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May 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 28, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Turneffe Island Resort, Belize

concierge diving on a remote private island

from the May, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

The Oceanic Society claims Turneffe Atoll "is the largest and most biologically diverse coral atoll in the Western Hemisphere." Tiny (20 room) Turneffe Island Resort sits on the atoll's southern end, on its own 16-acre sandy island. I arrived by resort boat just before dinner, and thanks to a nicely spiked rum punch made by Jorge, the affable resort bartender, I survived the choppy boat ride with a mild buzz.

The pot of complementary coffee quietly set outside my cabin revved me up the next morning. As a coffee lover, I requested strong coffee. My insulated carafe was labeled "strong coffee" and indeed contained it. But only minutes into my 9 a.m. checkout dive the next day, I felt more of a buzz, as in, "What the . . .?"

The Dive Shop at Turneffe Island ResortUnusually bright white, icicle-like fingers poked up from the substrate -- "stalagmites" with a tightly latticed surface. (My marine life mentor told me after the trip that it was a "white cone sponge" and "not in the book.") Ten minutes later, divemaster Marcel was letting a fearless little neck crab crawl over the back of his hand. On the rest of the dive, typical reef fish like queen angels, stoplight parrotfish, mutton snapper and squirrelfish were also easy to spot, though in somewhat sparse numbers (a puzzling exception was small sharp-nose puffers). Toward the end of the dive, a roughhead blenny posed for a macro shot. Except for my night dive, all were very mild drifts. Throughout the week, my divemaster was friendly Marcel McNab, a Belizean whose Gallic name set the mind on a journey of its own. After each dive, Marcel noted our depth and dive times. Our panga was driven by a Belizean whose English name was equally intriguing: Burley Bradley Garbutt. Both were family men in their 40s whose wives helped run the resort's kitchen. On my afternoon dive, Marcel offered a speared lionfish to a big green moray when a second large moray suddenly appeared. Instead of fighting for the fish, the two nuzzled, almost mugging for the camera like a pair of green goof-offs before one undulated away along the sandy bottom. Their antics had us all shaking our heads.

Our boat was the Osprey, a 25-foot open boat driven by a V6 200hp Yamaha four-stroke. A radio and safety gear were on board. She could hold 12 tanks but we never had more than five divers. I backrolled in, but the stern boarding ladder could not support me fully geared. Both Brad and Marcel carefully handled my bulky camera rig as coached, without a trace of a "we know, we know" attitude. I removed all my gear except my mask before boarding; Brad did the heavy lifting. This required timing when the winds whipped up two- and three-footers. Dive sites were only 5 to 15 minutes away. We returned to the resort to spend surface intervals to rinse off and use the bathroom. My camera was usually the only one soaking in the freshwater rinse tank. Reverse-osmosis-purified water throughout the resort was crystal clear, potable from all taps.

Turneffe Island Resort, BelizeThe next day started with a dive at the Elbow, the southernmost dive site in the atoll. I captured wide-angle shots of huge deepwater sea fans sifting the current at prominent locations. I was happy to see staghorn coral, a species decimated by disease in the 90s, and I was jazzed when Marcel pointed out a white-spotted toadfish, found only in Belize. On our last dive that day, I watched four eagle rays pass at the edge of open blue water. Wideangle lens in place, I amused myself trying to arrange dramatic lighting on a refrigerator-sized barrel sponge, sea fans against the sun, and orange branching vase sponges with divers in the background. Another free-swimming moray eel made its way across the reef.

Weather in mid-April was problematic. Winds were usually 10-25 knots, which kept the no-see-ums and horseflies off, but stirred things up enough to occasionally feel surgy down to 40 feet or so. Clouds and wind, plus heavy rainstorms some nights, held visibility to between 50 and 75 feet. Water and air temps hovered around 80 degrees(77 at the Great Blue Hole).

Despite choppy conditions, my spouse returned from her afternoon snorkeling trip grinning ear to ear. While sipping sundowners on a beach swept bug-free by the wind, she told me that she had seen as many small reef fish as I'd seen on the deeper reefs, including clouds of blue tang and grunts. Carlos had guided her group to the edge of mangroves, where she watched a five-foot-long crocodile he had been feeding since it was a baby.

On a few calmer nights, we enjoyed sundowners on our cabin's screenedin porch. The cabin's pale yellow exterior had a cheerful Caribbean feel. Inside, its mahogany flooring and paneling almost glowed, highlighting the room's spotless cleanliness. It was air-conditioned and contained an overhead fan, plenty of 115-volt outlets and a mini-refrigerator. A small table served as my camera station. A door off the vanity led to a separate bathroom/indoor shower. A back door opened onto a large private outdoor shower, which featured a long drying rack. Each morning, the songs of birds overhead in the palm trees introduced the day, as if Walt Disney had designed the place.

Turneffe Island Resort, BelizeIt's amazing to think that the resort was ravaged when Hurricane Richard struck in 2010. Now its beaches and grounds are tended by staff that left not a fallen leaf or burntout bulb in sight. Carved wooden animals made my minute-long walk between the cabin and the air-conditioned main lodge a pleasant stroll. The outdoor pool was clean; even the "beach toys" were in good shape. I'd often see kayakers paddling to a nearby atoll, or a couple whizzing by on the Hobie Cat.

Before I could fall into a repetitive rhythm, we voyaged to the Great Blue Hole on my third day. Even with choppy seas, we made the 26-mile journey in relative comfort by 9:30 a.m. in one of the resort's two 48-foot cruisers. As we arrived, other dive boats, many from Ambergris Caye, were putting divers into the water, adding a commercial feel to the experience. I looked at this as an exercise in buoyancy control and discipline more than a typical dive, so after photographing a stalactite at 135 feet (where it was once dry land), I didn't mind boarding with more than 1000 psi after a dark, rather featureless dive that lasted 37 minutes. For the unobservant, the Blue Hole is worth little more than bragging rights, but it is a unique experience in a unusual geological feature.

Then, on to Half Moon Caye Wall, where I saw my first sharks of the trip, black tips patrolling in the distance. Afterwards, we docked on nearby Half Moon Caye. Resort staff spread linen on picnic tables, where we feasted on fried chicken, tuna salad, homemade bread, pasta salad and fruit. I hiked a nature trail leading to a rookery of red-footed boobies, then departed for dive number three at Long Caye Wall. I spotted another black tip, and tarpon passed by like a string of slow silver torpedoes close enough to touch. Back on board, my snorkeling spouse told me about all the sharks she had seen, including a nurse shark, a Caribbean reef shark and a hammerhead.

Family-style dinner that night was at 7 p.m. as usual, following happy hour at the outdoor tiki bar (beer and wine are $4 to $5 a glass; liquor starts at $8 a shot and cocktails are $12!). Dishes were brought to the three large tables by the kitchen staff. The guests, about 20 in all, were a mix of outgoing Canadians, French and Americans, mostly professionals, and some children. Conversations were friendly, creating a cordial and relaxed atmosphere. That Turneffe Island Resort is a fishing (mainly catch and release) as well as a dive resort made for contrasting perspectives. The pleasant thirty-something management team consisted of Belgian Alain Allemeersch and his Israeliborn wife Maya Gilgal, who ate with the guests. How they met (at a dive resort) and overcame their families' barriers (she's Jewish, he's Catholic) was interesting.

Breakfast was served at 7:30 a.m. I helped myself to juices such as pineapple and freshly-squeezed orange juice, papaya, cantaloupe, melon, watermelon and pineapple, and cold cereals. Staff brought eggs made to order and/or a daily special such as banana pancakes, sour cream coffee cake, cinnamon pecan waffles or French toast. Lunches were mini-dinners, like pork and plantain fajitas, grilled chicken Caesar salad, fish and chips, or pizza. I could help myself to coffee, tea, lemonade and snacks throughout the afternoon. Dinners featured entrees such as red snapper, coco soup and ginger carrot bisque, followed by a grilled pork tenderloin smothered in Jack Daniels apple sauce and roasted garlic mashed potatoes. The tomato mozzarella pie on the night of my Blue Hole trip was my favorite. Desserts I wanted more of included a coconut caramel pecan pie, tangy strawberry margarita pie and a rich carrot cake.

On my fourth full dive day, we returned to the Elbow. Just as I was musing about declining fish densities throughout the Caribbean, I drifted into a huge school of horse-eye jacks, surrounded by big eyes and yellow tails. On the 11 a.m. dive, I switched to a 105 macro lens and captured portraits of yellow and bluehead wrasse, blue-striped grunt, four-eye butterflyfish, honeycomb cowfish, bicolor damselfish, doctorfish, porkfish, fairy basslet, butter hamlet, another hawksbill turtle and a spotted moray or two. At dive's end, we handed a couple of anchors we'd rescued to a group of local fisherman.

After lunch, I photographed polyps protruding from a pale yellow, smooth flower coral and a three-foot barracuda that was shadowing me. My macro lens couldn't do justice to another big staghorn I came across, so I captured delicate translucent polyps emerging from the branches. I enjoyed seeing a loggerhead and one of the cutest fish in the sea, a little bridled burrfish, its puppy-dog eyes filled with a galaxy of iridescent flecks. Marcel speared a large lionfish, attracting the barracuda. It ripped the lionfish off the spear, heading off with the entire thing.

Our Writer's Cabin at the ResortEven with my critical eye as an undercover Undercurrent reporter, making hundreds of dives at Undercurrent favorites over a number of years, I slowly came to view Turneffe Island Resort's on-shore diving facilities as among the best in the Caribbean. Compressors, tanks and rental gear storage areas were behind the scenes. The "dive shop" contained nothing for purchase (limited items were available in a T-shirt shop). Its exterior had the same look and feel as the cabins. Before or after dives, I could get water in a room decorated by a hand-painted mural featuring local marine life. A painted dive site chart hung outside. I suited up on a large patio shaded by overhead lattice, sitting on a varnished deck chair. An adjacent breezy drying room offered plenty of pegs for the BCDs and regs, with shelves for bags, fins and masks. After a dive, I'd rinse off in the freshwater show- Our Writer's Cabin at the Resort er next to the drying room, and churn my suits in a large container filled with a clean-smelling sanitizer. Suits were hung on a long bar running next to the drying room, using one of the plentiful specialized dive gear hangers, all just a few steps from the dock.

My only task was to make sure I carried my mask and fins to the boat before a dive. Brad and Marcel rinsed BCDs and regulators after every dive, and made sure everything was ready for each dive. Neither scolded for tardy arrivals; they'd knock at a cabin door instead. Neither would let me help with the chores. When I started to lift an empty tank at the end of the dive onto the dock to assist Marcel, he asked in a friendly way to let him do that, because, as he said, this was "your vacation."

On Thursday's morning dive, I stared at a hammerhead off in the blue. Marcel estimated its length at 14 feet. At the end of the dive, both the dive and snorkel groups experienced "wow" moments. Marcel and I saw a swirl of fish in the distance. Finning over, we entered a vortex of hundreds of permit. We eventually surfaced in a wide circle of small fishing boats. Brad said we just missed a real show -- a fisherman had hooked a permit, but then a shark tore into it, triggering a feeding frenzy involving nearly a dozen sizable sharks, all seen by the divers already on the boat. That adrenaline rush energized me enough to snorkel off the long main dock between dives. Brad warned me not to swim on the side bordering nearby mangroves; in the past, a small saltwater croc had snapped at the fins of snorkelers. But the bottom of the other side of the dock held attraction enough: It was carpeted with hundreds of upside-down and mangrove upside-down jellyfish. Some looked like little birthday cakes studded with wobbly blue candles. Moments into one of my second morning dives, I came across a humongous southern stingray halfburied in the sand, measuring some eight feet from nose to tail tip. Another hawksbill turtle sighting was followed by Marcel pointing out a dainty juvenile spotted drum. A pale branching anemone displayed a ghostly beauty.

I did a night dive after dinner. Marcel told us our lights would attract what he called blood worms. He was right. Thousands of small, fast-moving creatures swarmed around my underwater light. Switching to my red beam cut the swirling mass tenfold. The red light made the eyes of the red night shrimp I photographed shine like beacons. The star of the show was another white-spotted toadfish. The bewhiskered, big-lipped rarity hunched across the sandy bottom in fits and starts.

The dives on my last day were morning dives. The first included another hammerhead. I shot a tiny solitary gorgonian hydroid attached to a gorgonian's spine. It resembled a delicate purple-shafted parasol with bare, curling ribs. After my last dive, I found Brad and Marcel flushing divers' BCDs internally, sluicing fresh water into the corrugated exhaust hose. I was the only one witnessing their professionalism -- it wasn't for show.

Looking back, I'd have to say that typical reef fish were not plentiful -- about on par with much of the Caribbean these days. Though the diversity was impressive, the reefs themselves were a bit ho-hum. Most were on the edge of a sloping ledge, between 45 and 75 feet (nitrox territory), without the topographic excitement of swim-throughs, deep walls, pinnacles or dramatic chutes. The cloudy weather and stirred-up water couldn't hide the drab browns and greens that prevailed.

I felt that I'd seen enough for the week, but couldn't let go of my spouse's snorkeling stories about clouds of blue tang and big schools of grunts. So after lunch, I joined her on a guided snorkel trip. The water was choppy and the sky overcast, but I saw more sergeant majors and grunts than on my dives, and this was the only place I saw a red-lip blenny and longspined urchins. Back on board, Carlos passed out towels and orange slices, as on my dives. Alain later said we could have dived any of these shallow areas; the divers only had to agree and ask. OK, live and learn.

Unpacking back home, I stared at the dive log I had received from Marcel. A large spreadsheet listed each dive, the depth, time, site, main things sighted and more, and a chart of the resort's dive sites. It will be a while before I can afford to return to Turneffe Island Resort. If I do, I'm pretty sure it will still be holding my rating as top concierge diving resort in the Caribbean.

-- S.P.

Turneffe Island Resort, BelizeDivers Compass: My seven-day trip set me back a hefty $3,760 for me and $2,975 for my snorkeling spouse, plus about $400 in tips, and $150 for my 15 nitrox dives; pricing included all meals, a private cabin, my dive package (Lighthouse Reef / Blue Hole trip included), taxes and all transfers . . . Additional dives are $99 each, but kayaks, a Hobie Kat and two guided snorkeling trips per day are included . . . Airfare for a onestop United Airlines flight from the Midwest through Houston was $1,020 plus extra baggage fees; the airfare already included a little over $30 in departure taxes per person . . . Resort staff picks you up at the airport and transport you to the dock, where the lodge boat carries you to Turneffe . . . Use the fixed price ranges provided by the resort, not the percent of your bill, as your tipping guide if you want to save even more . . . Caradonna Dive Adventures (www.caradonna.com) handled all the travel arrangements . . . Website - www.turnefferesort.com

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