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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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February 2023    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 49, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Turneffe Island Resort, Belize, C.A.

private island, plenty of reef sharks

from the February, 2023 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Turneffe Island Resort & boat dockWhen Hurricane Lisa scraped by Honduras and made landfall in Belize on Wednesday, November 2, I wondered if my Saturday morning flight would be a "go." I was to join 23 others for an Island Dreams trip, and the truth is, I was almost hoping it would be canceled. I imagined a rugged, cold, and wet 90-minute small boat ride out to the Turneffe atoll and the 14-acre Turneffe Island Resort, with diving so murky I'd be lucky to read my gauges. It didn't sound like fun.

But the resort was open, a Thursday email informed me, the planes were flying, and I had no excuses.

Upon arrival Saturday afternoon, two hours after leaving Houston, I donned my surgical mask (a requirement) in the Belize airport but noticed that a diver traveling with us had forgotten his. To my surprise, he spotted one lying on the airport floor, decided it was clean enough, and put it on. Ewww!

Thankfully, the helpful resort staff soon met us and took my mind off the gross transgression. After a bus ride to the marina, I boarded their comfortable but crowded Newton for a pleasant ride with clear skies and -- surprise -- flat seas.

The next day, for our first dive, we motored around for half an hour, searching for clear water until our divemaster realized it was hopeless. He finally picked a spot called Billy Bob, and we all jumped in. It was murky, disappointing at first, but once I decided to let go of my hope for gin-clear water and looked around in the 30-foot visibility -- which was better than I expected -- I saw sharks and barracuda and lobsters and neck crabs. And a shoal of dozens of fish, mostly French angels, more than I've ever seen at once, anywhere. Not bad for a first dive less than four days after Lisa blew through.

It was back to the lodge between dives and then off for a dive off the wall, where visibility was a little better. We were told to stay above 70 feet -- that was the usual restriction but not closely observed -- but below 70 feet, it was dark, silty, and prohibitive, so why go? Above 60 feet, I swam with reef and nurse sharks, eagle rays were close enough to see clearly in murky water, as were barracudas and black grouper, and jawfish worked in the sand. Not a bad first day, given the circumstances, and we were only a couple of minutes from the resort! I was encouraged.

When I arrived Saturday, the staff was still cleaning up from the hurricane. It's an impressive palm-filled property dotted with red roofs, cottages, and hammocks. I was shown to my deluxe room in a duplex, with a vaulted ceiling and tropical wood interior (they have eight deluxe rooms, four larger superior rooms, and ten villas of ascending size, amenities like private pools, and priced, about $2500-$4000/ person, diving and meals included). I had a kingsized bed, nightstands, a small table and chairs, a mini-fridge, a closet, a roomy bathroom, and a screened outdoor porch. The small safe wasn't attached to anything, so I'm not sure what good it was. I never used the bathroom shower, preferring to wash off in the marvelous screened outdoor shower. With my room just a few steps from the dive center and dock, I would walk there barefoot on my tender feet, and, after the day's dive, return in my wetsuit to pop into my outdoor shower to give myself and my wetsuit a thorough rinse. I returned it to the dive shop to hang and dry (the single rinse tub for 24 divers was not nearly enough, nor was the single shower). The divemasters had already rinsed and stowed my other gear.

Except for riding a Newton to the Blue Hole, we 24 dived from three skiffs, each with a captain and a divemaster. On the first day, the staff loaded my gear on my skiff; I hooked it up, and after that, the crew had everything ready to go. A smiling crew member would check my Nitrox while I watched. Other than Blue Hole day, the dives were a few minutes' ride, which was good because the sun was bright and the skiffs were uncovered. We had three dives daily, and while there was no shore diving, I did snorkel in the shallows one afternoon, which was moderately interesting, with juvenile reef fish, crevices with critters, okay for passing the time. Later afternoons, some divers when to the spa for massages -- most raved about them -- and Happy Hour started at 6 p.m. each day, with snacks.

Belize MapAs dive resorts go, Turneffe Island Resort is high-end, the only property on its 14-acre island, Little Caye Bokel, and with a staff of 65, I was told. The large dining area is next door to the bar/lounge area, with a pool outside. The meals measured up to the resort's quality. Breakfast always had a buffet of fruit, cereal, and yogurt, and a friendly staff, well-tuned to dietary issues, served all the meals. The breakfast menu offered a variety of egg dishes supplemented with meats, pancakes, or French toast. Lunch and dinner were consistently excellent, with fish, chicken, and lobster on the menu (Belizean specialties one night), salads and fresh vegetables, and no one going hungry. Toward the end of each meal, a staff member would ask if anyone cared for a second helping. Desserts were to die for, with lots of chocolate involved. Between dives, one could find snacks like fresh cookies in the dive shop or restaurant. We mostly ate indoors at two long tables for our group, but the tables could be separated into smaller groupings.

And a table was separated for one woman from our group who dined alone. You see, she became ill soon after we arrived but refused to take a COVID test, so she ate at an isolated table. She did go diving on my skiff a few times, which was okay for all of us in the open air. However, she remained somewhat ill, and upon departure, wore a mask back to Belize City. I suspect that kind of separation may become a new normal in dive travel; after all, COVID has taught us that drinking and dining with strangers with runny noses, coughs, and fevers put us all at risk for ruined vacations.

Turneffe Island Resort RatingTurneffe Island Resort is not just for divers but for fishermen as well, who come for bonefish, permit, and tarpon. We divers who just watch fish tend not to mingle much with those who catch them. We're different folks, as the barman told me. We don't close the bar and go to bed early; those who come to fish tend to toss down a few more than those who just watch fish. Of course, that might not have been the case, say, in the nineties, when a diver with a hangover would be greeted with a laugh, not a finger-wagging. We've learned better.

After the first day, my divemaster, Marcel (a Belizean who's been at this resort for many years) started spearing lionfish. As soon as the spear hit the fish, sharks appeared. Marcel would drop the flopping fish, which the sharks quickly devoured unless a snapper or grouper got there first. One mortally wounded lionfish dashed into the coral with a shark right behind. The shark rooted him out. I find it sad to see any fish speared, but lionfish don't belong in the Caribbean. In the 40 years since being released, they have decimated the small fish and invertebrate population, and divemasters play a critical role in controlling their population on their local reefs. And because they are offered to sharks, divers see more sharks than ever.

rooms with views sitting atop deluxe roomsThe sad part about Belize, and most Caribbean islands, is that much of the hard coral is dead, and though it's been in decline for many years, spiny coral disease is taking its toll. I did spot a few patches of live coral with spots of color, but there are plenty of healthy soft corals and lots of healthy barrel sponges, some three feet or more across. On many dives, I saw green morays cruising around, saw lots of groupers, including Nassau groupers, and a few cleaning stations.

What's Belize diving without a trip to the Blue Hole? Two skiffs took divers well below 100 feet to see the stalactites and pillars while the other dived the shallow reefs nearby. Then we were off to Half Moon Cay, one of my favorite Caribbean dives, with those familiar reef sharks, rough tail rays, green moray, scorpion fish, blue parrot fish, and garden eels on the sandy bottom. After a nice picnic lunch on the Caye, I took a short walk and climbed up to a platform to see red-footed boobies nesting in the trees. Our third dive at Long Caye Wall, with very interesting swim-throughs, is one of the better Caribbean dives -- two sharks, three eagle rays, and a turtle -- ended in a sandy area with many garden eels, several sting rays, and a green moray on the hunt. Throughout the week, most of my dives lasted an hour in the comfortable 82-degree water. Though there was little current, we tootled along until it was time to surface, and the skiff driver was there to pick us up.

Luxurious double roomIt was not necessary to stick with Marcel during the dives, but I did because he went nice and slow and was great at pointing out critters that I'm sure I would have missed otherwise. So, at Three Amigos, he pointed out the endemic spotted toadfish and an impressive channel-clinging crab (also called a spider crab). Schooling fish such as jacks and snappers were everywhere. As the week went on, the upper levels of the sea slowly started to clear of silt, but it got worse at depth. At North Cut Ridge, I could see what I call a "siltocline," similar to a halocline but involving a silt layer instead of changing levels of salinity.

One morning my buddy and I went to get our fins, and his were missing, but nearby was another set of fins. We hurried outside in time to spot someone on another skiff waving my buddy's fins. He had grabbed the wrong pair. Once they exchanged fins, we headed to Secret Spot, backrolled, and I was delighted to see visibility had improved even more, so we divers could spread out more while keeping an eye on the divemaster. An endemic spotted toadfish was the highlight, though I spotted three reef sharks, a large hawksbill turtle, and a nervous little juvenile spotted drum flitting about. After my five-minute safety stop (I try to do extra time), the boat pulled up, and the crew lifted my BCD with weights and then my fins. I climbed the wide ladder and was greeted with orange quarters.

Turneffe Island Resort is a relaxed place with a friendly and attentive staff. The first half of November is usually a good time to travel, with fewer crowds and slightly cooler temperatures. One cautionary note is to consider the no-see-ums, which began to return toward the week's end. One night late, I ventured outside to view an eclipse of the full moon without repellant and didn't stay long. It's crucial to wear repellant if outside dining in the evening, especially the Friday night barbecue followed by hermit crab races. I was a reluctant participant, but after finding a suitable contender, I had way more fun than I expected.

Before we departed, the divemaster passed out a printout of the dive locations and what was seen specific to each skiff. During the first part of the week, I had decided not to return and dive here again. But, looking over the printout and remembering my dives, thinking about how the visibility had gradually returned, and reflecting on the quality of the resort, I signed up for a return trip. The sharks, groupers, and eagle rays swayed me, not to mention the fine resort and staff.

- J.R.S.

PS: The rules for tipping, post-COVID, seem a little tricky, but groups make it easier since you can talk to one another to see what's appropriate. Here, the dive staff is tipped separately from the other staff, and the recommended tipping rates seemed inflated. To make it easy, I gave cash to Tina, our efficient Island Dreams tour leader, who parceled it out. How much you tip is up to you. My editor, Ben Davison, says Undercurrent will take a look at post-COVID tipping soon.

Our undercover diver's bio: Having been certified since the early '70s, I've logged nearly 5,000 dives. While I hate the stress of travel, I buck up and love diving around the world. My best dives were in the '90s at Sipadan, when you were still allowed on the island, with showers in the jungle and sinks hanging on trees. I plan on diving until my last breath, even if I have to crawl into the water.

Divers CompassDivers Compass: My deluxe shared room cost $2695, three dives a day (except two the first day, unless you paid $100 for number three), and all meals. Tips and alcohol were extra . . . . Our package included one night dive, which didn't happen because it was dark and silty . . . . They list 25 different sites for boat snorkeling . . . . Paddle boards and kayaks are free for the taking . . . . A nice touch was the optional 6 a.m. coffee service at our door . . . . The gym advertised online was not operating, nor were the touted yoga sessions . . . . WiFi throughout the resort, at times a little spotty, perhaps due to the hurricane's aftermath . . . . Beer is about $7, mixed drinks $12 or so.

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