully laid out. It had strong pipes for a frame. It had a nightstand, a table, a laundry line, a hanging “dresser,” and an anti vermin cannister just in case. It stood up to the 24mph winds one night.

One job all of us had was keeping sand out of the tents!

Here is a video of the layout. Here is a video on a calmer day…with snorkelers!

Lodging is a misleading term, because we “lodged” in platform tents – each with beds. No super resorts here: exactly what I wanted. There were 12 tents lined up along the shore. Island Expeditions runs a sustainable operation – with water from rain collectors, a well, and composting toilets. Electricity was on four hours per day, just enough to charge your camera batteries. So, we were far from luxury yet far from roughing it. The kitchen served up three sumptuous meals daily.

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Dishes included Creole fair (lots of bbq), plus conch soup, coconut pie, pineapple and mango, and when we caught fish, catch of the day.

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Rise and shine! 6:30 a.m. yoga.

We were fortunate to have Tisha, a yoga instructor from British Columbia, on hand. Each morning she’d lead us in stretching and moves to open up the day.

In the evenings, we all gathered in the dining tent for discussions of the days adventures and misadventures.

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With island life taken care of, we had much off shore activities to pursue. So the next series of posts will explore kayaking, fishing and snorkeling in Lighthouse Reef, and the Great Blue Hole!

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The lagoon at sunrise.

 





A Trip Kayaking and Snorkeling in Belize – An Introduction

20 04 2014

ImageThe next series of posts to Cabin Fever Chronicles shall focus on a sun-splashed week I spent on Half Moon Caye, a tiny coconut palm island on Lighthouse Reef, 50 miles off the coast of Belize.

Why Belize? Why did I pick this trip? For starters, I usually think of mountains and cultural immersion when fantasizing about an overseas trip. This time, I wanted to switch it up. I’ve been to hot, humid, jungle destinations like Laos, Cambodia, or Northern Thailand. I actually was close to picking a trip to the headwaters of the Amazon. But for the past year I’ve found myself researching places with healthy beaches and coral reefs. I cannot stand big resorts or cruise ships. No, I wanted an adventure. I have not snorkeled on a healthy coral reef since I was 14 years old. More recently, I snorkeled on some reefs off Bali, Indonesia, and Sayulita, Mexico, but these were in decay. Many of the healthy reefs are in the South Pacific, some elsewhere in Indonesia or The Phillipines. I also found myself on the Internet searching for Pacific Atolls. Along the way, I came across rare coral atolls in the Western Hemisphere – and most of them are in Belize.

Another factor in deciding on this destination was my injury. If you read a few blog posts ago, you know I sustained a lumbar injury lifting a kayak – which referred down my hamstring. I’m still healing – so full-on camping is not comfortable right now. But I found a trip with Island Expeditions, and they have tents on Half Moon Caye that have beds in them. Perfect! This trip would involve kayaking, kayak sailing, fishing, and lots and lots of snorkeling. I can do all of that even with my recovering injury. This trip would be a perfect mental-health break from the injury-related-life I have been leading of late.

Belize. It is a country on the east side of the Yucatan Peninsula. The coast faces east – the Caribbean Sea. Formerly British Honduras, Belize, which became independent in 1982, has a population of 324,060, and locals speak English, Spanish, and Creole. Inland, there are Mayan ruins, a few rivers which are fun for whitewater, and interesting caves to explore. Its highest mountain, Doyle’s Delight, is 3,688ft high. The country is only 180 miles long and 68 miles wide – not counting the atolls off the coast. The population is split amongst ethnic Maya, Maya/European (Mestizo), Creole, and Barifunda (African Descent).

My flight to Belize was an overnight flight, from Portland, Oregon. Our first day was spent gathering up the seven souls participating in our Gilligan’s Island adventure. We would spend the afternoon and evening resting at the Bird’s Eye View Lodge, about 45 minutes from the Belize City Airport.

The following day, after a quick cruise on the lake, we drove to Belize City and met our boat which would shuttle us out to Lighthouse Reef. Our guides oriented us to the reefs off the Belize Coast, and our route out to Half Moon Caye.

Our route today!

Our route today!

 

 





Class Reunion! Mount Hood Meadows Powder Skiing with a College friend!

16 03 2014

IMG_0933During the recent 80″ powder snow dump on Mount Hood, Oregon, I met with Katy Brown, a college friend I’d not seen in 30 years, and we had an epic day at Mount Hood Meadows!

Back in early February 2014, my good friend from college, Katy Brown, sent word she’d be coming to the Portland, Oregon area checking out colleges for her son, and they’d be staying in Government Camp on Mount Hood to ski for a few days. Wow! I had not seen Katy in 30 years, although we’d kept up via Facebook. This could be great if we could do a reunion on the ski slopes!

IMG_0931

This was the easy part. Later on, it was a complete whiteout. Road=sky=side of road.

What would happen was beyond our dreams – almost too much! Let’s just say it made for memories! We made plans to meet February 20th at Mount Hood Meadows for a day on the slopes. Little did we know that a giant storm would blow in, dumping 80″ of dry powder plus some significant wind, making for insane conditions, not only challenging driving!

As February 19th approached, the snow piled up and Katy sent word from Government Camp, where they stayed, that the snow is “out of control up here!” Winds of over 40mph were reported at Mount Hood Meadows. She lives in Boston. She marveled at the giant snow blowing machines we use to clear the highways!

No matter what, I was going up there to meet Katy after 30 years! I have a 2013 Ford Escape with Michelin Ice-X studless snow tires, and I was confident I’d make it no problem. The morning of February 20th I headed up, but I made sure I brought my snow shovel and ice melter with me. Up on Mount Hood, on highway 35, there were super heavy duty snow clearing machines on the road, slowing the traffic to 5mph. It was so slow that a bus following a road grader lost traction and became stuck in a snow bank. Myself and maybe 8 other vehicles got round it, but the next two miles were crazy. With 40mph winds and snow blowing, it became hard to tell where the road was and the snow bank was. I passed 5 or 6 cars stuck before I finally got to the ski area. Success! I got to Mount Hood Meadows. But it was like Antarctica in the parking lot. Opening the car door let loose a maelstrom of violence! 4x4s were spinning their wheels. The cargo box on my roof was frozen, and I had to use de-icer to unfreeze the lock to get at my equipment.

I was the lucky one. Katy was behind, and got stuck in the mess behind the bus/road grader. But theyIMG_0941 eventually made it! Yay! We recognized each other right away. After getting comfy in our ski outfits and Katy’s rental gear we headed out.

It was crazy snowing and blowing! It was blowing over 50mph on the upper slopes at Mount Hood Meadows so I took Katy over to Hood River Meadows, a lower elevation area, and we were rewarded with a mile of uncrowded, powdery runs!

Katy negotiates a secret spot!

Katy negotiates a secret stash spot!

Since I am intimately familiar with the ski area, I encouraged Katy to get into some tree skiing in areas I knew she could handle and she loved it! So all afternoon, we had a treat in store for Katy. Run after run of un-tracked powder. IMG_0937

What a day. Katy’s son Will was out there, too, and he said it was the best riding he has ever done in his life!

For me, living in Portland, it sure was good. But we get these storms several times a year. I think I’m taking them for granted! We gathered back at Government Camp a their rented condominium, at The Grand Lodges.  Very nice place!

I hope Katy’s son Will goes to school around here. That way I get to visit Katy every winter!





Fluffy Powder Skiing at Mount Hood Ski Bowl Oregon!

10 03 2014

ImageRecently, a cold storm blew through the Mt. Hood Oregon region, dumping 80″ of powder in three days. We don’t usually receive Colorado-dry powder – it happens once or twice each winter. This 2013 – 2014 season has been particularly cruel. A warm, dry December and January left Mount Hood Ski Bowl closed, and Mount Hood Meadows only partially open.

Then a blockbuster storm moved in, with non stop snow for days on end. Mount Hood Ski Bowl is known amongst ski aficionados as having the best terrain on Mount Hood, but unfortunately it lies at a lower elevation, meaning snow conditions are generally not as good as at higher elevation Timberline or Mount Hood Meadows.

I was able to hit Mount Hood Ski Bowl on opening on one of these days. It was so pretty. When I arrived in the base area, there was plenty of snow. Fill in your tracks snow.

I was able to get the first chair up that day. I think it may be the first time in my life I was the first person at a ski area. It was worth it! Run after run of untracked snow all to myself!

On this day, it was perfect for anyone wanting to ski powder snow for the first time.

ImageThe Mount Hood Ski Bowl staff had groomed everything to perfection for powder ski students! So, you are nervous about the steep and deep? Well, they had everything for you. They had a cat track groomed. They had runs groomed with 4″ new on top. They had groomed runs with 8″ new on top. And there were other runs with 14″ untracked, fluffy snow!

ImageThis is not Cascade Concrete. We are talking about the kind of snow that if you pick a handful up, you can blow it right off your palm.

So, you ask, how does one ski in the deep? Let’s say you are proficient on packed snow. There, you put more pressure on your downhill ski when turning. And you pick up momentum even when traversing. In powder, if you ski with uneven balance, one ski will dive to the bottom and the other stay on top! And if you traverse too much you will slow down and can’t turn. New powder skiers can be seen frustrated, in the snow, goggles all fogged up.

But the reality is that powder skiing is actually easier than hard packed snow skiing! But you need to understand how to do it. So, think about it. If the snow is deeper than your boot tops, it’s going to slow you down, right? Well, the slower you go, the harder it is to turn. So you have to do something to counteract this. My suggestion is point your skis straight down the slope to get momentum. Secondly, you don’t want one ski to submarine while the other is on top. So now you have to try skiing with both skis relatively evenly balanced, kind of like a platform to “surf” the deep snow. You do not need to lean back. How to turn? This is the secret. Have you seen porpoises in the ocean? Notice how they surface and turn on the surface? That is what you want to do! Think of the deep snow as a spring. When you go across the snow, you are on the surface, and when you slow down you sink. You turn your skis when you are on the surface, and traverse when they are deeper. So, this is how you ski deep powder.

Point your skis down hill. As you gain momentum, tip your feet up. When your skis are on the top of the snow, turn left! Then you will sink. You will cross the slope again, rise, and when you are on the surface, turn again, right! And sink. And so forth. This is called porpoising. Once you learn how to use the deep snow to slow your momentum, and turn on the surface, you will be golden!

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And you can leave tracks like these! Have fun, and remember, it takes a few times to get it right. But you will succeed! You will get it! Believe me, power, deep snow, is easier than hard pack!








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