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Monday 25 Nov 2013
Caye Caulker, Belize

The Blue Hole

We propped our sleepy eyes open and dragged ourselves around to Belize Diving Services at 5am.  They provided breakfast for everyone before loading 17 divers and 3 instructors onto their boat.  The boat was big enough for seating in the front of the cabin area and well-designed space at the back for all the gear.  There were 22 tanks lined up down each side and more stored underneath and in the central racks.  Each diver was allocated their place, which kept gear organised and groups together.  We were divided into three dive groups based on certification level – the Open Water divers were not allowed to go below 18m, while Advanced divers could go to 40m. 

(In hindsight, this is not strictly true as only those with the Deep Dive Specialty are allowed to go to 40m, while the Advanced Open Water certifies divers to go to 30m.  We were both unaware that we were going below our certification level as we’d both done the Adventure Deep Dive as part of our Advanced certification. We thought this was the same as a Deep Dive Specialty, but it is not.  The latter requires two dives below 30m with an instructor and an exam, while the Adventure Deep Dive is just one dive to a maximum of 30m and some basic theory.  Apart from the inherent risks of deep diving, most important distinction is that diving below your certification level usually invalidates any insurance and a rescue operation can prove very expensive.  Thankfully we didn't need to discover that firsthand.)

We dozed for the two hours it took to reach the Blue Hole.  We passed through some heavy rain on the way, but thankfully the weather was perfect when we arrived.  The Blue Hole is located near the center of Lighthouse Reef, a small atoll 43 miles from the mainland.  It was formed during several episodes of glaciation when sea levels were much lower.  The hole is over 300m across and 124m deep.  The classic postcard view of the Blue Hole is taken from the air, where it appears to be a perfect circle.  From the boat, unfortunately, we couldn’t see such clear definition. 

The boat moored up to a buoy near the rim of the sinkhole.  We geared up and got into our groups before diving into water about 8m deep, then followed the sloping sand towards the drop-off.  My concern was being able to equalize quickly enough to stay with the group as we descended.  Timing is very important on a dive like this.  Nitrogen is dissolved into the body tissues during a dive at a rate that multiplies with depth.  Recreational Diving is defined by the time and depth a diver can go to while still being able to safely ascend directly to the surface without a compulsory stop.  When these limits are exceeded, divers must complete a decompression stop at a specified depth for a specified time in order to allow Nitrogen to be released at a safe rate.  If a diver surfaces too quickly, the reduced pressure on the body causes Nitrogen to come out of solution too quickly, like a fizzy drink exploding from a bottle, which can cause serious injury.  The Recreational Dive limit is 42m, beyond which you enter the realms of Technical Diving.  The maximum time allowed at 40m is a mere 9 minutes.  We planned to descend to between 37-40m to see the stalactite caves in the side of the Blue Hole.  This meant we would have to descend directly to the deepest level, then monitor our time closely before beginning our ascent.  Anyone struggling to keep pace with the rest of the group on the descent would have to abort the deep dive and join the OW divers at 18m instead, as there was not enough time to wait for stragglers.  Fair enough – if I was the one waiting for someone else and missed my descent window, I’d be pretty annoyed.  Luckily, I had no equalization problems and was able to descend easily with the rest of my group.

Visibility wasn’t amazing on the dive as there was a lot of sand suspended in the water, but we could still watch the Caribbean reef sharks swimming around at 16m on our way past.  The biggest ones were easily 2m and I counted at least ten of them.  They’re beautiful creatures to watch as they glide effortlessly through the water.

At 37m, we reached the cave.  The stalactites here were enormous – I couldn’t have put my arms around half of them.  They formed while the cave was still above sea level, dated 153,000; 66,000; 60,000; and 15,000 years ago.  As the ocean began to rise again, the cave was flooded and remained hidden until Jacques Cousteau explored the Blue Hole in 1971.  We had just 6 minutes to marvel at the stalactites, swim between them and take a few photos, before we had to begin our ascent.  We explored the limestone walls as we gradually ascended, stopping to watch the sharks again before drifting along the rim of the sinkhole on our way back to the boat.  What a fantastic experience!

The organisation on the boat was impressive.  Each diver deposited his tank and BCD (jacket) into the same slot as before, to find a new tank in the next slot so the gear could be transferred ready for the next dive.  We moved on the Half Moon Caye Wall, which was a reef wall with beautiful coral and a variety of brilliantly coloured fish.  We were accompanied through most of the dive by a large barracuda, which was a little unnerving – they have big teeth!  This one seemed to be curious and stayed close, occasionally swimming between us to see what we were up to.

Our lunch was a delicious buffet of chicken, rice and coleslaw that they served up on one of the islands.  After eating, we took a walk through the jungle to a viewing platform, built to take visitors up to the canopy.  The treetops were full of nesting red-footed boobies.  The females were white with blue beaks, while the larger males were black with a bright red gullet they could puff up like a huge balloon under their beak to impress the ladies.  The sky above was full of wheeling black shapes as hundreds of birds looked for a partner or a perch.  It was glorious – I can’t wait for the Galápagos now!

Back in the water for our final dive at Aquarium, aptly named for the variety of corals on display.  We were again joined by a barracuda and a queen triggerfish, which was thankfully friendlier than the titan triggerfish in Gili waters.  We’d been chatting to an American couple on the boat, Chrissy and Patrick, so once we got back to Caye Caulker we ordered a bucket of beer and some tacos.  It had been a very long day, leaving at 5.30am and getting back in time to watch the sunset.  Somehow we ordered a second bucket and felt quite tipsy by the time we finally got ourselves moving.  After showering and changing, we finished our day back a Rose's Grill.  But what a day!


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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #2 Mexico, Belize and Costa Rica

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I met Christina in April. We travelled a bit of Australia together and both learned to dive. Now we're off to Mexico and Belize to see what the Caribbean and the Great Mesoamerican Reef have to offer, before I head down to Costa Rica for 10 days.

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