Cookie & the Bonefish -- Belize Part III

 

(click on thumbnails for larger pics)

 

As we were driving through Belize City, for the first time on this trip, I felt Wendy tense up beside me.  This is the worst city that she’s been in.  I’ve been in lots of crummy cities over the last few years; Agra, Kathmandu, Siem Reap, Nuweiba, Modesto.  Belize City ranks among the worst.  Poverty, crime, gangs, drugs, just bad juju all around.  It’s really too bad, I’ve met many Belizeans, and my secretary is Belizean, and they are great people.  I guess there’s just too much corruption.   According to the local papers, there were a couple gang killings during the two weeks we were there.  Then again, there was also, in the paper’s words, a “pistol packin’ grandma” robbing banks.  Family togetherness…..

 

We were being driven to the Princess Hotel and Casino, where we would (finally) begin the dive portion of our trip at Manta Resort.  We had looked at Blackbird and Turneffe as well, but chose Manta based on others’ reports.  We arrived at about 1, in plenty of time for the boat at 3, which didn’t actually leave until 6.  We ate at the dockside restaurant, which on gastric reflection was not the best idea.  From that time forward, neither Wendy nor I ever felt “right,” if you catch my drift.  We also spent a few Belizean bucks at the dingy, depressing Casino, where locals are required to show proof that they have at least $1000 to lose, or something to that effect, and then sat in the lobby waiting for the boat to leave.  I could NOT wait to go diving.

 

I was a little disappointed at the “meet and greet,” or lack thereof, offered by Manta.  Since we were already in Belize, we were not greeted at the airport (turns out that was no picnic either, as some guests felt they got the shake down from a “porter” that carried their bags 20 feet and expected a tip, and who was suspected to be the Manta driver’s boyfriend).  Showing up at the Princess hotel, they stare at you blankly when you say you’re with Manta (they’ve never heard this before??) and tell you that you should probably go to the dock.  There is a boat with “Manta Resort” on the side out on the dock, but they direct you to the office, who directs you back to the boat.  Fine, just tell us when we’re leaving.

 

The weather had cleared some, with only passing thundershowers, but the ocean still looked choppy. We were to be transferred to Manta on the Pelagic, a 50 foot 850 hp twin diesel boat for the 3 hour journey.  It’s not a big boat to begin with, but add 3 crew, 5 staff, and 25 guests, and it was downright cozy. 

 

While we waited for the last stragglers to arrive, we got our first taste of Anita.  Dear, sweet Anita.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Anita . . . now.   But my first thought upon hearing her voice, however, was “Oh my God, please do not put her in the cabana next to ours.”  Not her voice, exactly, but the way she was going about getting the Manta people to retrieve her sunglasses that she had left in her bag, that was now in the hold, at the bottom of the hold, to be precise, and she wasn’t really sure what it looked like, but it was black, and ooh is that it, no, but it looks like that, and . . . . .  And, yes her voice too.  See, Anita’s from New York.  REALLY from New York.  And I’m from Los Angeles.  I don’t get her, and she doesn’t get me.  I have since informed her that I thought she was a total bitch when I first saw her.  She thought that was a pretty good compliment considering.  We had a fantastic time with her and her husband Howie, another real New Yorker who works for the MSG network.

 

The boat left late.  The first half of the trip is inside the barrier reef, so it is deceptively smooth, lulling you into a false sense of security, thinking, “aww, this ain’t bad.”  Clear the reef, however, and all bets are off.  Regan, the boat captain, would, I am sure, tell us that this sea was nothing.  After 2 hours, though, it was something.  Thankfully no one got sick.  I have never been seasick before, but I am not immune to the sympathetic barf factor. 

 

As a consequence of our late departure, we arrived late as well (funny how that works).  It was dark when we got there, so we really had no idea what the island looked like.  But it felt wonderful.  One of the first island residents to greet us off the boat, however, was Cookie, the island German Shepherd.  I was going to like this.

 

We were also greeted by Bill, the manager of the resort, who tries hard, but maybe a little too hard, to make sure everyone is satisfied.  The hovering over the food table thing was a little disconcerting.  He even told Diane, a guest from San Diego, to empty the last two inches of coffee from the pot, “then we’ll make a new one.”  That didn’t go over well (and frankly shouldn’t, even at low season rates).  Diane got her fresh cup of coffee.  We were led to Cabana #3, which has a queen bed, rather than two twins as some others do. 

   

 

The island is not even a mile long, and just a few hundred yards wide.  All of twelve acres, which you can walk around in about ˝ hour or so.  Of course, it will take much longer as you stop to take in the views that seem to change with both the angle and the light. 

The resort is situated around a roundhouse built in the middle of the lagoon, surrounded by a porch. 

  

The roundhouse serves as the restaurant, bar, gift shop, pre dive meeting area, post dive loitering area, and just general all-around place to go if you don’t want to be alone.  There are quite a few nice items in the well-stocked gift shop, and we actually ended up buying much more than we usually do, including sarongs, shirts, paintings, and copper dolphins for the wall.

Facing the island, there is a staff building just to the left of the dock, behind which is the generator and compressor.  To the right, the cabanas extend halfway to the end of the island, starting with number one, ending with number 11.  All cabanas have 24 hour electricity, en suite facilities, maid service, and most are screened.  At the far end of the island is the family house – two bedrooms, two baths, a/c, refrigerator, television (god knows why) and VCR.  It would be great for two couples.

For the price of 24 hour electricity, you of course pay the price of 24 hour generator noise.  By the time you got to number 7 or so, you couldn’t hear it any more.  It’s not annoying or distracting, really, it’s just there.  Word is they are going to move it to the far end of the island soon (they should also move it further from the compressor as well).

Also, they do have midweek and Wednesday to Wednesday packages, but if you do either of these you won’t have as much fun.   The Saturday to Saturday group can get pretty tight, and you will feel like you are crashing the party, like the couples that arrived on Wednesday felt, I am sure.  One in our group did do a Saturday to Wednesday, which wasn’t bad except they had to leave while we all stayed.  Another important tip: bring shampoo.  Everything else is supplied.

They also have a guard dog, Cookie. Cookie will make sure that the island is safe from all manner of fish that might try to sneak up to the dock, especially Bonefish.  This dog is obsessed, and it probably doesn’t help having all of us guests egging her on.  She will stand on the dock and bark … and bark … and bark at the fish, forever.  There were two bonefish in particular that seemed to enjoy showing up around dusk and taunting Cookie.  I certainly do not understand bonefish.  If you cast a fly 5 feet in front of them, the whole school spooks and takes off like a shot, but Cookie can stand five feet over them and bark her freakin head off, and they just lazily swim around.

We had a good group of diverse people: Couples from Los Angeles, San Diego, New York, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Houston, and Pennsylvania, and families from Oregon and Nebraska.   Our dive boat had, in my opinion, a particularly good group of people, and we all got along really well.  This can make or break a dive trip, and we felt fortunate to have such good company.

Unfortunately, they do not introduce everyone on the staff at the beginning of the week, as they do on dive boats.  I know this is land based, but it really is, for all intents and purposes, more like a dive boat.  We were also told that there was no one else on the island so we didn’t need to worry about security.  Good thing, since the cabana doors don’t lock (more precisely, you can lock them, but there is no key).  But there is a privately owned island just across the lagoon, and on several nights there were boats moored just offshore, and we would see people we had never seen before at the roundhouse.  Not that they are there to steal our stuff, but it puts the lie to the statement that you are the only ones there.

The month before we got there, they had done some organic spraying which, for the most part worked well.  I didn’t wear bug spray all week and got no bites.  Other people got bitten, though, and I had 6-7 bites that I reacted to after I got home, that turned into blisters, that turned into sores . . . . not pretty, but at least now that the scabs have healed I have something permanent to remember Manta by.

The attractions at Manta re twofold:  Fishing and Diving.  I was there for both.

A typical day at Manta begins at 5:30 a.m., I wake up without an alarm clock and WANT to get out of bed (now, if my mom is reading this, she’ll never believe it, but it’s true).  At first light, I grab the fly rod, and head all of 20 yards to the lagoon.  The morning is still and the tide is in, making the Bonefish easy to spot (but no easier to catch).  Fish until 7:30, eat breakfast, dive at 8:30.  Come back to the cabana, read in the hammock, dive at 11:30, lunch at 1:30, back to the cabana for a nap or a book, or go out and fish, or go snorkeling in the lagoon, or go kayaking, or go to the tidepools, until the next dive at 3:30, rest, fish again at sunset, dinner at 6:30, then watch the stars overhead and the nightly lightning in the distance. 

Sleep.  Repeat 6 times.  It does NOT get much better than that. 

Re: the fishing.  I am a trout flyfisherman, and the skills that I have learned on the Sierra Nevada streams didn’t serve me well here.  First, the rod is very heavy, because the Bonefish fight like bulls.  Casting is different, stalking is different, stripping the line is different, setting the hook is different.  I got a few pointers from the local pro, but basically was on my own.  I will wrap up the fishing portion of the report by saying that I did catch my one and only Bonefish on the morning of the last full day – what a ride that was (well, I also caught a schoolmaster).  Suckers are very, very strong and put up quite a nice fight, took me into my backing four times (you anglers know what I mean).  The rod rental and two flies were $56 for the week.

The diving: Our DM was Alfonso, and our captain was Regan. 

Well, for the most part it was Regan.  One day he was sick, so Carlos was the captain, and we were assured that he’d “done this at least once,” so it was OK.  Oh goodie.  The only problem was, he had apparently never done it in three foot swells.  Jeff, from Houston, couldn’t dive that day but went on the boat trip anyway.  Those of us underwater were glad that he did, or we might still be out there.  ‘Nuf said.

Alfonso is a very nice guy, but he is also very shy.  For the first few days we thought he was rude, but you really have to get to know him.  I got to know him after I soaked my regs . . . after a night dive . . . after replacing the regulator first stage cover – I thought.  Alfonso and I spent about an hour at the tool shed taking apart and drying out my first stage.  He is also planning on getting his instructor certification in the states soon.

The diving is very basic.  My deepest dive all week was 88 fsw.  All dives are drift dives, and they are done as a group.  Usually, the plan is something like 80 fsw for 45 minutes (multilevel, obviously).  Wouldn’t you know it, right at 45 minutes, Alfonso would snap his tank and give the “go up” signal.  I like to do longer safety stops, and you can linger if you want, but (and this really annoyed me) he would also snap his tank when he was done with his safety stop and again give the up signal.  The last thing I really need is someone telling me when my safety stop is over.  So I stayed down a little longer, as did others, and it wasn’t strictly enforced.

At other times of the year, mantas (Jan-Feb) and whale sharks (April- May) can show up, and they head south towards Placencia to do whale shark dives.  If you can plan a trip at that time during a full moon, when the snapper spawn, you’ll probably get a whale shark.

They’ve got two dive boats that can fit a maximum of 12 divers or so.

The dive procedures could use some work.  Since they are all drift dives, everyone gets in and goes to the bottom to wait.  But they have everyone put on their fins on the boat and shuffle to the stern gate for the giant stride.  All twelve of us.  The first person in could be under for 5 minutes before Alfonso showed up.  The shallow profiles made this a non-issue, however, as the most air I used all week was 2500 psi. 

A bigger issue was getting back on the boat.  The boat is live, but that doesn’t mean the propellers should be spinning while we’re lining up to exit the water.  At one point a swell came through and the fish were literally almost treated to sliced and diced Anita – it’s not even that funny now.  Not until Diane (of coffee fame) yelled at them to turn off the propellers did they do so.  They really need to buy a rope with a life ring on the end, throw it out and let us hang on to that while we’re waiting.  It’s really simple.

The conditions were generally good.  We did have rain for one boat ride, but it was partly cloudy mixed with downpours all week.  The visibility was generally in the 60’ range, a little disappointing but there’s not much you can do.  Water temps were solidly 82F, and my Henderson Microprene and my wife’s skin worked fine.  We did start using a hooded vest towards the end of the week as the chill set in and our core temps dropped.

I was also using my new Cobra for the first time.  It’s a great computer, but requires some getting used to as it can overload your senses with all the info.  I also brought along my Data Plus as well, in case Manta’s statement that they had new equipment for my wife to rent was a lie – it was.  Or at least we were not offered a computer.  So we swapped the consoles and all was well.  We also brought a mouthpiece for her, and had that swapped out, but all was not well as it was put on upside down.

I won’t bore anyone with each profile, as they are pretty standard Caribbean dives (I’ve listed them below for reference), but I did bag several firsts on this trip.

First splendid toadfish

First queen angel

 First spotted drum

 First grey angel

 First seahorse

My wife’s first night dive

First flamingo tongue, eagle ray, nurse shark, rock beauty, blue parrotfish, plus a bunch others, who were not available to have their photos taken.

I particularly thought the sand tilefish hanging out near their burrows and the huge schools of mating creole wrasse were especially cool.

Even though we are divers, don’t forget the snorkeling.  Right in front of the cabanas we saw barracuda, baby reef sharks, seahorses, upside down mangrove jellyfish, eels and southern stingrays.  We also encountered the dreaded pica pica in the lagoon.  Wendy, Lori and I were snorkelling over near Dentist Island when all of a sudden I felt it. 

“Shit!”

“What?”

“There’s pica pica here!”

“Whats tha – ouch shit!”  And, to prove how smart we are, rather than standing up in the waist deep water and running out, we three SWIM through the pica pica, allowing them down our shirts and other unpleasant areas.  However, the stings only last a moment, and they were soon a memory.

  

The resort also takes out two snorkeling boats per day.  My wife went on one and really enjoyed herself.  Snorkelers always seem to see more life because they aren’t as loud as us bubble blowers.  One woman even saw a manta ray while snorkeling.  She said “I couldn’t believe that’s what it was, but then I saw the spots on its back . . . . .”  What the hell, we all let her believe that she indeed saw a manta ray.

 

Other activities include kayaking, tide pooling, reading, sleeping, eating. . . . the usual dive trip reverie.

 

Friday night was like social hour.  Everyone gathered for drinks and a final dinner.  Finally, early Saturday morning it was time to say goodbye.  From the looks of the surf breaking over the seaward edge of the atoll, it looked like it was going to be a bumpy ride.  But Regan handled the boat well, and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected.  Manta transported us back to the airport for our 4 hour wait.  After two weeks away from home, I can’t say I wasn’t ready to go home, but I sure didn’t want to leave Manta.

 

Other logistics

We used Belize Close Encounters to book our trip.  We were going to do it ourselves, but had a heck of a time arranging transport.  Sure, there are busses, but we’ve done the whole train/bus/boat backpack thing in Europe a couple years ago – where it is not a poverty stricken Central American country that was 90 degrees with 99% humidity.  We knew where we wanted to stay, and Judy at Close Encounters simply booked everything and arranged all the transportation which, by the way, went off without a single hitch.

 

Money – don’t bother changing to Belizean money.  The fixed rate is 2 Belizean to 1 US, so prices are easy to figure out and many locals actually prefer getting US dollars.  I think they know how to get a better rate.

 

For US citizens, visa issued on arrival.

 

Dive Profiles:

 

Day 1

Wall Street

61 fsw, Ave. 44, 42 minutes

SIT:2:06

 

Barrel Head

50 fsw, Ave. 36, 56 minutes

SIT:3:02

 

Aquarium

59 fsw, Ave. 43, 52 minutes

 

Day 2

West Pinnacles

75 fsw, Ave. 41, 48 minutes

SIT:2:06

 

Elkhorn Gardens

60 fsw, Ave. 39, 52 minutes

SIT: 6:04

 

Gorgonian Gallery night dive

43 fsw, Ave. ??, 43 minutes

 

Day 3

Fin Fan Alley

79 fsw, Ave. 51, 51 minutes

SIT: ??

 

Middle Caye Wall

59 fsw, Ave. 39, 60 minutes

SIT: ??

 

Cuda Cove

66 fsw, Ave ??, 51 minutes

 

Day 4

Restriction Ridge

62 fsw, Ave. 35, 53 minutes

SIT: 1:57

 

Wall Street

58 fsw, Ave. 42, 49 minutes

SIT: 3:04

 

Gorgonian Gallery

47 fsw, Ave. 37, 56 minutes

 

Day 5

Grouper Gulch

82 fsw, Ave. 53, 38 minutes

SIT: 9:19

 

Cuda Cove night dive

48 fsw, Ave. 35, 48 minutes

 

Day 6

The Crack

88 fsw, Ave. 47, 52 minutes

SIT: 1:28

 

Hole in the Wall

61 fsw, Ave. 33, 61 minutes

 

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