Traditions - Island Stories from Caye Caulker in Belize
We were on the West side of the island. The sun was high enough in the sky that we could see it over the houses and palm trees. I turned to look at the horizon. Our snorkelling trip would keep us out on the water all day as the sun arched its way over us and sunk into Caribbean Sea which extended far beyond what I could see in front of me.
“Alright folks, before we go any further we’ve got a couple of traditions to honour to bring us luck out there today” Pops called out as he eased off the throttle and brought the boat to a stop in a small inlet along the mangrove shoreline. Perhaps the statement should have made us nervous about what our guide was going to have us do. However, it was about 10:30 in the morning, barely 10 minutes into our trip and the 8 of us had already consumed 1 out of the 5 gallons of Pops’ homemade rum punch as well as a beer each, and we were content to just go with the flow.
“First thing’s first” he said as he killed the engine and produced a bottle small enough to be cough medicine from his back pocket. He gave the liquid no introduction, but we could interpret from his malicious grin what it was likely to be.
“This stuff’s illegal on airplanes”, Pops almost boasted as he handed around the shots, then quickly added that it was rum when he saw no-one drinking. Chris, whom I’d just met that morning, turned out to be the bravest. We watched as he swallowed and I waited for the typical grimace of strong liquor. Instead his eyes just widened slightly and he rocked a little in his seat before muttering a single inaudible word which was met with laughter and clapping from Pops and his crewman, Rastaman.
Unsure of whether or not I should be encouraged by Chris’ reaction, I took my shot of anti-aircraft rum. It hurt a little, as strong alcohol does, but not in the normal stinging way. More in a blunt way, like it punched me in the roof of the mouth before sliding down my throat. We all asked what the strength was but Pops insisted he didn’t know, he could only tell us it was ‘strong…real strong’. After a moment to recover, Rastaman started walking around the boat replacing the cups in everyone’s hands with freshly caught sardines.
“That was just for fun, this is our real good luck charm, you wanna see sharks today then this is what we got to do” Rastaman said in his thick Belizean accent. I glanced around the boat, but no one looked any more comprehending than me until Pops silently lifted his hand to his mouth and mimed taking a bite. Our reaction closely mirrored the 5 stages of grief. First we laughed, confident it was a joke, but our denial was only met with stoic faces from Pops and Rastaman. Next we hit anger, sure that our guides were just trying to take advantage of the innocent tourists, but this turned quickly to bargaining as Mike, a Madagascan/Canadian I’d met in Cancún and travelled South with, suggested we put them in our drinks instead. This received a gentle head shake. We realised we were trapped and each stared down into the eyes of the fish that sat limp in our hands, this was the depression. Suddenly their stern faces broke and our guides burst into laughter, unable to keep the joke up anymore.
“So here’s what we’re actually going to do…” Pops began but he was cut off.
“Wait…” Said a girl at the front of the boat, her name was Kelly, I knew her from the hostel. We turned to look at her and she lowered her hand nervously to reveal a sardine that had had an almost cartoon like bite take out of its midriff. She had reached acceptance just a moment before the rest of us.
We’d only been driving at speed for 5 minutes but our little island of Caye Caulker was already just a thin strip on the horizon behind us. The boat slowed and our wake began to settle. The water was as clear as glass. I peered over the edge and saw the barrier reef below us. The soft coral drifted slightly in the current as I watched, the sea wasn’t deep here; I could even make out the ridges on the sea fans.
I took my mask excitedly from Rastaman, this would be our first snorkelling stop of the day. We were expecting to see different wildlife at each of our three locations but I didn’t ask what was waiting for us here, I wanted it to be a surprise. Pops spoke for a moment about how to behave in a reef, he told us what not to touch or get too close to, but wrapped it up pretty quickly in respect to his promise earlier that morning about minimising the serious talk. Then, all of a sudden, we were jumping in. In spite of the mask I was wearing I instinctively closed my eyes.
First I felt the water, then I didn’t. Its temperature matched my body’s perfectly and it seemed to become one with my skin. This wasn’t a huge surprise, it wasn’t my first dip in the Caribbean that week and the Cayes were having a typical November of 30 degrees Celsius most days.
What was a surprise was what greeted me when I opened my eyes. I saw the corals again, but now more than 30 feet below me. I hadn’t been able to gauge the depth from the boat and I was totally unprepared. I looked down so my peripherals couldn’t catch the surface of the water, all I could see were my legs and the floor far below and I could feel nothing at all. I was flying.
Rastaman jumped in last and lead us away from the back of the boat. We swam over a huge, flat area of sand towards another bank of coral which rose like a wall from the seabed. At the edge of the sand there was a boulder. It was at least 8 feet long and rounded. I stared for a moment then carried on until I caught a flicker out of the corner of my eye. I looked back and saw a dust cloud pluming up around the rock. Then it moved again. A huge tail pounded against the floor and the mass rose gracefully upwards.
The whole group watched, transfixed, as the massive animal glided effortlessly upwards. It sat breathing on the surface before turning and reversing course to come to rest in exactly the same spot it had been in before. Once it was still, we carried on to the coral where we could get a better view of the manatee.
I amused myself for a few minutes weaving in and out of the coral. Without realising, I had pointed myself back the way we had come and as I rounded a large sea fan I was met again with the large expanse of sand. The manatee had just taken flight again and I mimicked it – being in need of air myself. The rest of group came back to watch, but stopped several metres behind me. The creature had finished breathing and was now completely still just below the surface, facing us. Slowly but surely, with tiny waves of its hand sized flippers, the manatee moved towards us.
I became quietly nervous. He was now as close in front of me as my friends were behind me, he was much bigger than me and we were definitely in his element. But as he stopped, I looked into his eyes. They were just tiny black beads, no discernible pupil, but I was sure he was looking at me and I knew then that he was just being curious, like I was.
I found out later that of the half-a-dozen snorkelling tours that went out that day, we were the only ones to see a manatee. This, I thought, was the good luck Kelly had brought us, so I thanked her. She swore at me. Then smiled.
Tiny high pitched noises kept escaping from my throat. Long black shadows were darting through the water all around the boat. Pops had explained what we were really doing with the sardines and now we were all leaning over the sides of the boat holding them by the tail just a few centimetres above the surface. He never said why, but we were working it out.
The fish were taking their time, they circled ominously long enough to cause hysteria throughout the boat. Rachel was next to me. Like Mike I’d met her in Cancún along with her friends, Lucy and Helen. I’d helped talk the 3 of them into coming to Caye Caulker and in that moment I wondered if I’d have to feel guilty about that. Her sardine was the first to go.
She screamed and I spun to look at her hand. Her sardine was gone and a long, sleek tail disappeared back into the depths. Fear rising, I looked back down. I’d been busy watching the shadows whipping back and forth, waiting for one to leap. I wasn’t expecting the attack that came. The fish came from beneath the boat so I didn’t see it until it was already out of the water. At first it looked like a barracuda but as it rose I realised it was darker in colour and much bigger. It was a tarpon. Its open mouth engulfed my entire hand then it slid back down, closing its jaw over the bait and snapping it out of my grip, there and gone in a fraction of a second.
I’d been holding my camera in my free hand and immediately turned it around to check the video, hoping to get a better look and what had just happened, but as soon as I got it ready to play, another sardine was dropped onto my lap.
“In honour of her spirit, I think Kelly should go first this time” said Pops with a grin.
We all turned to look at Kelly then back to Pops. He walked up through the boat and started whispering in her ear. Her eyes grew bigger as he spoke. When he’d finished she thought silently for a while, then shrugged and without a word stood confidently on the bench and held her new sardine as high as she could in the air. The rest of us caught on at the same moment and looked at the sky excitedly.
The birds were faster to arrive than the fish had been. They were huge and jet black. They had long beaks with deep orange trim and an incredible wingspan relative to their bodies. Dozens of them circled the boat, as the fish had done, but above us now and far more intimidating.
"Frigate birds!” someone behind me called out.
We didn’t have to wait long. A bird broke away from the group, tucked its wings in tight, and dived. It unfurled inches away from Kelly, changing direction in a heartbeat and grabbed the sardine from below, brushing her hair with its feathers as it soared upwards.
Pops clapped loudly and waved his arms in a ‘stand up’ motion. We were reluctant, but having suffered no fatalities to the fish, we got to our feet and lofted our poor sardines.
I began to wonder if my arm would get tired but in the time it took me to process the thought, it was all over. I never saw my frigate bird coming. I felt something sharp against my knuckles and then it was gone. I flinched and spun around to see the bird already far away. There was some laughter around me but it quickly turned to screaming as more and more birds swooped in.
I felt a sharp pain and looked at my hand. My index finger had blood flowing down and dripping off the end, the bird’s beak had given me a nice little cut just below my knuckle.
The boat slowed again and fell into a circle with several others. The 5 vessels created a space roughly 50 metres in diameter. This was the final snorkel stop of the day and was supposed to be the main event. We were in the aptly named ‘Shark and Ray Alley’ of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Before we’d even stopped we were leaning over the sides of the boat searching for movement in the water.
Right away Pops began throwing food into the water. Within moments hundreds of small fish were swarming beside the boat and beneath them came bigger, slower moving shapes. The first of the nurse sharks came up over the feeding frenzy and rolled back down into the water in one movement.
10, 20, 30 seconds passed where all we could see were the fish, then in a heartbeat they were pushed aside as 3 sharks rose up to take Pops’ food. They writhed around each other in a tight ball of brown skin and flicking tails. Pops said we should get in quickly while they were at our boat, but I already had my mask on and was swinging my legs over the side.
I’d jumped in on the opposite side of the boat to the feeding frenzy. The water was shallow here, only about 3 metres, and the bottom was all sand. Lucy jumped in next to me. I glanced at her then span around to get my bearings. Then I looked down. My feet were inches above a shark that was swimming leisurely along the seabed. I exhaled slowly, frozen to the spot. Suddenly Lucy saw it too and grabbed a hold of my arm; I jumped a mile. She would later tell people we saw it at the same time and I jumped at the sight of it rather than her grip. I’m still bitter about that.
We swam around the stern of the boat and I found myself swarmed by fish. They flitted around me faster than I could track them, not a single one touching me. Then another shark passed, going by my knees this time, and another right in front of my chest. It was as long as I was tall, with sharp eyes and two protruding teeth at the front of its rounded head that looked like vampire fangs. I lifted my face out of the water, breathing a little too heavily for the snorkel and looked around amazed. I had been expecting to be trying to glimpse the sea life from afar, but here I was unable to get away from it. Everything was swimming unnaturally close. Then something soft hit me in the side of the head and it all made sense. Pops had been throwing the food directly at me. He doubled over with laughter when I looked at him.
I moved away from the boat into more open water. From here I could see everything. I watched rays glide along the floor and gazed at schools of fish in every colour…then I saw more sharks. Swimming away from me this time. One was big, a little over 6 feet. To its right was a slightly smaller one and next to that, two more. Each of them only about a foot long. It was an awesome sight; a family, enjoying a nice day out, swimming with humans. How lucky, I thought, must I be to see this. Then I looked at the little incision on my finger and decided this was the luck I’d brought myself with the honouring of traditions.