05 February 2014

The conjurer

"Fresh beauty opens one's eyes wherever it is really seen, but the very abundance and completeness of the common beauty that besets our steps prevents its being absorbed and appreciated. It is a good thing, therefore, to make short excursions now and then to the bottom of the sea among dulse and coral, or up among the clouds on mountain-tops, or in balloons, or even to creep like worms into dark holes and caverns underground, not only to learn something of what is going on in those out-of-the-way places, but to see better what the sun sees on our return to common everyday beauty."
-- John Muir  [The Mountains Of California]


I arrived at Carlos Tours' shop around 10:00 to find the epitome of "go slow", island life:  the owner laying on an outside bench; one leg propped up & a brown arm blocking the sun from his eyes; asleep  (if you recall a previous post, this was the business where one simply wrote his/her name on an unattended clipboard, the evening before a tour).  In the United States everything about this scene and business would be regarded as incredibly unprofessional, but this was Caye Caulker.

The 20 snorkelers were divided into two groups.  The smaller the group, the better.  Carlos Ayala himself was our captain & guide. Following the safety briefing Carlos prompted everyone to divulge their name & origin.  Both my boyfriend & I [later] agreed this was the best outing of our entire week in Belize.  Through the simple introductions, Carlos fostered dialogue (i.e. "Oh you're from The Great Lakes area too?"). In fact, I developed a camaraderie with the other snorkelers.  First -- because of the group's candidness -- no question was shunned.  Second, it was a very good thing I created bonds with these people because I am positive every one of them saw my butt crack due to my ill-fitting bottoms. Moreover, I did not feel like I needed to keep only to my boyfriend.  I often emerged from the water after noticing a new creature and marveled at my find with a fellow swimmer.  Usually, the other person saw the creature too & we would share an excited moment adrift in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.  Though similar in size to the water taxi from Belize City, Carlos Tours' boat felt exponentially more open...  how travel should feel.
Within seconds of casting off from the dock, the sea turned brilliant aquamarine!  Even at this early hour, the breeze was welcomed.  Carlos Tours' boats dropped anchor at an undisclosed location at the Meso-American Barrier Reef.  Since I opted to visit Uluru over Australia's Great Barrier Reef in 2009, I was ready to experience the second largest reef system in the world... except I did not know how I'd fare.  It had been 15 years since I last snorkeled, but I still recalled the gallons of salty water I choked down that day in Hawaii.  As for my boyfriend, the last time he snorkeled, he became surrounded by a school of fish, panicked & jetted out of the ocean. 

I was the last to enter the sea (due to my fear of open water & having to remove my insulin pump).  Cautious of swallowing ocean water, I initially swam with only one arm because the other steadied my tube upright/out of the water.  I probably looked like a prissy, control freak to Carlos.  I also had to adjust to breathing only through my mouth.  Either snorkeling equipment had significantly improved in the past 15 years or my Dad bought me the cheapest, crappiest mask + tube  in Hawaii because within an hour I had faith I wasn't going to drown.

Upon first seeing the underwater scene, I was overwhelmed.  Above the water's surface, the waves broke loudly on the Meso-American Reef but the scene was the same: crystal blue, the white swells and a sprinkling of tiny boats, but below it, life was abundant and bustling!  I developed a temporary case of Attention Deficit Disorder: "[Eyes forward] Ooohhh look at all those yellow fish!  Humph, they're swimming away. [Head abruptly turns left] Ooohhh a sting ray! [Looks down] No wait two sting rays. [Head abruptly turns right] But what's that? A spotted fish above the shells! [Looks down] Whoa, so many shells..."
(see the spotted fish?)

Canon Powershot in hand I started clicking photos as quickly as the camera could process them.  I had tunnel vision for whatever animal, sponge or blip crossed my line of sight & forgot about all else (except holding my snorkel tube vertical).  I was so enthralled to see each creature underwater I lost track of my boyfriend & had an absolute moment of terror.  Originally I thought it amazing to be recording up close... until the ray swam too close.  As the Round Ray grew in my viewfinder, it dawned on me this was how Steve Irwin prematurely died.  As the ray slid under me I froze -- not wanting to startle it & send it into a stabbing frenzy.  "I made a fatal mistake [by assuming I knew an animal's behavior] & now I'm going to pay for it dearly," I told myself.  It was like a horrible crime scene: I could not bear to watch the last moments of my life unfold, yet I also could not turn away from the Canon's screen still filming.  I let out the enormous breath I had been holding all this time as the Round Ray's end moved out of view because there was no stinger (unlike some of the others nearby).

After my close call, I purposefully toned down my spasticity and focused on my surroundings more.  In doing so, I felt the heebie-jeebies when gazing into the great, open ocean, not knowing what lurked out there.  I noticed the sea floor was completely covered in conch shells -- a Belizean souvenir shop staple.  Seriously, there could have been sand, gravel, magma, dead bodies, anything underneath the layers of shells which I could not have discerned.  Also, the fish oddly liked to huddle under the boats' shadows.  I wondered if that gave them a false sense of protection? 
Then -- oh! -- I saw an animal much larger than the fish.  A sea turtle!  It was a carbon copy of the one in Finding Nemo.  I believe I speak for everyone in the group when I write I was hypnotized by the Loggerhead Turtles.  I could have stayed, watching the graceful flyers for another hour.  The turtles had an unfazed facial expression but were not elusive.  Their shells were a beautiful smattering of streaks of browns, almost like blown glass, trumped only by their mosaic skin & individual scales outlined in white.  I did not see any of the turtles use their hind legs -- which remained in the position of praying hands -- but they glided through the water with consistent flaps of their front arms.


Thirty minutes later, the two small groups loaded into the boats to sail to the prized location: Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the most famous snorkeling area in the northern cayes.  Everyone in the boat was chatty and excited having seen so much marine life.  Inside el parque & the sea again, I built up more confidence with the snorkeling gear. I did a trial run of not constantly holding my air tube.  With the experiment's success I wondered why I hadn't done this sooner since it freed my right hand/arm?  The underwater scene at Hol Chan Reserve was completely different from the first location.  Instead of  a shell bottom, there was long, wavy grass and sand.  The hundreds of Horse Eye Jacks were replaced with silver fish.  And the current, it was so strong.  Now this looked and felt more like the northern hemisphere’s largest barrier reef!


Out of the blue -- literally and figuratively -- I thought I discerned two sharks approaching the group.  Almost black in color, the creatures had an Angler Fish head (that scary fish that is also in Finding Nemo) & jawline without the sharp teeth.  Even more sinister, they slowly stalked us just above the grass & were 4 feet in length!  Carlos interjected to save us from the encroaching beasts, but instead of playing the hero, he morphed into a wizard as he swam backwards, then positioned himself like a pencil -- arms and legs fully extended.  Carlos never once touched the fish, but I couldn't believe how entranced the two were.  They  both ceased moving and gazed upward at him, as if Carlos was a god.  It was such an odd, but captivating, sight.  These Goliath Groupers wanted nothing to do with anyone in the Caribbean Sea, but became so submissive with Carlos, that he was able to touch one's pudgy face.

The pair of Goliath Groupers hung around the group -- mostly Carlos a.k.a. The Fish Whisperer -- until he put on another display.  Like a magician, Carlos dolphin-kicked rapidly underwater, face-down, with both hands behind his head and summoned his next act.  From the hodgepodge of tropical fish, the Blue Tangs emerged and fell into line behind their leader.  Again, Carlos never once touched them but the Tangs swam so close, it looked like a blue blob engulfed his head. 

Moving on, Carlos took the group into deeper water where I saw the largest school of fish in my entire life.  Even though we were on the surface & they, on the sea floor, I could gauge its size (it didn't entirely fit in my camera's frame)!  If I were a shark, I would certainly be intimidated by a large, dark, something creeping toward me.  As the school proceeded to my right, I kept my eye on our leader & noticed him free-diving down to the sandy bottom of Hol Chan Reserve.  The latter feat alone was impressive, but that's when I realized why: a lone, Spotted Eagle Ray.

It was like this entire snorkeling experience had been planned by God himself, and Carlos was the facilitator.  For as one act came to a close, Carlos conjured up another show.  He truly had an eye for marine life.  I started to get bored with the mono-chromatic blue scene and fell to the end of the snorkeling pack just as a new color was introduced:  the Green Eel.  I try my best not to label any animal or insect as ugly, but honestly, there is no other word to describe an eel.  How is it that they're so yummy in sushi?  I watched from afar as the Green Eel slithered out of the mustard coral toward Carlos.  The group moved on & my boyfriend dove for closer footage, but the creature only performed for Carlos, its master.  Despite the Green Eel's menacing look, instead of mangling my boyfriend's face (like I expected) it cowered back into its hole.


I remained the caboose of the group.  It wasn't a race to see all the animals in the Caribbean Sea; I certainly was in no hurry to be accidentally kicked by a flipper nor shoved into another swimmer by the tumultuous current. The curiosity in me actually preferred this position because it meant I saw the sea creatures last.  I was offered a rare glimpse of candid, unthreatened sea life. On one particular occasion in Hol Chan Marine Reserve, I deviated from the other snorkelers & -- as they moved on -- found myself completely alone, in another world with Turtle.  Turtle wasn't flitting away like the others did.  He rested on the sandy floor having an all-you-can-eat buffet of sea grass.  I watched each chew with the fervor of a scientist studying a new species. My gosh, even Turtle's chomping is mesmerizing!  Save for the mobile home on his back, Turtle (with his trippy skin pattern) blended in perfectly with the plant life.
Since it was just me, Turtle seemed unthreatened by my presence, or perhaps, Turtle was in a food coma. I studied Turtle; Turtle occasionally looked me over through lids at half mast. I felt like we both floated in the sea in total harmony, neither of us willing to disturb the other's peace; both of us going about our individual niches, though -- at that time -- our lives’ circles briefly overlapped like a Venn Diagram. This is the treasure of being last of a group.  Hanging out with Turtle would go down as my favorite moment of the entire trip.