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The Great Belize Blue Hole

DSC 3919 The Great Belize Blue HoleIMG 9524 The Great Belize Blue HoleThe Great Blue Hole is a stunning circular jewel surrounded by a ring of shallow luminous coral reef in the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. Measuring 1000 feet across and more than 400 feet deep, this ocean-floor limestone sinkhole is believed to be the world’s largest blue hole, made famous by Jacques Cousteau.  Atolls are characterized by a large, fairly shallow lagoon surrounded by coral reefs. Only four known true atolls exist in the Western Hemisphere, and of these, three reside in Belize: Turneffe, Lighthouse and Glovers.

This morning, the dive boat departed the docks at 6am, making excellent time with the pristine and calm waters which offered smooth sailing conditions for the non-skydivers and onboard crew. Because they arrived early at the Blue Hole site, our group of 16 skydivers were quick to gather ourselves in to groups, performing double gear checks on the water gear which we were entrusting our skydive and ocean landing to (most of the rigs were new to us). The nervous and delighted anticipation of the unknown was palpable and exciting. My first water jump (in to a shark-infested shark pit, no less). Woohooooooooo! I was a bit nervous about not having an altimeter to jump over water (where height perception is impossible to gage). However, our friend Whitney was the star of the day and let me borrow her watch altimeter, also offering up her waterproof housed GoPro for slaDE~ to attach to his velcro wrist mount (thus allowing for the luxury of pictures, in addition to our borrowed GoPro video camera, in air!). On top of that, I had my lucky charm ’Scuba Steve’ fastened securely alongside my right-hand mounted floatation device plus an additional left-arm kid’s water-wing for even and extra buoyancy once in the water :). I was ready, somewhat mentally prepared for any and all possibilities that might go wrong (I’ve been dreaming and thinking about this skydive for months!!!). Once we took off, there was no turning back. It’s really a mind game. And I found that once I was in the plane and we had taken off, all fear departed with the land below us and only excitement filled my being. As we approached Lighthouse Atoll, my heart started to beat quicker, stunned by the visual beauty of the landscape below us. With this being the most expensive skydive I’ve ever made, the possibility of remaining in the plane upon arrival at the Blue Hole was NOT an option (in my eyes anyway). There have been 4 other trips to the Blue Hole over the past 2 weeks, and of those groups, only 2 made it to full altitude. The others exited low at 3000 feet and in to windy choppy conditions. I was keeping my fingers, toes and legs crossed that the wind wouldn’t be too dramatic. I have no desire whatsoever to be dragged across the Blue Hole in to an awaiting coral reef!

GOPR0682 The Great Belize Blue HoleWell, we were in supreme luck. The clouds were scattered with giant fluffy cotton-ball clouds. And the winds up at 13,500 were light and variable. A good prediction of the ground winds. Yahoo! Happiness emanated from my every pore as Ginger, slaDE~ and myself climbed out of the plane, launching a simple two way exit for slaDE~ to capture on video and stills. I couldn’t help but gasp at the unearthly grandeur of the sight all around us. It was mesmerizing, captivating and completely made of what dreams can only envision. By far the most exquisite formidable skydive ever. Stunning and breathtaking with the vast array of a colour kaleidoscope below us. At 8000 feet I deployed my main parachute and spent the next 5 minutes in partial disbelief at the absurdity of it all. I kept thinking: ‘How could I possibly be experiencing this, with the wind on my face and a clear window to the world unencumbered by any sounds, structure or gravity (apart from of course the hanging harness which contained me lazily drifting towards the ocean under my wonderful Spectre 135 canopy). This is surreal. This is heavenly. This is perfection, and essence of beauty, complete.’ To tap in to this energy and scene in my mind will be my most precious gift in times of need. It was as close to nirvana as I’ve ever experienced. 5-6 minutes of airy bliss. And as the window of the Atoll grew bigger and closer, my excitement grew at the impending water landing. Because there was little to no wind, I was lazily circling the Blue Hole and after enjoying the tremendous view for as long as I possibly could, I successfully became the second last person to land at the Boogie in Belize (Rich pulled straight from the plane, opening at 13,500). It was truly a perfect landing, flaring at such a height that I softly dipped my toe in the water before gently touching down in to the abyss, right beside slaDE and his hugely smiling face. My water entrance felt graceful and soft as a wet cloud. What surprised me was the light buoyancy I felt with my packed reserve parachute acting as a floatation device in itself. No need to flutter kick or worry about having my head above water. The Blue Hole around us was calm and sheltered by the surrounding reef. I must admit, a pretty remarkable experience for my first (and potentially last) drop in to the ocean.

IMG 2951 The Great Belize Blue HoleWithin 10 minutes, the dinghy had collected us all from the water and returned us safely to the 48 foot dive boat. The jubilation from everyone on the skydive was utterly contagious to those who hadn’t jumped. It was still sinking in, what we had just accomplished, when Israel started briefing us on the upcoming scuba dive. He gave us a bit of history of the Blue Hole, and within minutes, we were geared up and scissor dropping in to the depths. No time to fully appreciate the whole experience before leaping in to another abyss. But dive we did, stopping briefly at 35 feet on a sandy ledge before descending alongside a striking looming vertical wall into an incredible cavern … a tranquil exotic void where very little marine life seemingly exists (no shark sightings) and awe-inspiring natural geological formations, such as giant stalactite and stalagmite columns, are located in what’s known as the ‘Gallery’ at the southern rim of the Blue Hole. These structures once formed in a dry cavern above sea level during glacial periods. What a pristine, exotic and stunningly dark dive. Worth diving once for the experience (although from the air, under canopy, the spectacular expanse of the complete Atoll is more breathtaking and scenic than the actual dive itself). It truly is the closest thing to cave-diving without being cave-certified. I can only imagine that one can totally get sucked in by the depths if not aware and particularly careful. Diving to 145 feet as we did is considered on the edge of recreational diving. Not for the faint of heart, to be sure! I have had difficulties with equalizing (the pressure in my ear drum gets intense and painful when I can’t regulate that pressure with depth) on all my dives here in Belize. And because the Blue Hole dive is so deep, I had to be extra cautious in making sure that I was constantly equalizing on the way down in the first 30-40 feet. After that initial 35 foot drop to the sandy bottom, the group swims to the edge of the volcano and rapidly drops down alongside the wall until reaching the maximum depths of the dive. If by chance I had been unable to equalize in the initial descent, I would have had to surface without the rest of the group and wait there. IMG 3016 The Great Belize Blue HoleUnaccompanied diving in the Blue Hole is NOT allowed. Maximum bottom time in the Blue Hole is eight minutes. A 5 minute safety stop was performed at 15 feet before surfacing and gathering once more on the boat ready for our next dive site, the hugely popular ‘Aquarium’. After rounding snorkelers and divers from the southern rim of the Blue Hole, we made the ½ hour trek. It was fascinating to watch the large Manta and Spotted-Eagle Rays fly by underneath our boat as we made haste to our next dive. Here, the water was slightly less calm, but just as superb in temperature and ease. Dropping down to 60 feet at times within the Aquarium, I was in awe at the total explosion of marine life that lined and circled the walls of coral throughout our dive. It truly was spectacular.

From there, we were ready for lunch and a chance to fully appreciate our mornings experiences. Destination: the protected island named Half Moon Caye. Half Moon Caye Natural Monument is a protected marine reserve (since 1981) within the 15 square miles of Lighthouse Atoll. 45 acres in size, the beautiful island teems with bird life and iguanas, and includes a nesting colony of rare Red-footed Boobies. A delicious leisurely picnic lunch was had by all on the idyllic palm-fringed beach. And after enjoying the peace and quiet of such a gorgeous setting, a few of us toured the paths leading to the bird sanctuary so as to view the nesting chicks with their famous red-footed protective mothers from the open shelter of an observation platform in the littoral forest. It was incredible to see so many types of birds circling and swooping overhead, flashing their ‘wares’, actively mating amongst the lively brood.

Our excursion home with the boat (chartered from Ramon’s through Hugh Parkey’s diving facility) took us 3 delirious hours. We were all pretty satisfied, radiating happiness and bliss at our perfect day. Some truly lovely conversations were had amidst our new friends as we lounged in the sun, basking in the warmth of a calm brilliant day.

If you are interested in diving the Blue Hole, here is some information which may help you:

“Blue Hole Natural Monument and the Lighthouse Reef Atoll are located 55 miles east of Belize City. Several PADI dive operators visit Half Moon Caye Natural Monument out of San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Hopkins, or Belize City. There are also charter services from many hops along the country, live-aboard dive ships, as well as island lodges that provide packages that get you there. Local live-aboard dive ships are now required to anchor in designated areas as their anchors have caused irreversible damage to the reef. Air charters are available if you want a good aerial view of the Blue Hole and Lighthouse Reef Atoll.”