As I float over this multi-colored world I am having trouble absorbing the vast variety of shapes, sizes, and hues of its denizens. A group of plate sized angelfish hover just below me, either unaware, or unconcerned, by my presence. A twenty-foot eel snakes his way through the coral just below them, unconcerned by either of us. I have snorkeled, and dived, many places, but have never been immersed in a natural aquarium the likes of this. Life is exploding all around me, bombarding my senses with its diversity. I purposefully stop thinking for a while, and just revel in it. My fish identification chart hangs from my belt, but I don't bother with it; all I care to know right now is that the creatures below me are blue, or orange, or round, or angular. Knowing their names at this moment can only lessen their impact on me.
A large sand shark is now slinking along the bottom, ever alert and watchful. As I follow him from above, I know I need to go down and swim the bottom. I suck air and dive, getting the rush I always do when I know my only air supply is what is in my lungs. The bottom seemed three feet below me from my float, but this pristine water is as deceptive as ever. I knife down about twelve feet until I am in the corals. The shark edges away, but only a few feet; I am neither food, nor a threat. There is a coral bridge a few feet ahead and I angle towards it. It's large, and I can see through it, so I know it's relatively safe. I swim through, slightly scrapping my stomach on it's underside, and shoot out the other end. A hoary old lobster is atop the coral head to my right. If I weren’t in the preserve part of the reef, it would be my option to grab him for lunch. The local people grab his cousins just off the coast of the Caye's only town, San Pedro, every day they are in season. I have been invited to many of these lunches, and have yet to turn one down.
I am so wrapped up in what I am doing and seeing I haven't paid attention to my lungs, which are starting to burn. I've been angling down, so I need to rise some twenty feet to fresh air. I know I've overstayed my visit, and I'll be gasping when I hit the surface. I haven't done any snorkel dives in a few years, and my lungs are out of shape. I begin to pull for the surface – not too fast, heavy exertion will only make it worse – as I am engulfed by a school of purple and yellow. I don't know what they are, but there must be a hundred of them. They rise up about me, making my ascent a fairyland adventure.
I hit the surface, rip off my snorkel, and gulp the sweet air deep and long. I hang there, forcing oxygen back into my body, wondering why I always have to overdo it. I chide myself for my stupidity, knowing I can go down as often as I like, but also knowing I will probably do it again.
Bernaldo's ranger boat bobs on the surface about forty feet to my port side. I like to get nautical whenever I am near the water, something I don't get to do near enough now that I live in the mountains. He waves his hat and yells out, "Jim, mon, are you drinkin' water?" The laugh behind his words tells me he knows how long I stayed down. Just another loco gringo. Chances are, he is not surprised by my obvious rapture over this place. Bernaldo is a ranger with the Marine Preserve, and he invited me out on patrol with him today. This area of reef we are in is an area of the preserve, which is off limits to users; so it is just Bernaldo and myself, and a lot of open sea. He wanted me to see a section of pristine reef, so I could compare it to the reef the snorkelers and divers use, and get a better understanding of the damage they do. He was right, I thought the recreational section of reef was incredible, but this section is a watery heaven. It makes my heart ache for the dead reefs I have seen in too many other countries.
Bernaldo snaps me out of my ruminations with, "Jim, snorkel a while. I am going to the reef point for water samples. Be back in an hour. Be careful, you're alone, mon, and you buy the rum when we get in." I tell him I will be careful; but not to worry anyway, my money is on the boat. He laughs, starts up the boat, and rockets forward, skimming the surface like a flat rock over water, in true Bernaldo fashion.
I reset my mask and snorkel and turn my attention below once again. I swim along lazily, watching the purple and yellow parade, which is only a few feet below me. I am surprised the school is still there. I don't have any jewelry or flashy accouterments on; that's the first thing you remove before going into these waters. You don't want to look tasty, or interesting, to sharks or barracudas. A huge manta ray is flying the water currents below. They usually like the deeper water. I wonder why he is……quick answer: the bottom drops off below me, suddenly, to eighty feet or more. Vertigo hits me like a wave as I watch the manta drop over the edge. I know I am floating above the abyss, but whenever I come across a drop-off, I feel like I am falling. I wait for it to pass and then move forward. Vertical coral branches reach out from the chasm wall like bony fingers stretching for the surface. Every color imaginable is poured across their surface. I am certain Neptune did some of his finest work honing this reef.
As I swim back over ten-foot deep bottom, I know I have had enough with lazing along; it's time for another dive. I start to breath deep, hoping I can stay down longer without the pain. I start to get ready: clear my mask, blow my snorkel, and watch the bottom. Shit! I catch motion and teeth, a lot of teeth, right beside me. I turn my head to look, gulping a quart of salt water in the process. My absorption in a dive made me miss the barracuda beside me, and I go into a momentary panic. His evil grin does not help, and I take another unwanted drink. I calm as we watch each other for a moment, then he moves off, leaving a foolish feeling snorkeler in his wake. A modification of an old axiom comes to my mind: their look is worse than their bite. Their look, close up, is, however, pretty bad.
I begin to do some dives with a school of parrotfish. I am proud of myself for remembering I am not one of them, only a visitor, and coming up as I need to. I feel I could stay here for days, as the colors and shapes swirl and writhe around me, but on my fourth ascent I see Bernaldo's boat bouncing back.
As I clamber aboard, I question Bernaldo, saying I thought he said he would be an hour. "Jim, I've been gone ninety minutes." Incredible, it seemed like ninety seconds to me.