At Home: A sea kayaking and snorkeling trip to Belize’s Halfmoon Cay
November 23, 2011
If you go
Island Expeditions offers sea kayak and snorkel trips throughout Belize from November through April, for all levels of paddlers, from bed-and-breakfast trips to point-to-point camping trips to base-camp-oriented trips on islands like Halfmoon Cay and Glovers Reef.
Info: http://www.islandexpeditions.com, 1-800-667-1630
Steamboat Springs — My daughter Brooke and I glide to a stop and tie off our tandem Necky Amaruk to the long string of sea kayaks anchored to the motorboat in front of us. We've paddled three miles off Belize's Halfmoon Cay to get here; now come the spoils of our strokes.
We pull snorkels and fins from the deck rigging, cinch them on and then swing our legs over the side. Soon we're swimming in the aquamarine waters of the Caribbean, gliding effortlessly over forests of coral and an oasis of marine life. It's the first time either of us have snorkeled via sea kayak, and we're officially addicted.
Our guide, James, points out queen angels, barracuda, nurse sharks and more as well as a cluster of columnar pillar coral. "You have to get close to see its beauty," he says as we catch our breath back on the surface.
His statement is a metaphor to follow in life: Look closely to see things' inner beauty. Back under, Brooke grasps the concept immediately. While I cover as much ground as possible, flutter-kicking from reef to reef, she sticks her fingers into every sea anemone in sight and takes in small details I miss. James, too, goes slowly, arms folded across his chest, seeing more because of it.
I decide to follow his advice, studying details I soared past before — the tiny gobi fish, darting damsels and "gang of tangs" that ride in a herd like the mafia. I've learned a valuable lesson: Go slow, mon — it's the small things in life that make it whole.
Halfmoon Cay is the outermost atoll in Belize, a two-hour boat ride from the mainland. It sits in the heart of Lighthouse Reef National Park, one of the crown jewels of the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef in the world.
We're here — my wife, Denise, and daughters Brooke, 12, and Casey, 8 — during April spring break with Island Expeditions, an outfitter specializing in sea kayak trips in Belize.
When we arrive at the 45-acre island, guide Andi Shluker leads us down a sandy path to a camp composed of wall tents, hammocks and a large, canvas-walled dining hall, which doubles as a living room, bar and library. There's no electricity on the island. Oil lamps provide lighting in our tents, and the Caribbean breeze is our air conditioning. Facing the oncoming wind, our tent door leads to a raised wooden floor supporting a double bed and nightstand. A canvas-and-wood clothes shelf hangs in the corner, not that we'll need anything more than T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops.
Adjacent to camp is a research center for the Belize Audubon Society, here to help protect and study the 10,000-acre Lighthouse Reef bio-preserve, the first protected marine area in the Caribbean, and also the red-footed booby, which nests on the island.
After settling in, we select kayaks from a multicolored lineup on the beach for an afternoon paddle to the far end of the island. We beach on a rocky shore and quickly put on our snorkel gear.
Soon, we're in a world-class aquarium, as blue as the Colorado sky. We see nurse sharks, rays, lion fish, octopus and more, the kids poking me in the side with every new creature. A lobster scurries out of a cave, sending them flutter-kicking away in fright.
Back on the beach, Brooke announces to everyone that she wants to be an underwater photographer when she grows up — two hours on the island and she has her career mapped out.
After paddling back to camp, Casey ogles a hermit crab on the path to the dining tent. There's little reason for the fanfare. That night, the path crawls with them, like a scene from "Night of the Living Dead." James draws concentric circles in the sand for crab races; the first crab out wins. Casey's, which she names Pinchy, takes top honors.
In the morning, all signs of them are gone, save for their tell-tale, bike-tire-like tracks crisscrossing the sand. Casey already is awake and following Shamrock, the 9-year-old son of a local fisherman, down the beach. "Hey, dad," she says proudly. "I hired him to get me a coconut!"
Breakfast is in the dining hall where old, gold ship rope wraps around three giant beams supporting a canvas roof. A raised wooden floor keeps sand at bay.
A few kids play Jenga at the coffee table. Next to this is the bar, above which "cocktails" is written on a wooden fish. To the left is a bookshelf filled with games, novels and guidebooks, including Paul Humann and Ned Deloach's "Reef Fish Identification: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas," which I'll refer to often.
After fresh fruit, juice, bacon and from-the-tree banana pancakes, Andi tells us the day's itinerary. We'll sail our sea kayaks four miles to Long Cay, where we'll drift snorkel a hundred-foot-deep reef wall. I put Casey in the bow of a double kayak while I take the stern. Brooke decides to ride in the motor support boat to snorkel for conch for lunch.
The Caribbean breeze fills our sail like the pirate craft of yesteryear. In the main channel, Denise latches her single onto us for additional stability. As we gain speed, waves arc over the bow, splashing Casey with 80-degree water. She laughs with each dousing.
We soon catch guides Moses and Gene in the lead kayak and I slough the sail to slow down. Once at Long Cay, we drop sail completely and paddle through a swath of sea grass to make landfall. James makes fresh conch ceviche, two harvested by Brooke, while the kids throw cannonballs off an old dock.
After our drift snorkel, where we feel insignificant above a bottomless reef wall, we return to Halfmoon, towing our kayaks like linked sausages behind the motorboat to avoid beating into the wind. We arrive in time for a sunset game of beach volleyball, the net secured by palm trees, and rum-and-coconut-juice happy hour. It takes Casey six tries to successfully hop in a hammock, each attempt tumbling her onto the sand.
Our fish and coconut pie food coma is interrupted by Andi, who outlines the next day's activities on the chalkboard. Options include fishing, or "catching" as the locals call it; a tour to a "secret" snorkeling spot; or an advanced kayaking excursion.
Tonight is Paul from San Francisco's birthday and James serenades him with a guitar. Later, rum-induced conversation turns to the hermaphroditic habits of parrot fish, which start as large-scaled females with ovaries and mature into multicolored males with testes.
I wake up early for a sunrise yoga session hosted by Tammy Fovargue, a visiting instructor from Aspen. Her caressing voice talks us through various positions as I stretch shoulder and back muscles sore from paddling.
Over fresh-ground coffee at breakfast, she tells me that yoga is the perfect complement to kayaking. "They're both very meditative," she says. "They bring your yin yang, male/female together." It sounds a lot like those hermaphroditic parrot fish, I think, spearing a piece of papaya with my fork.
After another paddle and snorkel, we stroll a path at sunset to the Audubon Society's bird observation deck. Climbing a stairway to the platform, we stare over the treetops at a literal sea of sea birds. More than 4,000 red-footed boobies and frigates nest in orange-flowered zericoti trees, their guano providing the trees with fertilizer in return.
Matching the pink sunset are the bright red, puffed-out gular sacs of a few male frigates, hoping to attract mates. Like pirates, frigates attack other seabirds for food and regurgitate it into their chicks' mouths. "I'm glad you don't feed us like that," remarks Casey.
In the morning, Andi has written "Meet the Fish of Lighthouse Reef" on the chalkboard. She's listed some of the prominent families we're likely to see, including angel, funky dudes and tiny gobies as well as silver guys, snappers and grunts. We'll also see the diminutive, attitude-filled damselfish and butterflies, which have the fake eyes on their rears. Surgeons, we learn, pack heat in the form of switchblades that pop out from their sides to stab predators.
We return from our afternoon paddle to see James cleaning a barracuda on a wooden countertop in a foot of water on the beach. Today's catching session went well, the fruits of which chef Bol will barbecue this evening. The entrails draw nurse sharks and opportunistic frigates. The kids wander by with a lasso for coconuts.
The next day finds us kayaking to a nearby shipwreck and snorkeling near its hold, and then struggling to keep our course as we sail back to the island.
Later, we venture to the region's crown jewel, the Blue Hole, a 400-foot-deep sinkhole that's the cornerstone of the national preserve. It takes nearly two hours to snorkel around its perimeter.
On our final full day, I paddle around the island with Andi and Dave, a sea kayaker visiting from Great Britain. So far, the island's windward side has been off limits, with a huge swell crashing on the reef offshore. But it has let up a bit, and we beeline out of a protected cove to open sea beyond the breakers.
I'm in a single kayak, and at one point I don't see Dave or Andi behind me for a few minutes. Then their heads pop up at the top of a swell. I wait to regroup, the swell lifting and dropping my hull. After clearing the island's tip, we turn to starboard, carefully surfing the rollers home.
It's our last night, and Bol breaks out his congo for a local garifuna drum dance. James hits a log with a stick, wipes his brow, shimmies over it, and passes the stick around for us to do the same. The rum punch helps everyone join in.
After a final yoga session in the morning, I grab Casey for a quick tandem paddle along shore. I've been in my kayak for six days now and my arms feel loose and relaxed. Even Casey seems to have it wired, dipping her blades with the comfort of riding her bike back home.
Before the boat arrives to take us home, James leads us to a secret snorkeling spot on the island's windward side. It's the best yet, allowing us to explore deep, canyon-like passages through the reef.
A huge manta ray glides away from its hiding spot in the sand, and giant tarpon patrol the perimeter like sentries. But rather than give chase, I try to go slow and look past them in favor of the little things — the fingernail-size gobis and darting damselfish — all in the stride of a flipper. And it's a notion I vow to follow back home.
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