Underwater Photography in Belize
and the Belize Coral Reef
For my wife’s birthday, 15 of us planned a surprise trip to Belize for a week of snorkeling along the Belize barrier reef, the second longest barrier reef in the world, next to Australia’s Great Barrier reef. As we live in Vermont, most of our vacations involve skiing or going to colder northern climates. As Gerry had never been to the Caribbean, I felt that a snorkeling trip with some of our dearest friends would truly be memorable. To this end, I planned a trip to the Cayes of Belize. I had been to Belize thirty years ago, but had headed inland and across the border into Guatemala. At that time, many of my young traveling companions were heading out to the Barrier reef to snorkel. It was said to be “world class.” This adventure had remained in my head, so I was anxious to experience what I had missed all those many years ago as well. After taking up photography, I was anxious to try my hand at underwater photography in Belize.
When planning a trip for a group, all with similar interest, but varying taste, I researched an option that I thought would fit most of our needs and budgets. I settled on the Caye (pron: key) of Ambergris. This is the largest of the cayes and the most visited and, therefore, catering to tourist somewhat more. If the trip had been for just Gerry and me, I might have considered the more low-key, backpacker oriented Caye Caulker, but with a group of this size Ambergris Caye proved a perfect choice. And, really, a perfect choice overall. I found a resort online called Banana Beach Resort, which bills itself as a 5 star hotel with 3 star prices. I started working with the resort some nine or ten months ahead of our trip and they were always upbeat and courteous no matter how many revisions and additions to the itinerary I made. I chose a one- bedroom ocean side suite for Gerry and me. It was equipped with a very sparsely furnished kitchenette, but it did provide a great meeting space for all to gather in the evenings and for happy hour. Others in the group chose the one bedroom court side suites, which came with two beds, refrigerator and outside tables for drying clothes. Most in this group chose to hang out by the ocean where there were ample lounge chairs provided. At the time of our booking (December 2013). The ocean side bedroom suite was $1125.00 for the week and the one-bedroom courtyard suites were $535.00, which I thought was very reasonable for an ocean resort. When you fly into Belize you fly into the Belize International Airport and then take a puddle jumper flight with Tropic Air to get to Ambergris Caye. As an aside, Ambergris and Caye Caulker are the only two Cayes that have an airstrip (2014). To get to the other Cayes and atolls you must take a boat or water taxi. We met some folks on our inland trip the second week and they described a challenging and scary boat ride off of Glover’s Atoll back to the mainland. Very high seas, that as the gentlemen telling the story said , “made our very large boat feel like a toy bobbing in the water”. Perhaps something else to factor into your decision. At any rate, when we arrived in San Pedro, Banana Beach arranged for a taxi to pick us up and drive us the mile or so to the resort. The resort picked up the taxi fare.
We planned our trip during the Thanksgiving holidays, as many of those going were teachers or in the public school system. Taking the trip at this time would minimize the time off they would need to take from work as most already had Wednesday, Thursday and Friday off for the holidays. The trip for the group was from Saturday to Saturday. Traveling at this time of year was a little bit of a gamble as this is just beginning the dry season and ending the wet season. For us as Vermonters the weather was very good to excellent that week. We had weather in the high 80’s the first part of the week and the high 70’s the latter part of the week. We had a few early morning showers that cleared off and did not alter our days’ activities. Also, at this time of year, we pretty much had the resort to ourselves which was really very nice. It seems that folks were starting to come in towards the end of our stay.
On Ambergris Caye there is only one major paved road, with a few paved side roads in town. The road might be 10k tip to tail and includes the town and a little bit of the outskirts, mostly to the south of town. Banana Beach is located at the end of the paved road south of town. Beyond the paved roads, the road continues but is sandy and rutted, and during our stay the pot holes were water-filled making for a lot of zigzagging when biking or traveling by golf cart. Oddly enough, the more posh resorts are located in these more remote locations, which might make sense, but to me felt removed and isolating. We all felt Banana Beach was the perfect location. Close enough to town to walk or golf cart in to visit and get a taste of the culture and restaurants, but removed enough to be very quiet. I personally would not want to visit a third world country and be isolated from the local culture. As noted earlier, we rented a golf cart, which, besides, walking, is the preferred travel method around the island. There were very few cars and trucks, as the locals seems to travel by golf carts as well. We all loved visiting town and sampling the local foods. We really like Warumga’s, which served fresh grilled papupas, an El Salvadorian dish. If you like seafood, the ceviche at Banana Beach, itself, is not to be missed.
When you go to Ambergris Caye, besides the island touring, the Barrier reef should be your focus for activities. Because of the barrier reef, there is not a tide or waves hitting the shore. Therefore, the calm water allows sea grasses to grow close in to shore and, thus, is not really the best for wading or swimming. You can venture out to one of the long piers and snorkel or swim from there, but even then the locals advise not putting your feet down in the sea grasses because of the stingrays that bed down there. But if you go to snorkel or snuba dive, you will not be disappointed. Some folks claim that the Belize barrier reef is in better shape and more healthy than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley-
The first snorkeling trip we went on was the much acclaimed Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley. All of our trips were easily arranged and organized by Monkey Business Tours. Monkey Business is located to the right of the main entrance driveway to Banana Beach. It was very easy to have breakfast, walk across the driveway and make any arrangements that we would need for that day or the next. They were always gracious in altering or making accommodations, which for 15 people in one group I am sure can be challenging. That being said, all 15 of us decided to go on this tour, which is a half day. We chose the morning trip, figuring the seas would be calmer. Everyone decided to snorkel but me, I chose to snuba dive. Snuba is a hybrid form of snorkeling and scuba diving, which requires no advanced training. You are given a regulator just like scuba diving, but the regulator tank is on a floating raft and you are attached to the tank by a 40 foot air tube. I chose this option as I wanted to be photographing and wanted to be down among the coral, instead of floating on top and looking down. This proved a perfect option for Hol Chan and as I was the only snuba diver, I had one whole raft to myself. Later in the week, others joined me on a snuba dive and were assigned four people per raft. This was definitely more restrictive and if I were to dive again, I would ask for a private raft, even if it cost a little more, and especially if you are photographing. The beauty of the Belize barrier reef, other than it being almost directly off shore, is that it is only six to fifteen feet deep in clear, azure Caribbean water. Even snorkelers will have a great time. Hol Chan was one of the deeper sections of the reef we did and, thus, perfect for snuba diving. Stingrays were common as were nurse sharks and all assortment of colorful fish and varied coral. As Gerry said, “Snorkeling in our lake will never be as interesting and may be downright boring.” We all felt the outfitters we went with throughout the week gave us a generous amount of time in the water and we never felt rushed, hurried or cheated in our experience. Each trip was $100.00 per person, per adventure, but on the full day trips a lunch, snacks and refreshments were provided. So though the trips will add to your budget expenses, they are well worth the expenses as the trips are what are the essential part of your journey. At home, I get jumpy at the site of a mouse running across the floor, so I was a little nervous as to how I was going to respond to swimming among all these fish and stingrays and nurse sharks. For whatever reason, I did not feel skittish at all of all the wild life. They seemed to keep a respectful, but close distance and the colors made up for all else. The only time I took a hard swallow was at Shark Ray Alley when one our guides grabbed a nurse shark and turned toward me with the shark’s face maybe a foot from my face. Perhaps it was the surprise of it all, but I did flinch in that one instance.
Mexico Rocks and Three Coconuts-
The next trip that most of us took was as all day trip to Mexico Rocks with a second snorkel at “Three Coconuts”. Because I had raved so much about snubaing at Hol Chan several more of our party decided to try this experience. For them, it was great getting down and among the reef. But for me, tethered to three others when I had been solo before was definitely more limiting. For the future, if photographing, I would see if I could go solo, or at least, with only one other person for the freedom of movement. Even with these restrictions, this part of the reef had enough different coral formations and varied fish that all encumbrances were forgiven. After the morning snorkel, we pulled on to a beach in front of an unoccupied house and the cooks set about cooking up a meal of fish they had caught while we were snorkeling. Sodas and rum punches filled the waiting time, while we scoured the beaches for abandon conch shells. Being in front of someone’s house was a little odd, but the crew seems to have made an arrangement with the owners. After lunch, we headed out and on the way home stopped by for an extensive snorkel at a place the guides called “Three Coconuts”. Three coconut trees on the beach help to act as a guides as to where to set anchor for the snorkel. I have to say that Three Coconuts was one of my favorite snorkels of the trip. The reef here is very shallow, perhaps only six to eight feet, and, thus, you are right in and among the reef and the fish. The reef here is so shallow that there is no need to snuba. If fact, on several occasions while photographing, the wave action from the reef caused me to run into the coral despite my trying to back paddle. And though the shapes of the reef coral are varied and many, I am here to tell you that they are not soft. I had quite a few coral scrapes after this dive. Because of my run-ins with the reef, I did ask the guides what the impact of tourism was having on the reef. They said that the sections where tours were run were alternated at different years and intervals so that the reef did not sustain abuse or over use. Their livelihood depends on the reef and its health and I was relieved to know that they took its protection seriously.
Another adventure many of us wanted to try was the night snorkeling. This is a two hour evening trip that heads back out to Hol Chan to see creatures that seem to only come out at night. At the thought of snorkeling in the inky blackness of the ocean, I have to admit that I had to give myself a talking to. But it all proved unnecessary, as the night life caught my imagination. After being given large spot lights we jumped in to the water with our guide. The guides skillfully pointed out eels, octopus, lobsters and crabs. And sleeping fish listing sideways. Who knew fish slept so. Gerry and I still talk about the octopus we saw. At perhaps twelve inches, it was a translucent, gelatinous blob, more like an amoeba under a microscope that the eight-legged creatures we had seen in books. Eels came out of their day hiding and slithered through the water. Lobsters scuttled sideways. Some fish were swimming and other sleeping. Magical. On a practical note, the temperature during the day had dropped to the mid 70’s, so the night time temperature was a little cooler as well. So in the water I, and others, were a little chilled. For our trip the next day, many of us rented little shorty wetsuits, which were wonderful. Just perfect for being in and out of the water and riding along in the boat.
For our last snorkeling trip of the week. we did another all day trip around the northern tip of the island. We headed out and had to thread a channel to get to the backside of the Caye. Several Iguanas were resting on tree limbs hanging out over the water. On the backside of the island we headed into open water to get to the head of the Caye. This was a little rough and gave me a taste for the roughness of the open water. Many of us had taken Bonine to prevent seasickness. Once at the top of the island, we stopped at a small, quaint museum where we were served coconut tarts that could be generously topped with rum if you so chose. Leaving the island, we went through a channel that divided Mexico from Belize and had been carved by the Mayas some thousand years ago. The channel significantly shortened a trade route. In the calm waters of the channel we were on the lookout for manatees, which we did not see here, but many did swim with one on our first snorkel trip of that day. After leaving the channel, you have to cross the barrier reef out into open ocean as the reef and the shore almost collide at this part of the island. So the guides gunned the motors and through the waves and reef we went, eventually cutting back inside the reef to snorkel. We had two wonderful snorkels and then headed for lunch on a deserted part of the island that reminded many of Gilligan’s Island or Robinson Crusoe. The hundred acres or so of deserted beach, dotted with palm trees and white sand is owned by a Canadian that eventually hopes to retire here. He has three caretakers that live in an 8′ x 10′ shack with an outdoor cooking grill and well blackened pots and pans. The beach itself was immaculately raked and cleaned and our guides, once again, seemed to have made some special arrangement with the caretakers. Sadly to say, though, the beach itself was strewn with all kinds of garbage, plastic, ropes and bottles. All this detritus was tangled in among the sea grass. Such was the state of paradise. The food, however, was excellent. Once again freshly caught fish with beans, rice, salads and drinks. After lunch we had one more great snorkel among the shallow reef before heading back to the resort. You might think that one snorkel was like the rest, but each tour and each part of the reef shows you a different and varied version of itself. So, if you head down to Belize, don’t miss the snorkeling as I did thirty years ago, because, who knows, it might be thirty years before you return. And with climate change……
The underwater camera equipment I used-
Realizing that we were heading to the Belize barrier reef, I wanted to figure out an underwater camera set-up. I could not afford and didn’t want to go top tier as I knew that I would not be a regular scuba diver being a Vermonter and all. That being said, I wanted something that would provide a level of professional quality.
I decided on the Sony DSC- Rx 100 camera with a Rescea housing, a Sola 800 focus light and one YS-D1 strobe. I also bought a UWL-04 Fisheye Lens and a Bluewater +7 Macro lens. I ended up using the Wide angle lens exclusively in Belize. To help me make my decision, I relied on information and videos from Blue water photo and I also found an interesting article online from an Italian diver who switched from a DSLR underwater set-up to this Sony/Recsea combination. He claims that over time he liked the weight of the Sony/Recsea combination over the DSLR weight. I emailed him and he gave me a site to get the quick release connections for each section of the camera set-up to make sure that it is secure in the water so you don’t fear dropping a lens or strobe in the depths of the ocean or lake. I also liked that this Sony shot RAW, had good high ISO ratings, a generous megapixel count (20.2), and the option to shoot video. I also liked the fact that this little camera could become my point and shoot camera when not in an underwater housing. There are many positive and detailed reviews of this camera online.
I practiced with this set-up in our local lake the summer before the trip and also in a local pool just before the trip. I wanted to be prepared as possible as I knew this would be a trip not likely to be repeated anytime soon. Before the trip, I had several learning experiences that bear mentioning. The first thing I discovered when practicing in the lake during the summer was that I couldn’t read the LCD screen on the back of the camera, and, therefore, could not read my camera settings. To that end, after looking online, I sent my swim mask in to Prescription Dive Mask, where I had a reading diopter put in to my mask. They have three size options. I choose the option that came up about half way in my mask. This option worked great as it gave me plenty of room to read the LCD screen, without impeding my long distance vision. On one of my pool practice sessions, a friend of mine threw some flippers into the deep end of the pool. She said they might float like fish and give me practice shooting something moving. After this practice, I dove down to the bottom of the pool, about eleven feet deep, to retrieve the flippers. On the dive down, I felt a lot of pressure in my ears and commented on it. Gerry tried the dive and felt the same pressure. I didn’t think much about it and commented that I didn’t remember feeling that pressure when I was a kid. I felt fine the rest of that day and into the evening. The next morning, however, as soon as I swung my legs over the side of the bed I knew something was wrong. Long story short, I had a pretty significant case of Vertigo, a misalignment of crystals in my inner ears. The world was spinning and I had to crawl on all fours to the bathroom because the nausea was pretty intense. I laid in bed most of the morning and looked online for Vertigo exercises you can do to help realign the inner ear crystals. By noon I was up and walking around, but still felt off for the rest of the day.
The moral of this story is that you need to clear your ears, which I did frequently and often in Belize, as you start to descend. This equalizes the pressure in your ears from the water pressure outside. It is a simple matter of holding your nose and gently blowing out your nose, much the same as you do on an airline when you feel the air pressure in your ears. If you are aware of this, you should not have any problems. On the trip, I noticed the guides, who are in the water almost every day, clearing their ears frequently.
Another tip I would recommend is taking a small glasses repair kit with you. On the Rescea housing, the little rubber gaskets that accept the fiber optic cable from the strobe, near the flash, can sometimes turn. When this happens you cannot insert the fiber optic cable securely and the cable releases. It is a simple and easy fix if you have the small screwdrivers that come with the glasses kit. Also make sure to have your flash set to “fill-flash” when shooting RAW so that the camera fires automatically, which sends a signal to the fiber optic cable. If you shoot JPEG, then turn this setting to “Auto flash.” And yet another thing to be aware of is the corrosive nature of salt water. Be sure to bring a bag to serve as a fresh water rinse tank or ask the tour guides ahead of time to bring a fresh water tank for you to rinse your camera gear in after each snorkeling activity. Most guides are happy to comply with this request. I would highly recommend visiting the Blue Water Photography Store as they have a lot of really valuable information about traveling with and caring for you camera, as well as recommended underwater settings for you camera.
Many in our group said it was one of their best vacations ever and I do think traveling with a group of compatible friends did enhance the joy of the trip. There is nothing like shared memories to bond a group together. All in the group liked the choice of Banana Beach, visiting the town of San Pedro and the relaxed and friendly atmosphere. That fact that this was an English speaking country that readily accepted American dollars (US $1.00= $2.00 BZE) also lowered any stress level about communicating and enhanced our interactions with the locals. The time of year we traveled, though perhaps a risk, proved a good choice as the hotel and the island did not feel overrun with tourist. As climate change increases, it was on my bucket list to visit the coral reef before the warming oceans damage their beauty. Sadly to say, they had had a very warm year several years ago that had bleached out the reef, but on our visit the guides said the reef was in very good shape. For that I am grateful.
The main part of the group headed back to the states at the end of the week. Gerry and I and another couple headed inland to Belize and over into Guatemala for another week…