We climbed on board whilst it was 'cheeping' down on us and we sped across the water towards Caye Caulker. Within minutes the 'cheeping' had turned to 'chirping' (I may have just made that particular term up) and all eighteen of us plus a few extras tried to huddle under the cabin without capsizing the boat. As we moved at warp speed, bouncing hard off the waves, I glanced over at TC sat opposite me, just to check that she was ok. The colour had drained from her face and her expression was one of someone about to do a bungee jump and realising they were actually attached to a long thread of dental floss! I mouthed 'Are you ok!' But she just looked straight through me.
Just over forty minutes later we were moored up on the wondrous island of Caye Caulker.
This little island can be found 35km northeast of Belize City, (21 miles for those of us stuck on the Imperial System). The motto on the island is "Go Slow" and that's certainly what we all needed after the rushing around of the previous two weeks in Mexico.
The main source of income on the island was Lobster fishing, but that has now been superseded by tourism and I can understand why. With the Barrier Reef only 1.5km offshore (not even a mile) the opportunities for snorkeling and diving are great!
We dropped our bags off in our respective hotel rooms then met up with the rep from Ragamuffin Tours who filled us in on the choices of snorkeling the following day - full or half day.
It's hard I know, for some to believe that at 47 (and three quarters) years of age, I had never been snorkeling before. I had tried learning to dive a few years back whilst holidaying in Cuba, but I never actually made it past the swimming pool part cause I couldn't get a hang of the breathing - quite a vital component!?
I could have chickened out. TC wasn't interested in snorkeling, so I could have stuck with her. But this was an opportunity to see some of the wonders of the sea AND at the biggest Barrier Reef in the Western Hemisphere. I felt I needed to challenge myself and grab this opportunity whilst it was there and I was still able. As long as I felt safe and supported I knew I could do it and the group I was travelling with were great; everyone going on the expedition were encouraging me and assured me they would look out for me. So I signed up for the full day! (Admittedly drinking rum cocktails whilst sailing in the Caribbean sun was a bit of a deal breaker).
Later that night after going for a drink in the rather dubious hotel bar, we went for a delicious BBQ dinner whilst it 'cheeped' down around us.
The following morning we were up early for a breakfast of hard boiled or scrambled eggs, dried toast and orange squash?! After which I went for a morning stroll around the island with Jo, Vicki and G whilst I tried to ignore the grey clouds gathering above. I kept telling myself that if the weather was in any way dangerous to sail in, the trip would be cancelled ... But the clouds continued to gather.
We got fitted up with our snorkels and masks and I was kindly given an anti sea sickness tablet just in case! I thought I was covering up my nerves quite well, until Neil walked over and assured me that he would hold my hand in the water if I wanted.
But I had paid up, been fitted up with mask and snorkel, taken my pill and we were now piling on to the sailing boat, so it was too late to back out now ... The thing is, between you and me, my biggest fear wasn't that I wouldn't be able to snorkel, it was more the fear that I was going to make a fool of myself trying.
We set sail, I looked out to sea and smiled to myself; what a surreal moment, sailing along towards the Caribbean Sea, whilst Sea Gulls, Pelicans and Frigate Birds (another kind of pelican that actually looks like a mini Pterodactyl) flew along side us.
All the while the crew played reggae music through the boats speakers ... We certainly were chillin'. And the clouds were finally beginning to disperse!
The first of our three stops was in an area of shallow water (approx 10ft deep) where everyone eagerly jumped in ahead of me. Neil waited as I put on my flippers and adjusted the mask properly, then after a count of three and an overly excited heart beat I jumped in too!
The sea was lovely and warm and already quite clear, so after a couple of 'rehearsed breathings' I stuck my face under and then my mask and nose promptly filled up with water!!
I immediately looked up, choking and still breathing in the water swilling around in my mask, whilst trying to elegantly tread water in a huge pair of flippers and keep the panic at bay!
Thankfully I managed to rip the mask from my face and breath in gulps of air, my throat burning from the salty water. Neil swam over and asked if I was ok? "Yes, yes, I'm fine thank you, just a little water went up my nose, it was nothing". I smiled through my embarrassment then quickly turned away and belched!
But I was determined to get it right and after a lot of patience from my snorkeling buddy, with many mask adjustments to get it over my hair, I actually started to get the hang of it! The more I tried, the easier it became, it was basically down to confidence and a good fitting mask!
I was stunned by the sights under the water, the Corals and Urchins, Angel Fish and Parrot Fish to name but a few. The forty five minutes wizzed by but I was quite ready to climb back on board, my legs were shaking from the adrenaline rush and possibly the fact that I am so unfit?!
A short while later, having paused briefly to watch groups of Dolphins jumping through the water ahead of us, Rob (our Captain) and his two man crew, dropped anchor and encouraged us to look over the right side of the boat where they promptly started throwing in small fish they had caught earlier on. Within a matter of seconds the water was teaming with sharks! Don't panic, they were Nurse sharks not the big scary Great Whites!
It was snorkeling time! And this time I was going in alone! The others jumped in ahead of me and then I joined them. This time around was so much easier, I glided through the water with ease, managing to swim into the others only a couple of times, not that it really mattered as we stared down in amazement at the massive Stingrays (some the size of a coffee table!), sharks and huge Blue Tang (aka surgeon fish) swimming below us.
I felt quite the professional snorkeler!
And it was back on the boat for lunch and some healthy servings of chicken or fish coconut curry in the now brilliant sunshine! Perfect!
We reached our third and final stop a few metres (I'm trying to be with it and use the metric system now) from the actual Barrier Reef. This area is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, with strict guidelines; you are only allowed to swim through it if accompanied by a registered guide and it is completely forbidden to touch any of the corals or wildlife living in it.
We all jumped in and followed our leader.
I am not sure how, but it seemed to me that my head may have shrunk in the couple of hours since our last snorkel? This time round my mask refused to stay in place and I was really struggling and falling behind. If I was found 'wandering' alone by the Marine Keepers I would be sent back to my boat and to make it worse, I couldn't work out which boat was ours anyway!
Thank god Neil was still looking out for me, (ever the vigilant tour guide) and he swam over to help as I struggled with my mask. I am sure he must have been even more frustrated than me, worried he was going to miss this amazing opportunity, (it's his last tour) because of my shrunken head and oversized mask. But he was very patient and finally after a couple of attempts to try and rectify the situation by squeezing the mask onto my face and pulling the straps as tight as they could go - and almost accidentally drowning me - we swapped masks. Obviously he has a small head too, as this one fitted and we quickly joined the others.
"OMG" doesn't even cover it! In fact I can't even express how exciting and emotional an experience this final swim was ... We saw all sorts of fish, all sorts of stunning coral, a Barricuda peeped out to look at us and finally - the piece de resistance - we saw a family of Giant Turtles. All of us stopped still, only slightly treading water so as not to disturb them, our arms crossed and out of the way as we watched these elegant creatures calmly glide past us; one was less than an inch away from Vicki's face. Unfazed, the Giant Turtle just casually glanced our way as if to say "Oh, it's you humans again". He looked so calm and serene, the only thing missing was a Rasta hat, dreadlocks and a huge spliff hanging out of his mouth. He was definitely chillin!
We climbed back on the boat, all moved by the shared experience, Vicki couldn't stop grinning.
As the ship sailed back to the Island, we sat around eating freshly made Cerviche (my first time), drinking rum punch and listening to reggae whilst laughing and chatting. (It turns out TC has told them all about my blog and recommended they read the one from India first as "It's the best one". Hmm, so much for her wanting to stay anonymous?! And apparently she has informed everyone that the stories about her have been greatly exaggerated! However, I think everyone knows better?!)
And so the day ended with everyone meeting up at The Lazy Lizard for a drink - a popular pub located by 'The Split', which in turn is a narrow channel between the two parts of the island split in two by Hurricane Hattie in 1961.
What a great atmosphere, people gathered outside drinking, people jumping into the water, people sat around in small fishing boats, all watching the sun setting over the Carribean Sea! I felt like I was on the set of a Malibu advert!
The following morning we were off to San Ignacio, where I had a new challenge ahead of me ... Caving! But until then, I was happy in Caye Caulker, just chillin .....