Seven friends from the east coast travel to the remote island of Long Caye on Lighthouse Reef Atoll 40 miles off the coast of Belize for a week long scuba diving and snorkeling adventure. Staying at Itza Resort, we had the remote island to ourselves and learned of the local island culture, conservation efforts and incredible dive sites throughout the atoll, including The Great Blue Hole, The Aquarium and numerous unmarked sites known only to the knowledgeable locals at Itza. Under the masterful eye of Elvis and Wendy and our chef Gilroy keeping us fueled for our journeys, we had the trip of a lifetime.
Note: GoPro video compilation is available on YouTube at the end of this article. Enjoy and thanks for reading!
Day 1 – Travel
A 4am wake up call didn’t phase me as I prepared to depart for Belize. I met up with my travel group at the airport and spent some time catching up with them (it had been a year since I had seen most of them). After two in-flight movies, a Stroopwaffle (possibly the best airline snack ever), and numerous breathtaking glimpses of the Caribbean waters, we touched down in Belize City and quickly cleared customs. The warm, tropical air had us quickly stripping away our northeast winter layers. It was almost impossible to tell who the tourists were as we changed on the busy airport sidewalk…..not.
Itza Lodge had arranged a driver to pick us up at the airport and transport us to the dock where we would be catching our boat to hop over to Long Caye. With seven members in our groups, we fit perfectly into the van…well kind of. Let’s just say we all became re-acquainted quickly and learned the true weight of our luggage as some of it sat on our laps and while other we kept a close eye on as it was precariously stacked. The roads in Belize are interesting; cars drive on the right side of the road, but there are speed bumps everywhere….speed up to the 50 mph, screech to 10 mph to clear a speed bump. The views on the drive were intriguing with brief insight into the Central American culture and tropical communities, but I was ready to get out of the way of the Tetris game called our luggage.
Our boat pulled up at the private dock behind the Princess Hotel and Casino shortly after we arrived. We were told it would be a covered ferry, and they weren’t wrong….we just had a different vision of a ferry I guess. Totally set the mood for the remote island feel though. Boats to and from Itza only run twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays, so the Itza crew loaded up some supplies for the week including food, propane, gasoline and of course our luggage. This was definitely a “no smoking” cruise as fuel canisters banged around as the boat rocked at dock. There was a bit of miscommunication regarding when we were ready to depart. We probably boarded and deboarded three times as we waited for the rest of the Itza crew to show up. Remember, boats only run twice a week so if you miss it, you’re out of luck.
At last we were off, hunkered into our seats for the 2.5 hour (40 mile) ride from mainland to Long Caye. Seas were pretty calm at the beginning which helped get us accustomed to the area and the feeling of being back on the water. We passed through Turneffe Atoll, and were granted breathtaking sweeping views of Mangroves as we sped through channels bisecting splotches of land. As the islands of the Turneffe disappeared behind us, I could make out some white lines in the distance and behind them rolling, royal blue swells: we were about to pass over the shelf into open water, where the reef and shallows no longer shielded us from the waves. As we passed over the waves breaking at the edge of shelf, we were met with three foot seas. Still relatively comfortable, but a stark change from the waters through the shallows. A few soggy sleeves and wind swept hairdos later, we saw the first glimpse of Long Caye and soon were greeted by Wendy, assistant manager at Itza.
After a quick briefing/welcome with Wendy and Elvis (the general manager), we received our room keys and were instructed to reconvene at 6pm for the official welcome (and free rum punch). We were amazed to find that the seven of us were the only customers at Itza, and it would be that way until three more joined us on Wednesday. I was in my glory: basically a remote island and a private resort all to ourselves. To add to my elation, our rooms were ocean facing on the second floor. Each room had a balcony and hammock, semi-composting toilet, and no AC. While the last two may not be for everyone, I was in awe and so ready to fully embrace and immerse myself in an eco-conscious, remote island escape.
At 6pm, we met for our formal orientation. With a full bowl of rum punch in front of us, Elvis introduced the staff (about 10 Itza employees in total), gave us an overview of Lighthouse Reef Atoll (using the convenient painted map on the floor), briefed us on dive procedures, meals on the island, and the eco-conscious efforts at Itza. As he explained how a majority of the electricity is created from solar panels and water at the resort comes from rain collection, I just kept thinking, can this place get any better? The orientation left us feeling super comfortable (maybe that was some of the rum talking) with the staff and guest expectations. We truly felt like we were being welcomed into someone’s home and had the ability to use the resort as we pleased to make our trip one to remember.
The master chef Gilroy was our local food expert for the week, and served us up our first, three course meal of fish chowder, stewed chicken, rice and beans, and flan for dessert. After dinner, we grabbed flashlights and headed out to Sunset Pier (about five minutes from Itza). While we missed the sunset by a few hours, we were met with a crystal clear sky enough stars to leave you staring for hours. Being 40 miles from the nearest light source, the stars couldn’t get much better. To wrap up the night with a great big bow, bioluminescent bacteria shimmered in the water beneath the dock as our footsteps startled the fish below. Check another item off the bucket list.
I was in my glory even after day 1, unsure if everything was real because it was so perfect and was just so me. Needless to say, we were all already digging the island vibe and couldn’t wait to get under the water and explore more.
Day 2 – Diver down…..
I “accidentally” fell asleep in my hammock on the balcony in the cool ocean breeze, which left me feeling refreshed and ready to go. Up early as I usually am, I caught the colors of the first of many sunrises and enjoyed coffee with sand between my toes as my travel companions slowly filled the dining area. A great breakfast of Belize pancakes (essentially fried dough) with black bean sauce and eggs fueled us for our checkout dive at Nightwatch.
Tensions were slightly elevated on the short boat ride out to the site, as we prepped to shake the rust off of our underwater skills after about 6 months. The two dive masters Devon and Jeff had already prepped our BC rigs and helped us don them as we stayed seated. Unfortunately, there was some confusion and miscommunication at the dive site, which resulted in one of our friends getting cracked in the head with a tank. Four hours on a boat to/from a mainland Belize urgent care, 14 stitches, and a few scans later, he arrived back at Itza bandaged and ready to go (maybe not diving – he had to heal for a few days – but in good spirits). The rest of us called off diving and opted to snorkel some sites while we stayed close to hear word how our friend was doing on his adventure with Belizean healthcare (which is incredible by the way).
It felt great to be back in the water, even if just snorkeling. Tensions were just too high among ourselves and the Itza crew to attempt another dive. We were quickly greeted by an Eagle Ray at our first snorkel site and enjoyed a few hours exploring the boat wreck reef off Sunset Pier and after a short boat ride, a shallow section of the reef, giving us our first glimpse at wait awaits once we were ready to drop beneath the surface.
Fresh coconuts with a bottle of local rum were just what the doctor ordered after a whirlwind of a day. With our friend back in action (just with a rather large gash and some nice head bandages), we were ready to cautiously continue our vacation and under the exceptional management skills of Elvis (who decided to take over boat captain for the week to ensure things ran smoothly) we did just that.
Day 3 – 6 – a little bit of everything
Every morning I woke up with the sun, watching the sunrise from the Itza dock or privately from an east facing walking trail near the resort, and every evening I caught the sunset, usually from Sunset Pier. It was unreal and humbling being able to watch the sun breach the horizon in the east and fall to the west, just a five minute walk separating the two directions. Most nights I fell asleep in my balcony hammock and embraced every minute of it.
Our days were filled with good food, amazing diving, exceptional hospitality, local interactions with fishers, relaxation, naps in the numerous hammocks and comradery. We quickly became good friends with the Itza staff who joined us for meals at times. It was truly like we were all one big happy family on this remote island. There’s so much that happened in days 3 – 6. Below are some highlights:
- Local fishers docking at Itza for the night and bartering with Elvis fish for gasoline and beer. We were immersed in the local culture from day 1 and it was such a humbling and amazing experience. There was little concept of money; everything was trading resources for resources and all was done in a sustainable, respectful way.
- Having a relaxing sunset wonderfully interrupted by fishers snagging a 6 foot Nurse shark off of Sunset Pier (it was released as Nurse shark are protected in Belize)
- Hand picked, unmapped dive sites chosen by Elvis who is a master at the Belizean waters. We saw places were few divers have ever seen on Lighthouse Reef. We are forever grateful for the expertise and knowledge Elvis brought to our trip.
- Swimming between massive underwater pinnacles that cover Lighthouse Reef. They provided for numerous swim-throughs and housed huge barrel sponges. The large craters (starting at about 30 ft and dropping to 80+ ft) really made diving in Belize unique. The massive and very prominent sponges also added to the specialties that set Belize apart from any other diving I’ve done.
- Surface intervals at Hat Caye – a small, man made island a few miles from Long Caye created by numerous years of Conch shells building up as fishers cleaned them on a shallow, sandy area. One fisher decided to spread them out in the shallows and soon sediment collected, coconuts floated over and boom, an island was born. It’s under 1 acre and is a favorite of many fishers.
- Spearfishing for the invasive Lionfish. We bagged 14 of the buggers and Gilroy prepared some incredible Lionfish chowder along with frying up a few for a snack. From sea to table; being involved in the whole chain was invigorating and made us feel truly connected to the ocean and the island.
- Fishing for Barracuda under the master fisher skills of Elvis. With five lines in the water dragging behind the boat on the edge of the shelf, we caught 22.5 fish (a shark got half as we were reeling it in) in 1.5 hours. Gilroy fried up some fish sticks for us to complete the sea to table connection circle.
- Catching sight of two reef sharks on our dives off Half Moon Caye
- Spotting two Hawksbill Sea Turtles and two Green Sea Turtles
- Experiencing the nesting ground of Red Footed Boobies on Half Moon Caye
Day 7 – Into the Great Hole
Being our last day before flying home, we were surprised to learn that we would be doing our deepest dive, The Great Blue Hole, today. We really only need an 18 hour surface interval before flying, so technically we had until 4pm to dive. It was probably the nerves talking that had me rattled with the idea of this. Today would be my deepest dive to date, 135 feet below the surface.
The morning started off like all the others, coffee in hand watching the purples turn to orange to red as the sun started its day. Gathered around the table we claimed as ours for the week in the common area, we quietly ate breakfast preparing for the journey ahead of us. We met Elvis in front of the whiteboard where he had drawn out the dive profile for the Great Blue Hole.
Described as a very aggressive profile, we would descend to 135 feet in about 4 minutes, hold our depth exploring for about 8 minutes (just about the max time our dive computers allowed before putting us in deco) and then slowly ascend to 15 feet for an elongated safety stop. My nerves started here as I entered the planning mode on my dive computer. At 130 feet it had me at 6 minutes before putting me at required decompression stops (deco). Now I would later come to find that going into deco really isn’t anything to write home about, but after Elvis’ briefing, he made it clear that you either go all the way to 135’ or you don’t dive (meaning no calling it quits at 60’). He wanted us all to stay together and be aware of each other for maximum safety on this aggressive dive, so it was well understood and appreciated. Not to mention all of my Open Water dive training had taught me to never go into deco (they didn’t do a great job explaining what really happens or how to handle it if you do). Come to think of it they also said to never go below 110’, so maybe I’m a bit beyond my training at this point.
Just to be sure, I checked with Elvis before departing, informing him of what my dive computer was telling me. He assured me that the model of computer I have is ultra conservative and that it is not considering the ascent time he had planned out for this dive. He also mentioned that going into deco isn’t a huge deal; just do what your computer tells you to do and if you need more air to complete your required stop, there will be a tank hanging at 10’ off the side of the boat. He said I’d be fine and not to worry. Easier said than done. I kept telling myself, “this is what you came here to do, don’t back down now.”
We we loaded up on our dive boat and set off on the 8 mile, 30 minute trek to the Great Blue Hole. In total, four in our group were going on the dive and the rest were snorkeling the perimeter. For me, it was a somber ride out; relaxing yet at the same time my heart was beating out of my chest in anticipation for what awaited. Leaving at 7:30am put us at the Blue Hole well before many other dive boats. I was surprised to see three already there when we pulled up, but most looked to be only snorkel excursions. We dropped our snorklers off and said bon-voyage as we headed to moor at the dive site.
A quick backwards flop rolling entry and the fleeting thought “next time I’m on this boat, I will have been down to 135 feet below it” and we were off. There was a severe slant to the sandbed below us leading to a pit of dark blue. We were at the mouth of the Great Blue Hole. Where the white sand ended, a vertical wall began, starting at 40’ and dropping to 407’ (the measured depth of the blue hole). We passed over the lip and began our descent. Our dive master Devin led the way. The limestone wall had a few coral heads, but mostly just algae, making the descent unworldly and a bit eerie. At about 100 feet, we started to see the vertical wall recede a little and caught sight of what would soon become stalactites (this area was once an above ground cave system that caved in and flooded after one of the great ice ages raised the sea levels).
I truly felt like I was on an alien planet, floating weightless among the stalactites, swimming between them as our bubbles danced around on the ceiling. It might have been partly related to the nitrogen narcosis I experienced for a few brief seconds, making me feel like I just took a shot of Tequila on an empty stomach, but I was in my prime. Below us, a small sandy ledge sat at about 150’ near an edge that continued to drop down the remaining 250 some feet. I kept a close eye on my dive computer, and by the time we started to ascend, I was at 0 minutes until deco. Around 110’, my computer switched me to deco, requiring a 10 minute ascent to 15 feet. This turned out to fit the profile of the dive Elvis had planned perfectly, just as he had said. Have I mentioned that he is a master of all things diving and Belize?
17 minutes after breaking the surface at the boat, we had touched 135’ and were now back at 30 feet making our way up the steep sandy slope toward the wall of coral that makes up the iconic Blue Hole rim. We passed under our snorkeling friends at about 15’, tossing a quick wave as our bubble traveled to meet them. Right about this time is when I started realizing what I had just done. I powered through the hesitation, nerves and doubt and had a once in a lifetime experience. Beyond that, I beat the thoughts in my head and didn’t shy away from an epic adventure.
I was still on my personal accomplishment high as we picked up the snorkelers and took in the surroundings. You really wouldn’t know that you were over top the Great Blue Hole from looking at it from the boat. It just looked like Caribbean water with some shallow coral features. It doesn’t look like the iconic shape and color you see in the famous aerial pictures. Just 1 hour after we arrived, we were heading back to Long Caye to switch out tanks, fuel up on snacks, and head back out to dive The Aquarium.
Dubbed The Aquarium for a reason, this site certainly lived up to its name, offering every variety of fish and coral we had seen in our entire week of diving all in this one area in about 30 feet of water. Unfortunately, we had learned that this area is so popular because dive boats will dump their scraps after lunch here, churning up the fish and attracting more, so this left a bad taste in my mouth, but nonetheless it was gorgeous.
A quick trip back to shore to grab more gear and once again we were back in the water for our final dive. It was another one to remember with so much life and color in less than 30 feet of water. Breaching the surface at 1:30pm, exactly 24 hours before our flight, diving was over now for this trip.
What else is there to do on your final night on a remote island than drink, reflect and catch one final sunset. Apparently helping Elvis fix his computer is another thing. He had gotten wind that I work in IT and while I wanted to do everything I could to avoid technology on my final night on the island, I was happy to lend a helping hand to Elvis the Great who gave us a trip of a lifetime and went out of his way to help us make lifelong memories. This is just another event that shows the close knit culture of the island, Itza Resort and the staff; when was the last time the general manager of a hotel you were at asked for help fixing their computer? Actually, better yet, when was the last time the general manager, assistance manager and owner knew you all by name, gave many members of your group nicknames, and joined you for dinner? A major win for the small, yet quality experience offered at Itza.
Day 8 – Back to Reality
Enjoying my final sunrise coffee as I looked out at the calm waters I had spent the week exploring, it didn’t feel like the trip should be ending and that in 12 hours I would be bundled up in winter cloths with snow blanketing my drive home from the airport. I pushed that thought out of my head and focused on the beauty surrounding me; the sand between my toes, and the cool breeze on my face.
I joined breakfast a bit late this morning. Elvis and Wendy joined us at the table to chat about our experiences. We will be forever grateful for their hospitality and kindness throughout our trip. Slowly but surely we started packing our bags and said goodbye to our rooms. The Itza staff loaded the boat for our two hour boat ride. The Itza staff waved goodbye on the dock as we floated away, watching our temporary remote island home fade away.
Going with the wind, it was a much smoother ride back. Well, at least until the engine started making some funny noises as we puttered into the mangroves of Turneffe Atoll. The mangroves provided a little shelter from the current as our captain opened the engine and took a look. We thought all was well when the engine went back in the water, but the noise had gotten worse. The captain said we were going to travel around the small island beside us a bit to his family’s fishing hut. This is where I started thinking about all those pirate movies I’d seen and that we might not be making our flight home (not that this was the worst thing that could happen). It seemed a little too perfect that the engine started cutting out right around one of the only spots on this atoll where there was a sign of civilization. We pulled up to the leaning dock in front of a fishing shack and the engine was once again out of the water. Our group hopped off of the boat and carefully walked across the dock skipping a board or two that looked to be a bit rotted. The fishing shack was small, but it gave us all a great idea of how local fishers live and operate.
After about 10 minutes, a quiet plunk of an engine piece falling into the water (whoops), and a quick rev of the engine, we were back on the water, unfortunately putting more space between us and Itza. With plenty of time to spare, we arrived at the Belize airport after another bumpy, stop and go taxi ride through the island towns. Our flight was delayed for two hours, so we all sat uncomfortably in the packed airport watching the excitement of new arrivals and the somber faces of those leaving. Of course there was a Belkin (main beer in Belize) bar so we all enjoyed one last fresh glass before walking out to our plane and waving goodbye to the sweet, humid, tropical air.
Four hours later, we were back to reality. It’s amazing how a trip of a lifetime can be over just like that, leaving plenty of memories that will last forever and new comradery sharing some rough patches and triumphs of new adventures together. We had truly experienced a remote island experience and met some incredible people along the way. Belize will hold a special place in my heart and we all hope to get back there again soon.