My best friend Kate and I met in Costa Rica, so it seemed only natural that we would return to Central America during our quest to get scuba certified. We put together an epic ten day trip down to Ambergris Caye in Belize to get open water diver certified - and flew South the day of the Presidential election.
Of course, when we booked our trip we didn't realize that we'd be flying on election day - November 8th is actually the latest that election day can ever be. I'm used to it being closer to my birthday, November 5th. When Obama was elected on November 4th of 2008 I joked all day on November 5th that it was the best birthday present I could have ever received - and well, let's just say that was not as well received in the red state of Ohio where I went to high school. The 2016 elections were a bit more high stakes though, and Kate and I lamented that we wouldn't be in the states to welcome our first female president. Luckily we were both able to vote before we left, Kate by absentee ballot in Massachusetts and me by regular ballot because Oregon happens to have the best voting process I've ever encountered. First, everyone that is eligible to vote in Oregon is automatically registered when they get a driver's license. Second, we receive our official ballots in the mail about two weeks before the election and can either mail the ballot back in or drop it off in one of the numerous convenient locations at local establishments such as libraries and government offices.
Once Kate and I met at the Belize City airport we hightailed it out to the docks, picked up our tickets, grabbed a few beers for the ferry ride, and enjoyed the hour and a half boat ride out to Ambergris Caye. Well, we at least did the best we could on enjoying the ride - it was agony for us news junkies to not have access to internet and be able to check the exit polls for the election! Tuesday the 8th was also the only bad weather day we had during the entire trip. The clouds held off until we got to our hostel thankfully, but later that evening the sky opened up and it just poured. In fact, the real deluge came at right about the time that Trump clinched a few key states and the reality that we were not about to see the first female president get elected started to really sink in. It was obviously a difficult night, and the election hung over us for the rest of our time in Belize. Thankfully we at least had sunshine, rum, and scuba diving to distract us before we returned to the new reality.
Kate and I woke up with a Trump sized election hangover the next morning, and strolled the 200 feet down the beach from our hostel to our dive shop, Chuck & Robbie's. As soon as we got there I noticed the giant University of Oregon flag and Ninkasi Brewing sign (both from Eugene, Oregon!) and discovered that Robbie is from Oregon. There's nothing like finding a piece of home while traveling! We spent the first morning in a small, hot room watching old scuba diving training tapes on VHS while drinking copious amounts of coffee and trying not to have an outburst every five minutes about the election. That afternoon we finally got to get in the water for the first of our supervised dives out in the Belize Barrier Reef.
The Belize Barrier Reef starts about half a mile out from the shore in Ambergris Caye, and is the second largest coral reef system in the world, second only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, and has been listed as endangered since 2009. The Belize Barrier Reef is home to 70 hard coral species, 36 soft coral species, 500+ species of fish, and hundreds of invertebrates - but scientists estimate that only 10% of all species that call the reef home have been discovered because almost 90% of the reef remains to be researched. Sadly, with the reef's endangered status it is increasingly unlikely that we will discover all of the species before they become extinct.
The Belize Barrier Reef is under threat from a variety of sources: coral bleaching, ocean acidification and warming, extreme storms, fishing, shipping, pollution, and tourism. Many of those issues are intertwined. For example, warmer ocean water temperatures can cause coral bleaching. When water gets too warm, corals can become stressed and will expel the zooxanthellae algae living in their tissues, causing the coral to become completely white. This doesn't kill the coral, but losing the symbiotic relationship they have with the algae is devastating since it is the coral's primary food source and without the algae they are more susceptible to disease. Pollution, overexposure to sunlight, overly cold water, and air exposure from extreme low tides can also cause coral bleaching.
Over the next few days, Kate and I spent as much time as possible in the water - and more time than we would have liked watching old scuba training videos. We woke up early for a Belize hostel breakfast of coffee, fresh fruit, fry jacks, eggs, and bacon with a side of studying our scuba books. We learned how to flip upside down off the side of the boat in full scuba gear, achieve natural buoyancy, conserve oxygen during our dives, and use an underwater compass. And, after a few days, we passed our open water diver exams and became fully certified divers! It was a great feeling.
Our first official dive was a night dive under an almost full moon. I thought that the full moon would make it extra magical, but it turns out that the full moon generates so much light that not as many nocturnal fish would be active. We still saw schools of hundreds of fish and plenty of larger fish that hunt primarily at night though, so I wasn't too disappointed. One of the best parts about the night dive was seeing the sting rays at night. We had seen dozens of string rays while diving during the day but they looked ethereal and mysterious in the dark, and almost glowed from the light of the moon and our flashlights. About halfway through the dive someone saw a giant sea turtle, about 5 - 6 ft long, tucked away into a cave. Later on, I spotted the first (and only!) octopus of our trip, a little sandy colored guy with blue spots that blended in almost perfectly with his surroundings. Soon after I saw him and tried to start getting people's attention he got attention shy and jetted away. Getting people's attention underwater is, as you can imagine, quite difficult and usually consists of gesturing wildly until someone finally notices your flailing and joins you.
Overall, we had an amazing time. I would fully recommend Chuck & Robbie's Dive Shop, as well as the Belize Barrier Reef to everyone I know. And, don't wait! As I already mentioned, the Belize Barrier Reef is officially listed as endangered and time is running out to see it in all of its glory.