New Year’s in Belize Aboard the Nekton Pilot

 

 

It all started innocently enough.  A post in 2001 to the Rodale’s Diver to Diver Scuba Board asking whether Venezuela or Turks was better for a January solo liveaboard.  Soon enough, I got an email from someone named “braciole.” 

 

“Hey, we’re chartering a boat in the Bahamas, the Nekton Rorqual, and have a couple extra spots.  Wanna go?”  A quick phone call later, I had my first taste of Goombah hospitality, and had been indoctrinated in the way of the Ragu.  If none of this makes much sense, well, you should come on a trip with us.  It still won’t make sense, but you’ll have a damn good time.  That first New Year’s Eve trip quickly led to a second New Year’s, this time on the Nekton Pilot in Belize.  Wendy and I had dived Glover’s in 2001, so this trip to Turneffe and Lighthouse Reefs would complete the Belizean atoll set.

 

Despite our early planning, we were only able to secure about 18 of the 32 spots for divers, which were quickly filled up by myself and Wendy and a rabble of D2Ders… braciole, twang, killerb, queenangel, joebennie, donm, scuba dawg, fsuscubaboo, juanloco, grunt, DikseaCup fka Bald Eagle Ray, and the inimitable papa.  We were also joined by Roger and Clay…… friends that braciole and twang met on the Galapagos Aggressor and should be required passengers on every liveaboard…. Oh My God…….

 

The remainder of the boat was comprised of a scuba “club” from Kentucky.   Although lines were drawn early on, they soon broke down and the two crowds meshed together pretty well by the end of the week.  Mealtimes, when everyone gathered together, were always fun.

 

Getting There

 

Being of the West Coast contingent, we took an AA red-eye Friday night to Miami.  Any new security procedures at LAX were not in sight, although my camera, housing and strobes elicited an excited “bag check!”  Even after explaining my strobes to the federal TSA employee, I still don’t think she knew what I was talking about.  Passing muster, we boarded the too-full airplane and settled in for a cozy night.

 

Bleary-eyed, we met papa and eric in the Miami airport.  Following an all male toe painting party (told you you wouldn’t understand…..), we all got on the flight to Belize City.  Long story short, all of our gear made it on our planes, which is a plus.  Returning from Belize, we heard a story of some divers at Ambergris Caye, whose gear was lost.  Thankfully it was found.  And put on a plane for the 20 minute flight from Belize City to Ambergris.  Which crashed (no one died).  And sank.  At least the dive gear would be OK…..

 

We arrived about noon and were well taken care of by Rob and a porter that grabbed all of our gear.  They eventually whisked us away to the Radisson where (in the bar, of course) Wendy received her first taste of the D2D gang.  I noticed beth and kathi cornering her outside, but by the time I got out there, it was too late.   The evil one had already indoctrinated her……… The problem was, we had to wait until about 7:00 p.m. to get on the boat.  Too long, especially after a long travel day.

 

And being picked up from the hotel isn’t any guarantee that you’re close.   Belize City needs a serious lesson in municipal planning.  I believe that we made 45 right turns and 37 lefts during the hour it took to go the 2 miles from the hotel to the store to the boat (another small complaint, Nekton serves only juices and water, BYO everything else.)

 

The Boat

 

Even having been on a Nekton boat, I was hard pressed to distinguish the structure sitting at the dock from a building, since the Nektons are, essentially floating buildings.  Designed on the SWATH technology (I thin it was the 30th SWATH boat or so, and now there are over 300), it is designed as the “no seasickness boat,” but having crossed in the Bahamas in 10 foot seas……. The Pilot, although slower, is definitely more stable than the Rorqual.  During one night’s crossing to Glover’s Reef, I had to peek out the window to make sure we were moving.

 

The boat is supported by twin pontoons, each bearing a propeller.  Air can be pumped into the pontoons to affect the yaw of the boat.  The large sundeck up top has a covered area with tables where dive briefings are given.  There are also cubbyholes designated per cabin for books, logs, dry clothes, etc.  Wetsuits are hung to dry from the sundeck cover.  The remainder of the sundeck is open for sunbathing, and is where the hot tub is located.  The rear of the sundeck is the “smoking corner,” where the gathering, storytelling and bullshitting occurred pretty much every evening after the diving was over.

 

One floor down from the sundeck is the galley, living room area and first floor of cabins.  Astern of the galley is a small deck where the camera tables (and beer cooler) are located. The next deck down is, I believe, the O2 deck.  The dive deck is supported by cables, and lowers up on down hydraulically from the O2 deck down to water level. 

 

Although we had 29 divers on board, it only felt crowded a few times on the dive deck.  Underneath each dive station (again corresponding to room number) was a bin for storage of fins, etc.

 

The Crew

 

The crew was good, with a few notable exceptions of being VERY good.  Captain Jon (whom Nekton is losing, be sure to visit the Decompression Stop in the Keys next summer…..) is probably the best liveaboard boat captain I’ve seen (in five boats).  The most attentive, involved and knowledgeable.  Nekton is losing a real asset.  Other crew members deserving special mention are Rob, Leigh, and Kevin.  And of course, Armenda, the cook.

 

For the most part, the crew was always happy to help with any problems.  Rob fixed Wendy’s (just serviced) regulator with a smile.  The first day one of the cables holding the dive deck up broke, and the entire crew had to pitch in.  Despite having to take ALL the tanks and gear to the top deck and work well into the night, the crew pitched in and really pulled through (our missed dive was made up with a second night dive on New Year’s Eve.)  Although I must warn that one of our divers ended up with a mystery Alka Seltzer in his reg…. No one can (or will) say how it got there…. J

 

 

The Food

 

The food was good to very good.   From prime rib to turkey, mashers and gravy for dinner to tacos and subs for lunch.  Always very filling, and great soup with nearly every meal.  Between dive snacks (cookies in the morning, munchies in the afternoon) were also provided and plentiful.

 

The BRIEFings

 

There is a reason they call a briefing a BRIEFing.  But the boat briefing, and the first morning’s dive briefing, were anything but (Capt. Jon, I know you’re just doing your job, but the hour plus boat briefing after a day or two of travel…. Ugh)  We only had time for one morning dive the first morning due to the length of the dive procedure briefing.  But we love you despite the length of your briefings..... 

 

The dive briefings, on the other hand, (and proving that we'll always find something to complain about) were nearly worthless (this was true of the Rorqual as well).  Other than, “the wall is here, look for eagle rays and critters, be back by 11:45,” there wasn’t much point of attending.  That is, there did not seem to be much “local knowledge” like we got on the Spoilsport:  “The pipefish usually hang out here, a big eel is here, etc.”   And we got that in a nice Aussie accent.......

 

 

 

The Diving

 

All of the diving is done off the back deck.  Every site was a wall, so navigation was, with one major exception, a snap.  Go to the wall, turn left or right, return the same way (ahem) over the top of the wall, and you’ll hear the boat well before you see it.   I won't publicly humiliate the individuals involved in what has been variously described as the "most massive navigational fuckup of a spectacular nature," but if you dive with clay, beth, kathi or johnny, bring your own compass......

 

Visibility was constantly in the 80 foot range, and water temps were a consistent 81 F.  I dived in a Henderson Microprene all week (with a 2 m hooded vest on a couple of late-week dives), ad Wendy used a skin, and neither of us felt cold.  Other divers dived in everything from a 5 mm to swimsuits.

 

The diving was solid B level Caribbean diving.  Mostly tropical, very few pelagics.  One or two nurse sharks, an eagle ray here and there.  The number of fish seemed rather small as well.  Not a lot of large schools of fish, other than a nice school of horse eyed jacks a the end of the week.  I’ve set forth profiles at the bottom.

 

The boat carries Steel 95s, which is great for long bottom times as well as taking off weight.  They also have Steel 72s, AL 80s and AL 63s, for some reason.  If the depth warranted it, there was a hang bar at 15 fsw, as well as a hang tank, in case you’ve sucked all those 95 cubic feet dry.

 

The dive deck opened at 8:00 a.m., and stayed open until 11:45, which was the be-back time.  For the afternoons, the dive deck opened at 1:00 p.m. until the be-back time of 5:45.  The dive deck reopened at 8:00 p.m. for the night dives.  There was plenty of time for plenty of diving.

 

The Itinerary

 

The first night we steamed a few hours out to Long Caye at Lighthouse Reef, where we generally stayed until Wednesday night.  After two morning dives, we would generally motor a few hundred yards down the wall to the next site.  We were shadowed the entire time at Lighthouse by the Peter Hughes and Aggressor boats.  The first day of weather was poor, but we lucked into fantastic weather until the last day, Friday.

 

Mid-week we pulled up to Half Moon Caye, which is a rookery for frigate birds and red footed boobies.  We decided to offgas a bit and headed to the island for a couple hours of beachcombing and bird porn (we did see some mating frigates from the observatory deck).  The number of birds breeding on the island is amazing, and although you can see them circling over the island, you don’t get a sense of just how many there are until you climb the observation deck, which is basically nest-level.

 

On Thursday, the weather having held, we motored down to Glover’s Reef, the southern-most atoll.  Nekton has only two moorings there, since the owner of Glover’s Reef Resort decided he didn’t like the look of the boat and sawed through Nektons’ moorings.  We spent all day Thursday at Glover’s, then went to Turneffe on Thursday night.  Most people did only a few dives at Turneffe.  Most were leaving Saturday, but the weather ad also turned sour, so no one dived after the first afternoon dive.

 

Cave Tubing

 

We finally got to use our thicker wetsuits that we brought for the cave tubing.  5 hours hiking in and out of caves in the jungle.  It was fun.  We did it.  Don't necessarily need to do it again.  Spent the night at Ian Anderson's Caves Branch Adventure Lodge.  Our second time there, and one of my two or three favorite places in the world to get away from it all.  Due to a poorly planned early 8:45 a.m. flight, we had to leave at 6 a.m. But, as a nice sendoff, we were awakened by a troupe of howler monkeys, seeing us off with a nice long howl.

 

Conclusion

 

The Pilot is in much better shape than the Rorqual.  The boat is good, the diving is good, the crew is good.  Not something I would rush back to do again immediately, but I am glad that I did it (and it was a thousand times better than the Southern Bahamas itinerary on the Rorqual).  But it’s the people aboard that really make the trip, isn’t it?  In one word, we had a blast, just what diving is supposed to be like.  With this group, it was hard to go wrong.

 

Dive Profiles

 

12/29/2002

Boat

74:00

63 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Nurse Shark Reef, Long Caye

12/29/2002

Boat

52:00

73 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Nurse Shark Reef, Long Caye

12/30/2002

Boat

72:00

78 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Cathedral, Long Caye

12/30/2002

Boat

59:00

63 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Cathedral, Long Caye

12/30/2002

Boat

67:00

67 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

The Aquarium, Long Caye

12/30/2002

Boat

54:00

74 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

The Aquarium, Long Caye

12/30/2002

Boat

62:00

30 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

The Aquarium, Long Caye

12/31/2002

Boat

70:00

94 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Lighthouse Wall, Half Moon Caye

12/31/2002

Boat

52:00

68 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Lighthouse Wall, Half Moon Caye

12/31/2002

Boat

80:00

67 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Dolphin Pass, Half Moon Caye

12/31/2002

Boat

51:00

45 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Dolphin Pass, Half Moon Caye

12/31/2002

Boat

42:00

45 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Dolphin Pass, Half Moon Caye

1/1/2003

Boat

80:00

115 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Rhiannon's Reef, Half Moon Caye

1/1/2003

Boat

57:00

49 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Rhiannon's Reef, Half Moon Caye

1/1/2003

Boat

65:00

87 ft

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Tarpon Cave, Half Moon Caye

1/2/2003

Boat

69:00

77 ft

Glover's Reef, Belize

Garcia's Backyard, Long Caye

1/2/2003

Boat

53:00

30 ft

Glover's Reef, Belize

Garcia's Backyard, Long Caye

1/2/2003

Boat

71:00

54 ft

Glover's Reef, Belize

Lucky Charm, Long Caye

1/2/2003

Boat

73:00

49 ft

Glover's Reef, Belize

Lucky Charm, Long Caye

1/2/2003

Boat

66:00

47 ft

Glover's Reef, Belize

Lucky Charm, Long Caye

1/3/2003

Boat

61:00

91 ft

Turneffe Island, Belize

Two Poles, Caye Bokel

1/3/2003

Boat

62:00

73 ft

Turneffe Island, Belize

Two Poles, Caye Bokel

1/3/2003

Boat

61:00

72 ft

Turneffe Island, Belize

Two Poles, Caye Bokel

 

 

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