A castaway on New Year’s Eve: ‘Anyone here named Gilligan?’

January 11, 2011

 

When we finally reached the island – when it became clear we were going to be castaways on land, rather than adrift in the dark on the Caribbean for the night – I stopped thinking about movie references.

 

Well, not really. As our crippled diveboat hobbled into port on Blackbird Caye off the coast of Belize at sunset, I cracked to my fellow passengers, “This could be the start of a bad horror movie. The endangered boat finally reaches shore – only to discover that all the inhabitants are vampires. Or, since this is the Caribbean, those voodoo-kind of zombies. That’s it – ‘Zombie Caye.’”

 

Thus began my 2011: semi-shipwrecked on a Caribbean Island. It was not quite the dive trip any of us expected.

 

Least of all me. I’d taken my family to Belize for the Christmas break and had waited all week to see whether my older son, who came down with a sinus infection almost as soon as we landed, would be able to dive. (He couldn’t.) By the time I booked my trip to the Blue Hole for Friday, Dec. 31, most of the day’s Blue Hole trips were already full. But I finally found a place on a boat leaving at 6 a.m.: “Be here at 5:30,” I was instructed.

 

I’d almost bailed on the idea a couple of times. While I was certified for open-water scuba diving in 1998 and had been diving ever since (usually on annual trips to various Caribbean vacation spots), I hadn’t been down since 2006. When my wife and I took a long weekend in Jamaica in November, I went through a refresher course and signed on for a scuba trip. But when I went out for my dives, I had problems with my mask; it leaked badly and I couldn’t seem to clear it of water. Within a few minutes of going down, I was back on the surface.

 

I had panicked, to put it simply. By the time I got to the top, I was breathless and breathing hard. My mask problems – and then my inability to breathe slow and easy, the key to scuba – had freaked me out. I was shaken enough that I didn’t dive again the rest of the weekend.

 

And, though friends had raved about Belize (home of the second-largest coral reef in the world, after the Great Barrier off Australia) as one of the great scuba destinations in the Caribbean, in the back of my mind I toyed with the idea of just doing some snorkeling and skipping the dives.

 

But when I mentioned that to my son, on the boat out to a snorkeling spot, he said, “You’ve got to do it. How do you know if you’ll ever be here again? What if you never get a chance to dive the Blue Hole?”

 

So I did decide to sign up for the Blue Hole trip. Then, when it looked like I might not find a spot on a dive boat, the decision was nearly taken out of my hands. But I got a spot.

 

When I showed up at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 31, however, the wind was so strong coming off the ocean that the crew members were shaking their collective heads, saying it didn’t look good. But the owner of the dive shop turned up and suddenly the word from the crew was, “We’re going anyway.”

 

We left at 6:30 a.m., 24 of us (18 divers and six snorkelers), along with a crew of three – on the smallest of the three boats at the dock. Because of the wind, the open ocean was deemed too dangerous to go directly to the Blue Hole, about 40 miles east of the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, our starting point. Instead, we headed south, inside the reef, toward Belize City, before heading out to open ocean toward our other dive sites.

 

Conventional dive protocol is to make your deepest dive first, then your shallower dives. But we would be doing our deepest dive – the Blue Hole – last.

 

The ride out was a Hobson’s choice. If you sat near the front of the boat, under the roof, it was like riding one of those mechanical bulls in “Urban Cowboy,” set on “ferocious.” If you sat in the rear, out from under the overhang, you were drenched by the spray of the boat slapping the water as it fought the wind and the waves – and then by the waves themselves, as they splashed over the roof and on to the back of the boat.

 

After an hour of this, we hit a lull as we entered the confines of the atoll between San Pedro and our destination. At that point, the crew – Donovan, the captain, and his mates and divemasters, Clive and Fish – stopped for a moment to tinker with one of the twin outboard motors, which didn’t sound right to them.

 

“I hope there’s no one aboard named Gilligan,” I joked. It was not the last crack about “a three-hour tour” we’d offer that day.

 

Then we got moving again – and, back on the open ocean, the ride was, if anything, even more harrowing. I watched the boat’s bow plunge into waves it couldn’t rise above and thought of the poster for the movie “The Perfect Storm,” with that larger fishing boat practically standing on end as it climbed a massive wave.

 

I had struck up a conversation with a young couple sitting next to me and we talked about that movie – and about “Open Water.” The latter is the diver’s nightmare, a little indy about a pair of divers left behind by the dive boat – so far out in the ocean that they can’t even see land. For those of us who occasionally indulge in magical thinking, talking about that movie is a two-edged sword: Either you don’t mention it for fear of jinxing yourself – or you make sure to mention it as a way of inoculating yourself against the jinx.

 

But when we arrived at our first dive site, a spot called The Aquarium (for its diversity of marine wildlife), the seas were calmer. I donned my mask, strapped on my tank and slipped on my flippers. Over the side; down I went, without a hiccup or even a threat of a mask problem.

 

It was the same thing at the next site, a reef wall at Half Moon Caye. We had lunch on the caye, which was a bird sanctuary. I’d had no problems, had been able to control my breathing so I didn’t use up my air on either dive. Time to move on to the Blue Hole.

 

The Blue Hole is just that: a 400-foot-deep hole in the ocean, about 1,000 feet across, surrounded by a coral reef just below the surface (though it looks like land when photographed from the air), inside of which is a sandy shelf, about 45 feet down. We were going to go down about 130 feet, the deepest dive I’d ever made.

 

We all went into the water and then went down, meeting on the sandy shelf. Then we stepped over the edge into the blackness – a little like stepping off the edge of the world. We sank down until we reached the 130-foot level, then swam along the wall, looking at stalactites and stalagmites that had formed when the hole was still just an underground cave.

 

The water in the Blue Hole was chilly. One of the other divers, who wore a wrist device that measured all manner of things, told me that it had been about 85 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface – but dropped to about 73 when we went into the hole. When we returned to the shelf, it felt like climbing into a warm bath.

 

Eventually, after a five-minute safety stop at the 20-foot mark to re-pressurize, we all climbed back into the boat, exhilarated by the experience. It had been a long day but an exciting one. But we didn’t realize, as we headed back to San Pedro, that the excitement was far from over.

 

The crew had promised that, while the ocean was still rough, the ride back would be easier because we would be going with the wind and the waves, instead of against them. It was about 4 p.m. by the time we headed back and, with luck, we’d reach San Pedro by sundown.

 

But about 15 minutes into the ride, the same engine that had proved troublesome on the trip out made an angry sound – like it had hit a rock, even though we were in the middle of the ocean – and then stopped. The crew stopped the boat and examined the engine. It wouldn’t start. It had burned out in some way, from the strain of hauling that size of a load in that rough an ocean.

 

So one of the crew came forward and took a satellite phone out of a waterproof box that also held a first-aid kit. The captain got on the phone, speaking quickly in the Creole dialect that is heard as often as English in Belize. Then he told us that, given the engine problem, we would be heading for nearby Blackbird Caye, while the dive shop sent out another boat to pick us up.

 

We limped along on one engine, watching the sun sink further and further toward the horizon. None of us spoke about it but we all were thinking the same thing: What if that engine quit? What if we wound up adrift on the Caribbean in the dark?

 

I knew we had some water; the crew had brought a cooler full of water bags (a less resource-consuming container than plastic bottles) and one full of food, which they’d served us for lunch on Half Moon Caye. There had been food left over from lunch – rice and beans, chicken, macaroni salad – though I had no idea how much.

 

But, anticipating a simple scuba trip, all I had to wear were the swim trunks I was wearing and a t-shirt (and a baseball cap). Not even a towel. Even those who had brought a change of clothes had had trouble keeping them dry on the boat. How cold would be it to spend the night on a boat – a small boat with a bench on each side – in the middle of the Caribbean?

 

Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. The crew managed to get us to Blackbird Caye – to a spot called Turneffe Flats, a small fishing resort – shortly before sunset. The perplexed managers of the resort greeted us and took charge, getting on the phone to the dive shop back in San Pedro.

 

The bad news was that, in fact, another boat wouldn’t be coming. The combination of the rough seas and nightfall – along with the various reefs in-between – made that too dangerous to undertake. So a boat would come for us first thing in the morning to take us back (a concern, since my family and I were booked on a noon flight out of San Pedro back to Belize City’s international airport for our trip back to New York).

 

The good news was that they could accommodate us. True, the resort – which had 15 guests, a figure that nearly tripled when we landed – was full. But there were a couple of mattresses that could be placed on the floor of the resort’s dive center and blankets and pillows for those who wound up sleeping on the floor itself. In addition, the resort had one empty villa with three bedrooms – which included five beds of varying sizes, as well as a couch and a love seat.

 

The management then shepherded us to the staff dining room, where we were served what seemed like a sumptuous Belizean feast of red beans, rice and chicken, with banana cream pie for dessert. And we all had a chance to use a phone to call our families back in San Pedro to let them know that we wouldn’t be home that night.

 

We spent the evening getting acquainted, telling each other about our lives back in the world. I met people from all over the United States; in addition, there were members of group from Japan, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico. There were doctors and college students, even a fellow who had given up a career as a large-animal veterinarian to pursue an MBA. We exchanged email addresses and promised to get in touch once we got back to our lives.

 

The next morning, the boat came for us at 8 a.m. and we were back in San Pedro by 9:30. I hugged my wife and sons and got into a much-needed shower (before finishing our packing for our departure).

 

Almost exactly 12 hours from the time the boat returned, our plane touched down at Newark. It was 2011; when I’d left on the dive trip the day before and a world away, it had been 2010.

 

As I lifted suitcases on to the shuttle bus that would take us to our car, I stopped for a moment and thought, “This morning, I was a castaway on a Caribbean island.”

 

 

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