Story by Jordan Stolper
Photos by Mark Webster
Highlight: An island to yourself
The skiff bounces across the whitecapped-water at a healthy fifteen knots, leaving port city Dangriga's fishing boats bobbing in the wake. Where you're going there are no airports, no hair dryers and certainly no computers. It's called Long Caye, 35 miles off of the coast of mainland Belize, and the only electricity you'll use is from the batteries in your Walkman. But that's fine, because you've come to Belize to dive, not watch Spectravision.
Base camp is a tiny strip of land at the edge of one of the Western hemisphere's most pristine marine preserves. Imagine a rectangular coral reef surrounded on all sides by three tiny strips of land, none wider than a mile. As the boat angles for the dock, a dozen thatched huts come into view. You've arrived on the eastern edge of one of only four atolls in the Caribbean Sea. Long Caye is your gateway to Glover's Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and host to nearly 700 coral patch reefs.
Belize sits at the southern base of the Yucatan Peninsula, just under Cozumel. Colonized by both Spain and Britain, Belize's people are a mixture of European, Mayan and Criollo. There are numerous Mayan ruins. Belize feels more Caribbean than Central American. Still a member of the British Commonwealth, the official language is English, though Spanish and Creole are widely spoken. Among divers Belize is considered on par with Bonaire and other top Caribbean dive spots. It's not Micronesia, but it's also not 14 hours from New York. Laws limiting development coupled with strict environmental regulation suggest Belize has learned much from its neighbor to the north. On the Cayes, the beaches are lined with low-slung guest houses, not Las Vegas style megahotels.
When you do get to Long Caye, the dive chief, Jim Schofield ("Lord Jim," as he humbly prefers) shows guests around. It's rustic. But it's also environmentally sound: With no indoor plumbing, it uses a composting outhouse equipped with four toilets for the maximum 18 guests. Showers are taken communally, boys and girls together, with solar-heated rainwater. Rooms are lit by solar-rechargeable lamps and candles. Propane-fueled generators keep the drinks cold.
Belize's stellar diving owes mostly to its unique geological position. For the past 80 million years, North American and Caribbean tectonic plates have moved past each other under the southern edge of the Yucatan. Fault lines separate the shallow Caribbean shelf from its North American counterpart. Belize's Cayes— there are dozens—sit atop this intersection, perfectly positioned to access the massive wall created by the opposing plates. This wall plunges 12,000 feet down and teems with marine life.
Days at Long Caye consist of two dives, plus an occasional night dive, punctuated by slow meals, warm sand, and a hammock strung between palm trees. Downtime is spent playing volleyball, on low tide walks or maybe organizing a crab race. Dinner each night features Belizean cuisine, with staples of rice, beans and fresh fish. Evening entertainment comprises an "interpretive talk" moderated by the trip leader. Topics range from Belizean history to marine ecology. After a full day of diving and a hearty meal, sleep arrives forcefully.
IThe diving dock is 100 yards from base camp. There, tanks are loaded, weight belts secured, and everyone climbs into the 25-foot runabout for the lo-minute ride to the reef. The boat pauses on the outer rim of the atoll while a PADI-certified instructor gives a quick briefing: Stay along the wall, don't go below 70 feet, and ascend at 1,000 bars. The folks getting certified (certification is available here) look a little nervous. Then begins a 35-minute drift dive.
What's to see? How about dolphins, manatees, and black-tip sharks. Melon-sized grouper, tarpon, and barracuda. Eagle rays and sea turtles. Coral to match any Gap T-shirt. Linger around 40 feet where the bulk of marine life thrives. Diving groups are no larger than five, each led by an experienced instructor.
Slickrock Adventures, USA
Slickrock is the sole outfitter on Long Caye. They've been operating in Belize for 16 years. Slickrock Adventures' summer dive and paddle combo lets you dive as much or as little as you want. Days off can be spent paddling.
8 days, $1,845, year-round, 800-390-5715, www.slickrock.com