A school of shimmering silver jack had just glided by overhead as I crested the reef, where a trio of tall orange sponges rose toward an outcropping of coral and a pair of purple sea fans framed the opening of a dark nook.
My heart raced and my breath quickened, a rush of bubbles streaming upward as I caught sight of my prey. The billowy fins, the showy spikes shooting from its spine, the majestic stripes flowing into the distinctive mane.
It hovered carelessly in the pristine, bath-warm waters, this sea creature of local legend. I raised an arm, stretched a small piece of elastic cord, and sent a spear through the back of its head. Success! Death at 60 feet below the surface. I was now more than just a scuba diver. I was a trained killer.
Diving, in its common form, is a gentle adventure. I’ve heard many experienced divers liken it to an underwater hike or safari, a pretty good description of what I have found in my decade-plus of exploring the oceans. Thrills come from spotting a rare fish, marveling at a soaring ray or spying a reef shark as it slips by.
But one of the main tenets of scuba diving is that you are to look and not touch. Leave the ocean and all its inhabitants as you found them. Visit and admire their world, let them live in it.
That is, except for the lionfish.
On a recent visit to a stunning atoll about 35 miles east of Belize City, the divemasters — and the national government — all but implored us to kill this magnificent monster. Although the lionfish is a beauty, they’ll tell you, it is an invader to the Caribbean Sea, a scourge on the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world.
The lionfish — native to the Pacific Ocean and believed to have been introduced to the Atlantic when a beachside aquarium in Florida broke during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 — has no natural predators here. It reproduces often and in great number. It eats its weight in local juvenile fish every day or two. It has a bevy of venom-laced triangular-tipped spikes that keep larger fish away. And it is slowly destroying the natural balance that keeps the reef vibrant. Posters in the dive shack say it is “wanted dead or alive,” and the government of Belize has at times offered a bounty.
So on dives that normally would have been tranquil meanderings gazing at coral or staring at flamingo tongue snails, many of us carried spears and searched the reef for lionfish prey. Kill them, kill them all.
The lionfish hunts added adrenaline and intrigue to a journey that probably didn’t need it; these islands off the coast of Belize offer some of the most interesting diving, nature and oceanscapes imaginable. The trip was the first my wife, Nikki, and I have made to Central America, with the promise of a dive haven unlike any other in the hemisphere. It didn’t disappoint.
The journey was a long time in the making, because Nikki had wanted to travel abroad for her 40th birthday, and she had some requirements: The destination had to be tropical, scuba diving had to be on the menu, and we had to leave the kids at home. We also wanted to go somewhere we hadn’t been, and with previous dive trips to the Bahamas, St. Martin, Tahiti and Hawaii, we had seen a pretty decent array already.
Belize wasn’t originally at the top of the list. We first considered several far-flung locations, but decided that all of them were too distant for a week-long vacation from Washington: the Maldives, the Galapagos, the Cook Islands, South Africa. Nikki wanted to try a live-aboard boat, something that I feared because, well, what if you get stuck with a whole group of people you don’t like? Even a big boat could get very small very quickly.
Instead, we lucked into Turneffe Island Resort, a 14-acre private island that sits at the southern end of the atoll. It is, in many ways, like a live-aboard boat: It can host about 40 guests at a time from Saturday to Saturday, all the meals are served family-style, there’s a bar by the pool and a limited number of activities. Which is to say, if you don’t dive, fish or kayak, you’d better be prepared for a lot of lounging around. (Not such a bad thing on vacation, really.)
After arriving at Belize City’s airport — just a 1 1/2-hour flight from Miami, with a very cool route over Havana (sit on the right side of the plane for the view) — we met up with a boat that took us, and the rest of the week’s guests, directly out into the ocean. The 90-minute ride took us past slim barrier islands dotted with fishing shacks and then through dense mangroves. On the other side: Turneffe.
The resort advertises itself as a private island, and it turns out to be exactly what you imagine celebrities get when they vacation on their “private islands.” White-sand beaches, 80-degree azure ocean, more staff than guests, postcard views in every direction, and of course, privacy.
Our “room” was a stand-alone villa on the beach a few hundred feet from the waves lapping up on the sand. A screened-in front porch (vital at night because of the mosquitoes) opened to a polished mahogany living area with high ceilings and a four-poster king bed.
Missing was a television: There are no TVs on the island, nor are there telephones. If you haven’t gone a week without television — and I hadn’t in a very long time — it is liberating. There is, however, WiFi, so you can stay in touch with home via email, Skype and FaceTime.
One of our favorite perks: pre-dawn coffee service brought to our porch, allowing us to sip fresh Belizean brew as the sun began to ease over the atoll.
The beach in front of our villa was dotted with manicured palm trees and hibiscus and plumeria; the sand was neatly combed every morning and, seemingly by magic, had perfect ridges again when we returned at night. A dock and breakwater jutted out into the ocean, where a blissful breeze cooled a thatched gazebo with two chaise longues; it was there that I rediscovered napping in the lazy afternoons.
But Turneffe is primarily a dive and fishing resort, and it caters to those who want to fill their time with these activities. Mornings started early with a breakfast in the main lodge at 7:30 before the boats pushed off for dive sites promptly at 8:15. On most days, there were two dives in the morning and one dive in the afternoon. In all, we did 15 dives from Sunday to Friday.
Unlike most resorts we’d been to, the diving mostly took place about five minutes from the resort, meaning no long nausea-inducing boat rides to distant reefs. We would push off from the docks and almost immediately need to be in our gear.
Burley Bradford Garbutt, 46 — he goes by Brad — led us to sites with names like “Three Amigos” and “The Zoo” and “Fabian’s Roost.” His hour-long tours were filled with spotted toadfish and free-swimming eels, goliath grouper and rainbow parrotfish, stingrays and eagle rays and occasional cruise-bys from the majestic hawksbill turtle.
Brad, a Belizean native who used to be a commercial fisherman, has been working at Turneffe for 14 years and has gone on thousands of dives here. He started each of ours with a cheery “Let’s see what nature has in store for us” and would gleefully tap on his tank underwater — tink, tink, tink, tink — to alert us to the underwater treasures he found hiding in crags and holes and among the sponges.
One dive site, the “Wreck of the Sayonara,” was around the scant remains of a dive boat that used to run off Turneffe decades ago. Its captain was Brad’s father, who worked at an earlier iteration of the same resort.
A visit to the atoll must include a day trip to the Great Blue Hole, a national monument and international treasure that is like no other dive site. It is, quite literally, a hole in the ocean floor. Formed as a glacial cave more than 100,000 years ago, it ultimately collapsed under the weight of the rising ocean, forming a perfectly round sinkhole nearly 1,000 feet across, more than 400 feet deep and, seen from above, a midnight blue far more intense than the shallow waters around it. At about 120 feet down a sheer wall you find an amazing array of ancient stalactites — proof that this was once long ago dry land, because stalactites don’t form underwater. “They still get me,” Brad said after emerging from his 133rd visit.
And next to the Blue Hole, on Half Moon Caye, is a nature preserve that would have commanded Darwin’s attention. In addition to being home to massive iguanas and hermit crabs, the small island is rife with red-footed boobies and soaring frigate birds, with a (searing hot) stand amid the trees that puts you eye-to-eye with the birds as they nest.
Back at Turneffe, the resort also offers a night dive, perhaps the most awe-inspiring hour of the whole visit. Though daunting to slip into darkness, the ocean is perhaps more alive under the moon than in the light of day.
Wave a hand through the water, and sparks fly: Small bioluminescent creatures evoke embers from a campfire. Hand-held flashlights revealed octopus wandering along the coral (one turned shock-white and inked at another diver before going orange and shooting away), lobsters ambling through the sand and we even caught a glimpse of a decorator crab, which sticks coral and shells and small animals to itself as camouflage.
A stay at Turneffe is not roughing it, and that’s reflected in prices that are as high-end as the service and accommodations. But you do get what you pay for. Staff members learned and remembered our names, and the food — fresh snapper, grilled pork loin, traditional Belizean rice and beans in coconut milk, seviche — was tremendous. Help was there if you needed it but wasn’t there if you wanted to be alone.
For those seeking a vacation with shopping and nightlife, this definitely is not the right place. You’re on an island far from civilization. After dinner, we shared the bar/pool area with other guests, including a fun-loving group of anesthesiologists from Galveston, Tex., a honeymooning couple from Austria and a husband-and-wife team of travel agents from San Diego, scouting the place for dive clients.
We spent those evenings with George Cocom, 41, a bartender who has been working on Turneffe for the past nine years. In addition to serving drinks — from nightly special concoctions that often had a blue hue to fresh drafts of Belikan, the local beer — George is a skilled entertainer. He’s learned a trove of card, dice, rope and other tricks, and he delighted in mystifying guests between raucous games of liar’s dice around the circular bar.
One dastardly card trick made him seem clairvoyant. He would ask his victim to pick nine cards at random and then lay them out on the bar in three rows of three cards. He would then walk away and ask the person to touch one of the cards so that others could see it, to verify the choice. He would then come back, gesticulate a bit, and then, 100 percent of the time, choose the correct card.
Anesthesiologists, here’s the reveal, with his permission: I was in on it. He taught me the trick on the first night. I was giving him a subtle, consistent signal upon his return to the bar. No cameras, mirrors, marked cards . . . or ESP. He had a ringer, as I suspect he does every week with a new batch of guests.
Which is to say that a new batch of guests could change the island’s dynamic. There were just more than 20 of us there that week; double that number and things would have been different. Stock the island with your friends and family, and imagine the possibilities.
We were even able to celebrate the engagement of one of the doctor couples, as Nicholas Juan, 30, asked Mindy Milosch, 29, to marry him. They celebrated by hunting lionfish.
Milosch bagged “tons” of lionfish on the trip, getting quite good at using the spear and “loving it.” The group was nabbing them left and right, often feeding them to eels and grouper that would linger, knowing they might get a meal out of it. Sadly, the reef denizens won’t go after a living lionfish because of their poisonous spikes, but dead, the venom dissipates into the water and the spikes fall; divemasters hope the native predators will get a taste for it and do their own hunting.
We kept some of the lionfish, bringing them to the dock and handing them over to the staff. Some of the fish were pregnant; some still had dead reef fish in their mouths.
And a short time later, sitting at the mahogany bar and looking out over an endless sea at sunset, we clinked mugs of Belikan, sat back, and snacked on lightly breaded lionfish bites. The taste of victory? Pretty darn good.
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Thirty miles off the coast of
A luxury private island, with a focus on scuba, fishing, eco-tourism and escapism. Guests are picked up at Belize City’s international airport (BZE), with direct flights from several U.S. cities, and then transported by private boat to the island. For 2016, a seven-night stay, including room and board, ranges from $2,090 per person in a deluxe room to $3,590 per person in a private villa. Dive packages, which include room and board, 15 dives and a trip to the Blue Hole, range from $3,290 per person in a deluxe room to $4,790 per person in a private villa. All packages include three meals per day, hors d’oeuvres and island transfers. Packages do not include bar charges.