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Belize Liveaboard Diving on the Sun Dancer II

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016

The bell rings and we gather around the dry-erase board on the middle deck of Sun Dancer II like an amped-up soccer team. Second Capt. Megan O’Meara has created an illustration of Belize’s iconic Blue Hole, our first dive of the day. Sipping just-brewed coffee, I expect a briefing filled with secret caves, lost treasures and mythical creatures hiding in the depths.

I’m still waiting for a spine-chilling anecdote when O’Meara summarizes: “It’s basically a big blue hole, but the topography is impressive, and great for photography.”

She’s right. The 400-foot submarine sinkhole in the heart of Lighthouse Reef Atoll drips with underwater structures, stalactites and stalagmites. Yet, by our fourth day at sea, we’ve become a little spoiled. Where are all the sharks? It also doesn’t help that my GoPro has stopped working.

Back on board, a busted O-ring confirms my fears.

“You never know what you’re going to get,” O’Meara says. “I’ll never forget the time I was diving with a pod of dolphins and almost missed the whole experience because I was fussing around with my camera settings. I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to enjoy what’s happening around you.”

A SHARKY START

Belize is located on the Caribbean side of Central America, bordered to the north by Mexico. It’s easily accessible from the United States, with daily fights into Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport in Ladyville, a short drive from Belize City. From there, the Radisson at Fort George dock provides the perfect spot for a rum runner before boarding the Dancer Fleet’s 20-passenger dive yacht Sun Dancer II for five-and-a-half days of nonstop diving.

Our first dive of the trip begins at Site Y on the southwest side of Lighthouse, where we explore a wall that begins with a smooth, sandy bottom. On descent, stealthy moving shadows along the reef’s edge materialize into two feisty blacktip reef sharks. Greeting us like playful Labs, they circle our group in innocent curiosity, until they decide they are more interested in our cameras than us. After a few lens bumps, they depart as quickly as they arrived.

“I was so busy looking at the wall that I almost missed the sharks, until one of them just about clipped me,” my partner and dive buddy, Jamie Connell, says once we’re back on board.

Big-animal encounter complete, we aren’t disappointed in the wall either. With viz at 100-plus feet, we can see the reef is in such good shape — with the exception of a few lionfish not yet picked of by the crew — that it’s obvious the only people who explore these parts are the finned kind.

“It’s clear the Belize government has taken a lot of effort and care in protecting the marine environment,” says fellow passenger Caffery Joseph.

Indeed the reef speaks for itself. On our next dive along Half Moon Caye Wall, we spot a curious green moray eel weaving through the crevices of the coral, a couple of angelfish darting about on a supersize sponge, and a pack of tarpon showcasing its version of an underwater square dance. Of course, no wall dive is complete without an eagle ray drive-by — we get one of those too.

THE AFTER-HOURS CLUB

Belize is the perfect place to fine-tune your night-diving skills, to see another side of these untamed waters.

At dinner, forgo the unlimited wine for a night dive afterward. That’s when the ninjas come out to play. Basket starfish unfurl tangled legs into open water;octopuses and green moray eels hunt; and sleeping parrotfish tuck themselves safely away in their made-to-fit bubblelike cocoons.

“I saw sharks, turtles, eels and lovely coral,” says Caffery’s wife, Rebecca, after one of our evening dives, at Lighthouse’s Long Caye Ridge. “But the smaller fish were my favorites because there were so many of them.”

While the active critters at night are the big draw for many divers, some discover that not having the visual distractions of the daytime reef makes diving easier.

“I found that I went through less air,” Jamie confides. “It was also easier to navigate, knowing that many of the cool things weren’t far from the anchor line. Right under the boat I spotted a seahorse and an octopus, and caught a green moray eel tearing into some unfortunate fish.”

Caffery also experienced some firsts on the post-sunset dive. “Rebecca and I found an electric stingray — that was a first find for me,” he says. “And we saw a red seahorse, a pair of scorpionfish — very hard to spot, but cool when you can find them — and a school of squid, all of which are pretty amazing to find out in the open,” Caffery adds.

THE LAST FLING

As every diver knows, your next dive promises the possibility of being your best. For us, that comes during our final dive at week’s end, at Sandy Slope, west of Northern Lagoon in Turneffe Islands Atoll. Turneffe is the largest of Belize’s three atolls and the closest to the mainland. Sandy Slope is a popular spot, and we soon see why. All our favorite creatures make an appearance: A curious grouper follows us; a swirl of blue tangs darts along the reef; an octopus tries to blend in with a coral head; and a loggerhead turtle nibbles on sponge, with his angelfish sidekicks coming in from the back for scraps.

We hit our safety stop under the boat, and a 10-minute finale strikes up, from a 100-plus orchestra of horse-eye jacks. If you haven’t had the honor of hovering in the middle of a school of these silvery gents, add it to your list — you’ll get some killer video too. Burning my borrowed camera battery dry, we head for the surface.

Then, as if O’Meara had cued the encore herself, we are welcomed by a pod of dolphins playing in the wake of a passing boat. I hastily try to squeeze a last bit of juice out of my battery, but the camera stubbornly goes dark.

I start for the boat to grab a backup when I remember O’Meara’s advice, and stop to enjoy the next 20 minutes of dolphin time — and come away with one memorable surface swim that will be tough to top.

5 Reasons to Choose Belize Sun Dancer II

01 VIP DIVING

When you swim up to the ladder, don’t be surprised if one of the divemasters jumps in the water to remove your fins for you — the Aggressor and Dancer Fleet crews are known for their attention to their guests. Once you’re back on board, you can take a warm shower and dry of with a heated towel.

02 NITROX, NITROX, NITROX

Multilevel profiles make nitrox your best bet for making the five dives a day you’re likely to log. It also helps that you’ve got instructors on hand, so you can make the ocean your classroom.

03 BANANA BREAD

Each meal is like your very own feast (hello, taco night!) but nothing beats getting out of the water to warm, just-baked banana bread. Surface from your night dive, and you’re treated to a steaming cup of spiked hot chocolate.

**04 SO LONG, SOCIAL MEDIA! **

Even the biggest social-media mogul will secretly enjoy being forced to log of. Your best read for the next few days will be the good old-fashioned kind — a book.

05 DIVE BUDDIES FOR LIFE
Divers usually just like one another. “You spend the entire trip with the other divers, allowing you to get to know everyone on a more personal level,” says Caffery Joseph.

NEED TO KNOW

WHEN TO GO Belize’s high season is November to May, making hotel rooms cheapest June through November. If you’re looking for the big guys, peak whale-shark-sighting season is April to May.

DIVE CONDITIONS Visibility is affected by daily tidal changes, although seasonality plays a part; the clearest seas are March through June. Water temperatures hover between 78 and 82°F, with warmer readings in summer. A 3 mm wetsuit is recommended.

OPERATOR Dancer Fleet (aggressor.com) operates the 138-foot steel-hulled Sun Dancer II, which carries up to 20 people in 10 staterooms, and departs from Belize City, Belize. Trips run from Saturday to Saturday. Shared public areas include the galley for dining, dive deck and two
sun decks.

PRICE TAG Prices start at $2,495 per person, double occupancy, nitrox not included, for seven-night cruises with five and a half days of diving.

Drive and Dive: Exploring Shipwrecks in the Florida Keys

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

OPERATION DEEP END

During my first year of diving — 17 years ago — my brother and I were gearing up for Key Largo’s USCG Duane, a 327-foot former Coast Guard cutter sitting at 120 feet. We planned to descend through a circle of 10-foot barracuda before hitting the navigation bridge at 70 feet. But the current at the surface was rough — so rough that our guide called the dive before we even had a chance to begin our descent. Canceling the dive turned out to be a smart move; this advanced dive had no place in our crisp new logbooks.

Nearly two decades later, and with an instructor’s worth of dives under my weight belt, I’m back. The current is just as I remember. One of 10 wrecks along the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Trail, the Duane almost guarantees a strong current because of its location just outside of the protection of the reef. The upside is that the visibility is almost always spot on. (Another bonus: Critters love current.)

“The current can make the Duane a more challenging dive, but it’s that flow of nutrients that makes the sea life on the ship so phenomenal,” says Kell Levendorf, lead instructor at Divers Direct/Ocean Divers/Emocean Sports.

At the surface, the current looks doable. Emocean Sports has its 45-foot Corinthian positioned near the bow of the wreck; from the mooring line I can see the Duane’s silhouette at 120 feet. From there, I head for the bow and into the direction of the current. I am not the only one with this plan: Nestled at the tip of the wreck is an 800-pound goliath grouper basking in the down-flow.

Penetration on the upright wreck is easy. An American flag waves from the top platform as if it’s in slow motion, with an underwater anthem of bubbles. Within minutes, the current has already pushed me farther from the bow. I’m short of breath and can sense the hesitation in my regulator as it threatens to self-purge from the rushing current. This is quite a workout. After an air check, I take one last look around and make the decision to work my way back to the mooring line.

Near the crow’s nest, silver clouds of baitfish work the flow with ease and barracuda lurk in the distance. I embrace the few minutes of bottom time I have left. Levendorf is right. The marine life is booming here. This wreck was well worth the wait.

DOUBLE FEATURE

Although I’m still reeling from the rush of the Duane, the next day’s dive is a double dip on the nearby USS Spiegel Grove. Because the wreck measures 510 feet in length, it can take six dives to circle it in its entirety. After the first dive, it’s understandable why many divers want another chance to explore the gorgeous giant. A double-dip dive is the local dive operators’ answer to packing in as much bottom time as possible by offering back-to-back dives on the wreck in one outing.

And there is a lot to see. Instead of the scheduled sinking that was planned for the Spiegel Grove in 2002, the wreck had other plans and sank several hours earlier on its own, and on its side. Back in 2005, Hurricane Dennis did divers a favor by placing the Spiegel Grove back on its keel.

Today, the helipad has fallen to the wayside, but the remaining architecture still stands strong with dynamic lines and walls of healthy corals. Making the wreck easily accessible for multiple boats, the structure itself has roughly six mooring balls and sits at 134 feet, with the highest point starting between 60 and 65 feet. Prior to sinking, several areas of the ship were opened for penetration, but some of the most breathtaking views are on the ship’s exterior, including a crane area that attracts a wealth of marine life and a coral-covered gun mount. And, as with many dives along Florida’s Shipwreck Trail, an American flag waves loyally in the current.

GRAND FINALE

Post-dive I’m bound for Key West and the next day’s dive on the newest member of the Shipwreck Trail, the USAF Vandenberg, located about 7 miles south of Key West in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Listed as the second-largest purpose-sunk wreck in the world, this is the last stop on my journey down U.S. Route 1.

Based on my predive briefing from CeCe Roycraft, co-owner of Dive Key West, it seems the underwater patriotism continues along dive sites throughout the Shipwreck Trail. “We wanted to respect the Vandenberg’s former life as an integral part of American history, so you’ll notice a flag positioned as one of the first things you see on the dive,” Roycraft says.

The 520-foot-long ship rests at 140 feet, with the key points starting at about 40 feet. The current is almost nonexistent, so we head for the crow’s nest, a 20-foot smokestack, bridges covered in thriving corals and a weather-balloon hangar. Dish antennae provide a complex weave of metal and the perfect hiding place for bashful grouper and barracuda. As we make our way to the line, the supersize American flag bids us goodbye.

“On a clear day, the light becomes red, white and blue because the threads are so thin,” says Joe Weatherby, president of Artificial Reefs International. “It creates a mood that gives it an almost theatrical look.”

And it’s with that theatrical look that my journey down the Shipwreck Trail comes to a poetic close.

From the Duane’s fast-paced current to the dignified aura of the Spiegel Grove and the sense of adventure on the Vandenberg, I’ve only touched down on three of the 10 wrecks that make up the Shipwreck Trail. I can only anticipate what each wreck will deliver, but this time I won’t wait 17 years to find out.


ITINERARY: FLORIDA KEYS

Day One When your trip starts in Key Largo, visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a 70-square-mile area of mangroves and reefs teeming with life. A stay at the Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort means easy access to local dive boats and the perks of a resort with an expansive pool area, two bars and a private sandy beach.

Day Two On your way to Key West, take in the kitschy style the Keys is known for at Robbie’s of Islamorada, where you can hand-feed tarpon, peruse local art and jewelry, or grab a quick cold one. Ignite your inner treasure hunter with a visit to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, where you can get up-close looks at Spanish coins and historic artifacts.

Day Three The best place to watch the sunset in Key West is at the Sunset Festival in Mallory Square. Entertainment includes local musicians, food carts and the sizzling sunset. Within walking distance of it all: the Marker Resort. On your way out of Key West, ditch the tourist traps with a lunch at Hogfish Bar and Grill for its famous hogfish sandwich.

NEED TO KNOW

When To Go Conditions in Florida are divable year-round, but the summer months offer calmer conditions, warmer water and lobster season from August to March; mini lobster season is near the last Wednesday and Thursday of July.

Dive Conditions Current can vary between sites, with water temps ranging from 69 to 88 degrees. Wetsuits (from 3 mm to 7 mm) are ideal throughout the year; drysuits are preferred for the winter months. Hurricane season is from August to October.

Operators Emocean Sports (emocean.com) and Ocean Divers (oceandivers.com) are located in Key Largo; Dive Key West (divekeywest.com) is located in Key West.

Price Tag Two-tank charters from $90.