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!

 

 





I’m Back – From a Back Injury, that is…

8 03 2014

You may have noticed I have not posted to my blog in months. If you’ve read my blogs, you know I’m a very active individual. My hearts desire is to be outside, breathing the air, being active. Whether hiking, trekking the Himalayas, paddling surf, or skiing the Wasatch, I live for outside activities. Travelling overseas is especially rewarding to me, whether soaking up cultural experiences or adventuring rivers or mountains.

My lifestyle is also my work. I have taken kayaking/paddlesports and wrapped into a way to earn my keep. I’ve been a brand manager for Feelfree Kayaks, a company that imports New Zealand-designed, Bangkok manufactured kayaks into the American market. And I’ve converted countless couch potatoes into outdoor enthusiasts as kayak guide / instructor for Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe. I never tire of getting great gear into a customer’s hands and then hearing their stories of their adventures using it. To put it mildly, I am a tireless evangelist for outdoor recreation.

But my passion does involve risk. It can’t be avoided. It can be managed, and minimized, but not entirely eliminated. When it comes to kayak instruction or guiding, lifting boats is part of the work. I carry boats to the dock for renters. I set up lakeside trade show affairs involving dozens of kayak models. When guiding, I sometimes have a trailer of kayaks and have to lift then on/off of the trailer. I’ve done it thousands of times. I’m in my early 50’s.

So, the reason I have not posted to this site in months is a mistake I made loading a kayak onto my car. One day, in August 2013, I was in a rush to get extra boats to a kayak class and purposely grabbed a boat and heaved it onto my car. Not the right way. I have paid dearly for it. I strained the illiolumbar ligament in my back. It connects the 5th vertebrae to the hip. When it’s strained, it “refers” pain down the hip. For months, I had pain when sleeping in my back and hip. I could not get going in the morning without 20 minutes loosening my leg. I could not sit in a movie without writhing in pain.

I have been on workman’s comp since August. I still work, but on “limited duty.” I have cancelled a September trip to Yellowstone National Park, and a trip kayaking down the Mekong River from Vietnam through Laos and into Vietnam. Plus a two week ski trip to Jackson Hole Wyoming and Park City Utah. It has been depressing. Yet I have never skipped one single physical therapy routine.

If you’ve had back problems, you know my plight! But I am a fighter. I have been with a chiropractor and massage therapist. I have been with a physical therapist. I have been with a osteopathic doctor. And now, Pilates. Thousands of hours of work later, I am much improved. Slow, steady progress. So, I continue my daily two hours of physical therapy work. Yes. Two hours.

I have content for a few things I have done, some hiking trips and ski trips. Stay tuned, they are upcoming! And in just a few weeks I am snorkeling/camping/camping on the barrier reef in Belize!

I’m blogging again because I am proof positive HARD WORK PAYS OFF! I can engage in activities again. There will be new content very soon! You may see some content about working with physical limitations! I will never give up.

See you soon!

Rod





Timothy Lake, Oregon – Leading A Horse to Water!

13 09 2013

IMG_0711  This is a quick blog post about a trip to Timothy Lake, Oregon, which I took before my Eastern Oregon byways trip (see last blog). Timothy Lake is 13 miles south of Mount Hood. It’s an easy 1:20 drive from my home. So, if I want to get outside but don’t have a big window of time, sometimes I head up there. If you read my last blog post, you know that I suffered a back injury a couple of weeks prior to this week. Well, it turned out that on this trip, sleeping on hard ground was great. I slept like a baby. I actually slept better than in my own bed. But a week later, at Anthony Lake, everything changed.

IMG_0714

Trees in Oregon grow really tall…!

This post is about happier times. With only a couple of days in the middle of the week free, I hurriedly packed my car and headed up to Timothy Lake. With my back trouble, I left the kayak at home. I found a west facing camping spot – with nice trees above.

I set up camp and then hiked down the lake two campgrounds distant. It was such a pretty day, and my body enjoyed the easy exercise.

Along the way I encountered a family with horses. They did something completely unexpected. They started leading the horses into the water!

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Mom, daughter and horses. All somehow cooperating!

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Daughter learns you can lead a horse to water, but…you can’t…

 

It was so endearing. These big animals, who could cause harm, totally cooperated with the human tenders…even kids. The adults rode them into the lake, and the kids guided them out.

Horses are so gentle. It was something to see! I was sure the horses weren’t comfortable out there in the lake. Yet, they trusted their owners – enough so that they even went beyond standing – even swimming!

I thought that was pretty cool. Then I returned to my campsite. It was a quick walk down to the water, and I enjoyed the sunset with a magazine and a pint of beer.

Then it was time to make a fire, and I had a lot of wood.

IMG_0713I made a “log cabin” style fire, which went up big. Very nice. Following, it was time for dinner. I brought up some freshly made tortellinis, which were easy and delicious. Plus a nice green salad.

Then crawling into my tent, I managed to have a super restful sleep. I had no idea one week later camping would turn out to be so painful.

Till next time!

It is September. This month is usually the best month for enjoying the outdoors. No bugs. Good weather. Crowds – gone after Labor Day. But sadly, my ability to get outdoors is hindered by my back and hip injuries. I am confined to the city, and I am following docs orders and trying to get out before the weather turns!

Wish me luck.








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