Sunday, 12 October 2014

Belize - 20th-30th September 2014

by Victor

Having bid farewell to the rest of the group (who were off home that Saturday evening), I made my way southwards from Playa del Carmen, Mexico to the largely car-free island of Caye Caulker, Belize. Factual stuff for anyone planning a similar journey: this involved a taxi into town from the hotel, a 4.5 hour (294 peso) bus to Chetumal, a shared taxi to the ferry terminal, a wait at the Mexican customs/immigration office (and a 306 peso exit fee), and a 3pm (actually 3.30pm) water taxi to Caye Caulker (612.50 pesos) which stopped at San Pedro for an hour of Belizean customs/immigration business (and a BZ$2.50 admin fee) and which eventually arrived at the island just after 7pm local time. After travelling all day I was glad to be welcomed by Louise at Maxhapan Cabanas (highly recommended), located a few blocks south of the centre of town. The following day involved colourful Belizean Independence Day celebrations, and checking in with Frenchie’s Diving Services to confirm the dives tomorrow were on. They were.

You’ll have seen pictures of the Blue Hole at Lighthouse Reef, off the coast of Belize. It’s a well-known dive site, very busy during peak season. This was the low season and some dive centres on the island were closed, but Frenchie’s were still running trips every other day (3 dives, includes entry to the marine reserve, breakfast and lunch (no veggy alternative offered), depart 6am, arrive back 4pm-ish, BZ$480). 9 divers and 1 snorkeller boarded Reef Shark III that day (crewed by Carlos, Jose, Joey and Mike) for the bumpy 2 hour ride (top tip: slap on the suncream and sit at the back of the boat unless you want a sore bum for the rest of the week). NB - a recent Tanked Up article stated that whoever you book with, you’ll end up diving with Amigos del Mar or Aqua Scuba – not true! This particular boat has no toilet, but had enough space for us (it’s a 11.5m boat), a dry cupboard, soft drinks, melon, biscuits and an excellent rum punch on the way back. The crew regularly checked if anyone needed a toilet stop (which involved jumping in and relieving oneself in the water, or using the toilets on land between dives 2 and 3). We were the first dive boat at the Blue Hole that day. Divers were split not into buddy pairs but into a more experienced group (with 2 guides, Jose and Joey), and a smaller, less experienced group who had to stay at shallower depths.

Is the Blue Hole spectacular? On the surface, no. We could see the edges of the 300m-wide dark area of water, but really you’d need to fly above to properly appreciate the roundness and size of this natural feature. In the water, however, it made for a good dive, although the stalactites would perhaps be more impressive to divers who hadn’t spent the previous week diving cenotes. Visibility was good at 20m, but you obviously can’t see from one wall of the sinkhole to the other. The thing that made this dive worth doing was the 8 (possibly more) Caribbean grey reef sharks that swam close by throughout the 26-minute dive. They were incredible, up to 2m in length, and a total distraction from the underwater landscape we were there to see. And at 43m, the narcosis was very pleasant (or “irie”, as Joey put it).

Dives 2 (Half Moon Wall) and 3 (The Aquarium) that day were more scenic, and also revealed interesting wildlife (more sharks, an octopus, large stingrays, moray eels, trunk fish etc). These longer dives were more interesting for me than the Blue Hole. Waters were as warm as Mexico (29 degrees), and the surface interval before dive 3 was brilliant – we stopped at Half Moon Caye, a beautiful sandy island with coconut trees, turquoise waters, hermit crabs, iguanas, and a red-footed booby colony.

If you’ve only got one spare day in Belize, this pricey 3-dive daytrip is worth doing (mainly for dives 2 and 3, and the surface interval), but nobody needs to lose any sleep if they don’t manage to tick the Blue Hole off their bucket list. It’s a decent dive, but not the best dive on the planet, and of course sharks can’t be guaranteed on every visit. What would be brilliant, I think, would be a Belize liveaboard, perhaps spending a week diving around the Lighthouse Reef, Turneffe Atoll and other locations along the coast, avoiding the other dive boats and the bumpy ride out from Caye Caulker or San Pedro, and visiting places like the Blue Hole at the crack of dawn. There’s an idea for the 2018 dive calendar.

The next day involved 2 more dives with Frenchie’s, on Esmerelda Reef and the Cypress Tunnel, from the same boat (9am start, BZ$207). These were great dives of 46 and 50 minutes, very scenic, and with plenty of nurse sharks following us around. It was particularly interesting to see how shoals of fish moved into tight balls when a shark was nearby. Our surface interval was spent at San Pedro.

My dive kit needed to dry on the Wednesday, so I joined a 4-hour snorkel trip with Reef Friendly Tours ( ) to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. I was attracted to Captain Amado’s outfit as he is one of the only skippers who refuses to chum the waters to attract critters, and doesn’t encourage snorkellers to touch sharks. Other outfits proudly display pictures of guides and tourists cradling nurse sharks in their arms (turning these animals upside down immobilises them), which makes for a great holiday snap, but isn’t good for the sharks. This evidence of mishandling of wildlife unfortunately didn’t surprise me – the day before I witnessed a dive guide grabbing a nurse shark by the tail fin, much to its displeasure. Amado’s trip demonstrated that feeding, coercion and physical contact with animals is not necessary – our visit to Shark and Ray Alley in the marine reserve brought the 5 of us close to dozens of the animals. The other 2 sites we visited (“The Channel” and a wreck in shallow waters) revealed a huge spotted eagle ray, a lion fish (an invasive species here), lots of turtles munching on sea grass, and thousands upon thousands of horse eye jacks, sergeant majors and other fish common to the reefs that the other daytrip boats weren’t visiting. Best of all, on the journey back to Caye Caulker, Amado spotted something in the water, suggested we jump in again, and for the next 15 minutes we were snorkelling close to 2 huge manatees, incredibly graceful in the water. Their cow-like manner and old man’s faces make them very endearing. And as if that wasn’t enough, 2 bottlenose dolphins swam alongside the boat not long after we got out of the water. Best snorkel trip ever.

A half hour, BZ$25 water taxi took me to Belize City the next day, and the rest of my time in this country involved exploring that city’s attractions (allow half a day, then move on), a few days in the jungle/mountains (including a worthwhile day trip to the Mayan ruins at Tikal in Guatemala), and seeing some incredible landscapes and waterfalls, as well as spider monkeys, howler monkeys, tarantulas, agoutis, racoons, butterflies, vultures, hummingbirds and super-rare orange-breasted falcons. The bus from Belize City back to Chetumal took 5 hours (including time at the border where fees of BZ$37.50 were payable, plus an advance payment of the 306 peso Mexican departure tax), departed at 10.13am (NB – bus schedule information can be hard to come by in Belize – I was advised to just turn up at the bus station and wait for the next colourful schoolbus to Chetumal or Corozal) and cost BZ$15. Another bus from Chetumal took 4 hours (170 pesos) to reach Tulum, where I stayed at L’Hotelito (recommended). I was lucky enough to sneak in 3 more cheeky cenote dives (The Pit, which was incredible, and 2 dives at Dream Gate which were stalactastic), saw  a snake and the stunning seafront Mayan ruins, ate very well, sent postcards, and made use of the excellent beaches.

4 weeks well spent. Heartily recommended.

Weymouth - 20th-21st September 2014

by Pat

The club visited Weymouth for the second time this year on the 20th and 21st September, diving from the RW Two skippered by Woody.

The weather was kind to us, as were the tides with civilised 9.30 am starts both days.

On the Saturday the weather was flat calm with the first dive on the wrecks of Chesil Cove offering for the lucky one the chance to do 3 wrecks on one dive. The Gertrude, Fennel and Myrtledene wrecks are shallow at 15m, offering plenty of time and visibility, and plenty of life was to be found. The second dive of the day was the Benny, an old favourite.

Topside there was a three-masted sailing ship motoring around the bay. It was a pity the sails had not been hoisted they always look at their best under sail.

Everyone gathered for dinner on Saturday night at the Nothe Tavern, giving us the chance to relive the day and exaggerate the size of everything seen.

The weather on Sunday was not as sunny and there was a slight swell but not enough to for anyone to feed the fish. We dived on the bow of the Black Hawk off Lulworth. Although broken up it is an interesting dive with discernible bits of ship and plenty of life. Lobsters, crabs conger and many other fish were spotted.

For the second dive we went scalloping on the Lulworth Banks – always a good place to find a tasty treat to take home.

The weekend was enjoyed by all especially Ishka (pictured in Chesil Cove) and Jörn for whom it was their first trip to Weymouth.

Mexico - 6th-21st September 2014

Jill and Ken organised an excellent 2-week trip for 8 of us, with roughly half our time spent on Cozumel (off Mexico’s Caribbean coast) and the other half based back on the mainland in Playa del Carmen. We flew with Virgin Atlantic, stayed at the Mallorca Hotel in Cancun on the first night, stayed at Occidental all-inclusive hotels for the rest of the trip, and made use of Canada Transfers. Dives were booked with Pro Dive Mexico ( ). Our visit coincided with Mexican Independence celebrations, and included a day trip to the Mayan sites of Chichen Itza and Coba. Highlights of the trip included:

  • diving the clear, warm waters (teaming with interesting wildlife) on the west side of Cozumel,
  • the 6 dives we did in the cenotes (sinkholes, providing access to vast and beautiful underwater caverns filled with gin-clear water) at various locations on the Yucatan peninsula,
  • iguanas, tortoises, land-dwelling crabs, agoutis, wall-climbing frogs and other exotic (to us) wildlife wandering around the hotel grounds on Cozumel,
  • the enthusiastic Pro Dive staff on Cozumel and at the cenotes, and
  • the grub we had at the Kinta restaurant in San Miguel.

Whale shark trip by Victor

Not yet adjusted to the different time zone we found ourselves in, several of us woke early and found each other at Samboras café, a few blocks away from our hotel. Later that morning, Csaba and his colleagues from Eco Colors ( , booked through Pro Dive) picked us up for our whale shark snorkelling trip.

This was the tail end of the whale shark season. In September these massive creatures (the largest fish in the sea) move on to other waters. On this trip, although we didn’t have to wait long before seeing the sharks, their scarcity meant that several boats converged at the point where they had been spotted, resulting in a rather chaotic scene with dozens of snorkelers in the water at the same time, all attempting to get a glimpse. The 3 sharks we saw were moving fast, but most of us managed to get a good view of these impressive creatures. We each got into the water 2 or 3 times.

The boat and its crew were good. The trip included lunch, which we had while moored at Isla Mujeres on the way back. I didn’t see any feeding, coercion or harassment of the whale sharks, which is good, however the crew told us that the sharks don’t normally move that quickly through the water, and that this might have been a sign that they were starting to be bothered by the number of snorkelers present. Csaba later sent us a good video of the trip.

Cozumel by Daniel

Our arrival at the resort – the Occidental Grand – was fairly painless. We paired up and signed our lives away in exchange for room keys and beach towel tokens. There was little signage around the place so finding our room was an exercise in trial-and-error in the 30-degree heat but we managed.

The room itself was very spacious and air conditioned which was great for drying clothing between activities.

We dived with Pro Dive who had a “shop” onsite; making the diving very low-stress. We basically turned up each morning and got on the boat. Our two guides, Martin and Benjamin, were very enthusiastic and clearly knew what they were doing.

There followed six days of two dives a day on various reefs. They threw in a couple of wall dives with some great swim-throughs and we asked to do the wreck that was nearby. The wreck could be seen from the surface – one of the boat crew pointed it out – which was a first for me.

The reefs were breathtaking. Literally! I had to spend 15 minutes on two of the dives breathing off the guide's octopus due to my air consumption. Huge sponge and coral formations of all kinds sheltering a huge variety of fish and marine life. Barracuda, turtles and nurse sharks rank among the celebrities that featured on our visit. We also saw several small toadfish, a species endemic to Cozumel's reefs, so it was great to see some of those.

We did a night dive midweek to mix things up. A fun dive with plenty of different life. We saw several eels and a couple of octopi (among other things).

On dry land we got to enjoy buffet breakfasts, lunch and dinners. We sat for lunch and breakfast overlooking the sea where we watched several storm systems move across the horizon over the course of the week. We made good use of the two pools, the gym and the various bars located around the resort. We had a couple of meals at the a-la-carte restaurants for good measure and went into town for a lovely meal.

Cenotes by Brett

There is something a little bit special about diving underground. Whether it’s in and out of a broken reef, swimming through a well in a quarry or actually in caverns and caves it does make the heart beat a little faster the first time you look and realise safety is not in a direct line straight up!

We did our cenote diving during the second week of our Mexico expedition, this time based out of Playa del Carmen. Each morning we’d head out from the hotel, along the highway until we got to some secluded dirt track which just seemed to disappear into the jungle. The different cenote sites all looked surprisingly similar on the surface, essentially just a clear area, with parking between the trees, sometimes some tables for kit and maybe even somewhere to get a drink and some food.

The diving itself was actually cavern diving as we never went more than around 30 metres from an exit to the surface and much of our dive was conducted at around 10 metres or less.  This made our buoyancy and trim really important but also gave us some spectacular photos of the light shining down into the caverns in every colour imaginable, from bright white through to deep red.

Our guides lead us, single file, through stalactites and stalagmites and dipping under and over haloclines, occasionally with temperatures of 10 degrees difference. We surfaced into some spectacular caves, where tree roots had pierced the rock above and hung down to drink from the cavern waters.  Bats got quite perturbed by our lights and in some areas we came across entire roof collapses allowing us to see the jungle above.

We dived caverns called the Dos Ojos (Two Eyes), Chac Mool, Kukulkan, Ponderosa (yes just like Bonanza) and the Tajma Ha and although we were never that far from the surface at times it felt like we were the first ones to ever see these spaces. The other surprising thing was how different they all looked. One might have great clear cathedral-like caverns, another had stunning light beams. This one had thick vegetation on the water giving it an orange or red glow while that one twisted and turned through tunnels and channels.

 I know that this type of diving isn’t for everyone, some find it sterile and absent of life, others get fixated on the ceiling above but I think everyone enjoyed the experience of doing it.  There are some who will continue to dive underground and see just how far they can get and others who will look back and think ‘not a chance, never again’. But for all that, no one who did this trip will ever forget it.

Thanks Jill and Ken for a fantastic trip and a host of memories.