Belize - June 2012
A grey anglefish became my dive buddy on this dive and interacted with me (well, actually with my strobe) for about 15 minutes. I think it was fastinated by its reflection in the strobe lens.
As with all international dive travel adventures, this one started many months before departure. I was chatting with a good friend about the frustrations and pressures associated with the professional high-tech work life when he stated “You know, it is time us guys took some time off to go diving somewhere cool”. As it had been two years since my last Port Hardy excursion, the idea resonated with me. I had been facing some serious and nagging health issues over the last year that were undoubtedly caused by work-related stress so I figured a week away from the Internet and cell phones would do me nothing but good. The irony is my friend who started me on this quest couldn’t make the trip. Thank for the idea Matt - the trip was great!
It didn’t take me long to come up with a proposed diving destination. I was looking for a world-class diving destination relatively close to Seattle (I did not want to travel 18-36 hours) that represented good value. After looking at many destinations, Belize became my obvious choice. Belize boasts the second largest reef system in the world (most of which is a marine sanctuary) and we could get there in 8 hours from Seattle. But what was most surprising was I could book a 7 day package aboard the Dancer Fleet’s Sun Dancer II for about $2000. The Belize Aggressor III, which runs the exact same itinerary, cost about $800 more. Similar luxury liveaboards at other destinations ranges from $2600 to $5000, so the Sun Dancer II appeared to be a tremendous value. There had to be a hitch.
I called the booking companies for both the Dancer Fleet and the Aggressor Fleet to inquire about the boats and itineraries. I was surprised when the same person answered the phone for both fleets. I quickly learned the Dancer Fleet essentially merged with Aggressor. The staff was helpful and assured me that both boats were very good - although the Aggressor boat had a hot tub on board. For $800, I could do without the hot tub - especially in the tropics.
My additional research on the Dancer Fleet’s Belize operation revealed a very sad and solemn potential explanation for the price discrepancy. In 2001, the Dancer Fleet vessel Wave Dancer was operating in Belize when it was unexpectedly caught in hurricane Iris. The boat and all 28 people on board were lost. One report I read stated the vessel was not equipped with the proper communication equipment to track weather changes. Knowing this, I assumed the new boat working this area was probably the safest vessel in the fleet. I had no worries booking on the Sun Dancer II and appreciated the discount.
Getting There: Compared to many places, getting to Belize was easy. Two flights - 8 hours. A Dancer Fleet representative picked us up at the airport and looked after us from that point on. Transport from the airport to the boat and back to the airport was all covered. The Sun Dancer II’s moorage is a quick 30 minute ride from the airport and is situated on a secured pier aside - you guessed it - the Belize Aggressor III.
The Boat: The boat is spacious and generally in good condition. It is not as pristine as the Nautilus Explorer - but I am not sure any other luxury dive boat is. My guess is this boat is worked harder as charters are back-to-back starting and ending on Saturdays. The Sun Dancer II is a 138’ steel hulled boat. Her hull was constructed decades ago, but the vessel has undergone a complete retrofit including a reconstructed superstructure which has transformed her into a modern luxury dive vessel. She is powered by two big GM diesels generating 800hp a piece that push her along effectively at about 10 knots. She is equipped with dual generators and dual air compressors and has a Nitrox membrane system onboard. Her lower deck is comprised of a spacious diving deck and 10 cabins. The middle deck situates the dining room and outdoor seating area. The top deck is wide open with hammocks and plenty of area for sun worshippers.
The cabins were more than adequate. Each cabin was nicely appointed had its own bathroom, shower, air conditioning, TV for viewing movies, and large viewing window. The only knock on the cabins is that the bathroom had a bit of a foul smell all the time (which I have noted on other dive boats as well), and the air conditioning was either on or off. When left on at night, I would actually get chills in the early morning hours.
The dive deck was very well laid out. There was ample room even with 19 divers on
The Crew: This was my sixth liveaboard experience. Although the crew on the Nautilus is hard to beat, the Sun Dancer II crew is right up there. They did a very good job promoting a relaxed environment and were there anytime you needed them - and even when you didn’t. They pride themselves on their hospitality and friendliness, and it shows in everything they do. They kept the trip fun and relaxing - while working their butts off. I was very impressed.
All of the crew were extremely helpful. Every time I ascended to the boat after a dive, someone was there to grab my camera and fins - and then dunked the camera in the rinse tank before setting it carefully on the camera table. Every time I rinsed off on the back deck after a dive, a crew member was there with a warm soft towel. And there was even the occasional shoulder rub after some of the dives - simply heaven! The crew would even remove your fins at the ladder - which I don’t particularly like, but the crew seemed compelled. After each day’s night dive, the crew hosed off the dive gear with fresh water. Unnecessary in my book, but no detail was left unattended. Top marks for the crew - all were simply excellent. Megan and Karim were outstanding and two of the best crew I have had the privilege of sailing with.
The crew stressed and demonstrated safety at all times - they ran a man overboard drill one day complete with oxygen delivery to the “rescuee”. Marine radios were present at various stations throughout the boat, and the captain made several obvious efforts to update all of us regarding weather conditions during the trip.
The Food: Again, top marks. The food was excellent in variety and extremely delicious. Jerry, our chef, and his staff were incredible in food preparation and service. My favorite was the incredible BBQ pork spare ribs. Jerry also magically crafted some of the best soups I have tasted. Desserts were simply scrumptious. Fresh fruit, nuts, and cookies were always available. Soft drinks, water, lemonade, ice tea, and beer were provided at no charge. No one went hungry for even a moment.
The Reef: Belize lies just west of the second largest reef systems in the world. Only the Great Barrier Reef is more expansive. Furthest to the east is Lighthouse Reef, which is where we did most of our diving. This area consists of extensive shallow reefs that drop from 20 feet to deep depths (thousands of feet), although the reef structure dissipates with depth. We dove around two small islands at Lighthouse Reef - Long Caye and Half Moon Caye. Between Belize City and Lighthouse Reef are the Turneffe Islands. Reefs surround the islands provide numerous dive sites. Our diving in this area was focused on the southwest side of Turneffe. Every site had established mooring buoys to protect the reefs.
The Diving Conditions: Water visibility varied - ranging between 60 and 100 feet. We actually had better visibility more inland at the Turneffe sites as opposed to the Lighthouse Reef sites. The rainy season had started a bit early this year and we ended up with some zooplankton that diminished water quality for the first part of our trip. Water temps were a very comfortable 81-83 degrees. The wind typically lays down in the morning in this area, then picks up in the afternoon. However, we had a strong morning wind on several days that limited some of our dive site selection as it tends to muck up the underwater visibility at some sites. In fact, after a group discussion we elected not to dive the Blue Hole as reports were underwater visibility was horrid in the hole.
We spent 4 days diving Lighthouse Reef mostly along Long Caye, although we did get a couple of fantastic dives at Half Moon Caye which is a bit further to the east. The last two days we focused on Turneffe Islands which are on the way back to Belize City. I usually expect a substantial fall off in the dive quality once we “start heading home”, especially on the last dive day. However, almost all of the dives the last two days were delightful and interesting. We only encountered what I would consider a significant current on one dive during the entire trip.
All our dives were done right from the Sundancer II. We simply geared up and jumped off the stern of the vessel. Divers surfaced a distance away from the Sundancer II on two occasions, and the skiff was quickly deployed to pick them up.
There were 5 scheduled dives a day, including one night dive. I did every scheduled dive and tallied up 27 in total with +32 hours of dive time. Dive masters were in the water on every dive, but did not lead the dive unless you wanted to follow them. Solo diving was discouraged, but the crew was certainly not militant about it. Jon and I actually managed to stay together on the first 7 or 8 dives - a new record for us. After that, it was “see ya back at the ladder!”
The boat supplied aluminum 80 tanks, although Jon opted to upgrade to a low pressure steel 100 and a 19 cu ft pony tank (being solo divers, we always dive redundant air) which the Sundancer II provided. Almost any basic scuba gear and some camera gear was available for rent. Rebreathers were not allowed.
The Marine Life: I tried to go into this trip with no expectations, but it was still not what I expected. I booked the early June trip during the full moon as it represents the best time to possibly see a whale shark. However, I knew this was a long shot at best. I did expect to see plenty of reef sharks, some pristine reefs, and rays. This trip certainly did not deliver the sharks (I am a shark junkie), but there was some good ray encounters and the reefs were magnificent.
What not to expect:
Whale sharks. I am convinced I need to go somewhere that specializes in whale sharks if I want to experiences one of these mythical beasts (assuming they actually do exist). That will be expensive.
Sharks: I was very disappointed with the shark populations. We had some brief fly-bys by Caribbean reef sharks. I had much better shark activity diving Nassau years ago. Surprisingly, we did not see one white tip reef shark on the robust reefs. None. I counted a total of five sharks during the entire trip - only one that came within 5 feet of me. The other four were fairly distant
Diverse explosive color: The reefs here are pristine, but they are not the kaleidoscope of color like you find in Fiji or Palau. Colors are mainly browns, muted pinks, some purples, yellows, and reds - although some of sponges have an iridescent blue tinge. Nonetheless, the reefs are magnificent and pristine. The fish add the colorful.
Huge aggregations of schooling fish: Some of the divers aboard our charter complained about the lack of fish. They missed the huge schools of jacks, snappers, and other fish common in some other parts of the world. However, I was delighted by the fish and other reef
Tarpon. Tarpon look like a huge herring on steroids. They are a seriously powerful looking fish. We had three or four tarpon hang out with us at most of the dive sites at Lighthouse Reef. Theses silver-plated giants tend to rest during the day and hang out above the reef mid-water, then hunt at night. During night dives, they would follow us around and use our lights to spot reef fish. The Tarpon range from 3-4 feet in length. Tarpon are very fun to dive with!
Sea Turtles. Most of our encounters were with the smaller hawksbill turtles, however I did get to see a loggerhead and green turtle during the trip as well. I had eight encounters with turtles overall. In most situations the turtles tended to be a bit shy. As this was my first experience with hawksbill turtles, I was shocked by how fast the little reptiles can accelerate. They certainly have an “extra gear”. I NEVER get tired of diving with turtles - truly one of nature’s magical creatures.
Spotted Eagle Rays. When mantas are not around, eagle rays are the next best thing. These rays tended to be somewhat shy and keep their distance - usually 20 feet or more. One actually swam two circles with me before cruising off into the blue. I watched one poor eagle ray being harassed by two sharksuckers (similar to remoras) looking for a free ride, but the eagle ray appeared to be holding its own.
Great Barracuda. The great barracuda in this area were generally small (2-3 feet in length). They are very curious and will approach very close to a quiet and relaxed diver. I had quite a few memorable encounters with great barracuda - they are a very impressive looking fish up close. On a dusk dive, I found a barracuda laying in the sand. It had changed color to match the sand. When it realized I had been watching it, it sprung up and shook its body and instantly changed to silver.
Incredible Sponge and Seafan formations. I was BLOWN away by the sponges and sea fans. Incredibly towering barrel and orange tube sponges were very common. Smaller bowl and several varieties of vase sponges also added character to the reef. Some of the sponges towered over 5’. Gorgeous seafans were commonplace and often linted the top of the reef. Sponges and seafans are easy to take for granted, but they add so much character to the reef. From my first to last dive, I was in awe of the countless and diverse robust sponge formations.
Lionfish - and LOTS of them. I have never seen so many lionfish in an area. A lionfish is often a rare find at many other places I have been to. I saw over 50 on this trip. They often cling to the underside of ledges or caves during the day. During low light and night hours, they were out on the hunt. With no natural enemies, lionfish exhibit beauty and arrogance.
Morays - specifically, green and spotted morays. I caught about 6 morays out swimming - which I never get tired of watching. The green morays can get to about 5 feet in length and have quite a bit of girth, while the more slender spotted morays were more in the order of 3 feet in length.
Caribbean octopus and squid. These characters made several night dives for me very memorable. The squid can be quite animated with the bright dive lights - flashing colors, displaying various tentacle configurations and inking on occasion. I found one Caribbean octopus on a night dive which was totally indifferent to my presence. Like our northwest species, these smaller cousins are masters of shape, texture, and color change, but tend to favor brown and a brilliant bright blue color. I spend about 20 minutes watching this octopus hunt at night as it poked in crevices and shrouded small coral formations in search of prey.
Reef fish. As mentioned above, massive schools of reef fish just aren’t common - although there was a school of 50 or so chubs that seemed to always be hanging out under the Sundancer II when we were at Lighthouse Reef. I had great fun taking in the variety of fish inhabiting the reef. Some of my favorites were adult and juvenile drums, a rather bold grey angel that interacted with me for 10 minutes, French angels (including a pair of striking sub-adults), yellowheaded jawfish (in the sand), indigo hamlets, queen angels, massive Nassau groupers, several species of hogfish, and even an Atlantic spadefish - there are just too many to name.
Southern Stingrays. Several of the sites offered expansive sandy stretches. I found southern stingrays at most of these sites, although none really wanted to be approached by a bubble-blowing diver. However, on our dives at Sandy Slope off Turneffe we found juvenile southern stingrays in abundance. I found these rays highly approachable if they were hunting.
Favorite Sites: My favorite sites were Half Moon Caye (Lighthouse Reef) and Sandy Slope (Turneffe Islands). Half Moon Caye offered a nice wall that looked out into the blue, a decent reef pocked with channels and caves to explore, and a sandy flat. It was like three dives in one, and I saw everything from stingrays to turtles to barracuda to large groupers. In two of the caves I found schools of thousands of tiny silversides hiding out. We did two dives here, but I could have spent two days at this site. It is an amazingly beautiful site!
Sandy Slope is a large sand channel with reefs on either side. I found the juvenile rays at this site, along with jawfish and quite a few morays. This is the site the spotted eagle ray and sharksuckers were at odds with one another. I also found a pair of young adult French anglefish at this site, and followed them around for 10 minutes as they worked the reef - and get chased off a couple times by other fish. The reefs and reef fish at this site are simply beautiful.
Overall this trip was WELL worth it. It is some of the most relaxing diving I have ever done. Although many of the “big pelagics” were missing, I found all the dives entertaining and enjoyable. I’d certainly be opening to booking another passage aboard the Sundancer II if my daughter takes to diving once she is a bit further on in her teens. In fact, I think my wife would even like this liveaboard even though she hates being stuck on a boat. Wonderful diving, excellent service, and my health even improved during the week. Thank you Sundancer II!
The Sundance II at her berth in Belize City. Fortunately, the water clarity at the dive sites was MUCh better than the chocolate milk consistency of the water in port.
The rear dive deck of the Sundance II - very well laid out with lots of room and the right amenities.
board. The dive deck situated a battery charging station, camera station, camera rinse tanks, gear rinse tanks, and mask defogging bucket. The rear of the dive deck harbored two hot fresh water showers that were heavily utilized and much appreciated after every dive. One unique feature of this boat is that it has a retractable “safety stop” bar that spans the width of the stern 15’ below the surface. The Sundancer II also has dual conventional dive ladders, although I much prefer the T shaped ladders for exiting the water.
Hawksbill sea turtle
Antler coral inhabited by blue chromis
inhabitants. Some are small, some are big - and there were some sizable schools of jack, chums, and surgeon fish. But no massive schools you could swim into an really "lose' yourself.
What to Expect:
Pristine reefs - especially out at Lighthouse Reef. The Belizean government appears to have done a good job protecting a national and worldly treasure. The reefs exhibited very low stress and pressure - very nice to see. It’s too bad the countries around the Red Sea have not learned this lesson.
Chubs silhouetted against sea fans
Hawksbill sea turtle
Hawksbill sea turtle
Spotted eagle ray
Spotted eagle ray with sharksucker in pusuit
Caribbean reef octopus
Caribbean reef octopus
Caribbean reef squid
Schooling blue surgeonfish
Juvenile southern stingray
Jacks chasing silversides
Silversides schooling in a cave
Juvenile French anglefish
Trumpetfish - or is it soft coral?
Juvenile queen anglefish
Seafan and vase sponge
Orange tube sponge
Orange tube sponge and cleaner gobies
Orange tube sponge
Orange tube sponge
Grey chubs under the Sun Dancer II
Juvenile southern stingray
Nassau grouper at a cleaning station