Respite Reef

The Belize Barrier Reef is a secret playground for sailors, divers and all who love the water
lifestyle, travel, outdoors, nature
Written By Adam Van Brimmer
Image By Jeff Hunter/Getty Images

Parrotfish and other aquatic creatures call the Belize Barrier Reef home.

The school of blue tang pulses across the reef like an inkblot streaked with blue neon. The troop settles upon a coral head, completely covering it for a few seconds, then moves on. Other fish species and the random reef squid join their midst, and still others hover in the many crevices and hidey holes among the brain coral and tube sponges. The feeding is more dance than frenzy, choreographed to the steady thrum the Caribbean Sea makes as it meets this magical shelf that horseshoes around Goff’s Caye, a spit of sand that guards the rare deepwater cut through the second largest barrier reef on Earth.

The school settles as if encountering a stoplight, idling in the lee of a thicket of elkhorn coral, its branches nearly piercing the water’s surface. A couple of deep breaths, an equalization of the ears and two strong kicks and the snorkeler is among the blue tang, gawking at the platter-sized sea fans hidden along the reef bottom. Brilliant purple fans sway alongside their more flamboyant brethren, greenish gold ones streaked with violet veins. A tie-dyed parrotfish, its skin a collage of rainbows, knifes by and draws the eye only to reverse course as a barracuda cruises nearby.

Lungs scream for air, and the human intruder strokes for daylight. He breaks the surface, clears the saltwater from the snorkel and attempts to reacquire tang and the gang. But the barracuda’s presence has scattered them. The show is over, but in this grand aquarium—the Belize Barrier Reef—another display is a kick of a fin away.

The reef stretches 160 miles from the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to the shore near the Guatemala-Honduras border. The reef is also easily accessible, lying less than a mile from the mainland at many points and offering shelter to 450 islands and cayes—not to mention pleasure yachts of all sizes.

Yet the vibrant coral shelf seems a secret beyond the ranks of the world’s most knowledgeable recreational mariners. Belizeans lament, albeit good-naturedly in their native English, the fact that their Spanish-speaking neighbors consider their country part of the Caribbean, not Central America. Meanwhile, the Caribbean island nations insist Belize is on the American continent and point out the reef sits almost 500 miles west of the West Indies’ westernmost outpost, the Cayman Islands.

“Nobody wants to claim us, and that’s OK,” says Ruben Trejos. “We like the low profile.”

Trejos’ spreading grin reinforces his point. He’s lived most of his life in the one place in Belize that outsiders have discovered: San Pedro, an island town that almost brushes the reef. As a teenager two decades ago, Trejos captained a boat out of the then-simple fishing village, sailing to the reef to fill his ship with conch and lobster.

Sailing the reef is a yachtsman's nirvana: steady breezes, flat seas, plentiful anchorages, hundreds of uninhabited or lightly populated cayes to explore by kayak, paddleboard or dinghy, rich fishing holes and, of course, the underwater Shangri-La.

Today, he ferries scuba divers and fishermen between San Pedro’s resorts and the coral shelf. He makes more money in a few months off the tourists than he used to in a year of fishing and can devote the majority of his time to captaining luxury catamarans for one of Belize’s few yacht charter operators, Belize Sailing Vacations.

Steering Sand Star, a 50-foot catamaran, through the empty waters beyond sight of the San Pedro waterfront and its armada of golf carts is where he is at his most content. He recites, quite easily, the reasons why “sailing the reef” is a yachtsman’s nirvana: steady breezes, flat seas, plentiful anchorages, hundreds of uninhabited or lightly populated cayes to explore by kayak, paddleboard or dinghy, rich fishing holes and, of course, the underwater Shangri-La.

The many Caribbean bluewater cruisers that bypass Belize for the Lesser Antilles, the Turks and Caicos Islands, or Panama’s Bocas del Toro know not what they are missing. The atolls beyond the barrier reef attract plenty of boat traffic, particularly Lighthouse Reef and its famed diving destination, the Great Blue Hole, but the coral shelf might as well be a velvet VIP rope at an exclusive nightspot.

“You come to sail here for privacy,” says Cliff Wilson, who learned to sail as a boy on the San Francisco Bay and whose family founded Belize Sailing Vacations. “There are days where you’ll sail for hours and see only a handful of other boats. You are never fighting for an anchorage or tripping over other snorkelers or tangling lines with other fishermen.”

Cast Away

Image By Stephanie Lipscomb

The shady sanctuary of a coconut palm.

The barefoot little boy chatters excitedly at the rod-wielding visitors. His everyday patois is a mix of English and Spanish, with some local slang mixed in, and is incomprehensible to those not born and raised on the Belizean islands. But as the boat slides next to the weathered dock at the tip of a caye large enough for his family’s home and little else, he finds the word universally understood by fly fishermen around the world.

“Bones!” says Floyd—just Floyd, he insists—as he points to bonefish swimming in the shallow waters in the lee of the dock. “Bones! Bones!”

The youngster smiles broadly and bounces on his toes as recognition dawns. He collects his own fishing tackle, nothing more than a baited hook and a spool of line that dangles from a piling, and waves the newcomers onto the dock. He points to the lobster wells—plastic drums suspended between poles at the sea’s surface—and then to the water around them. His father is a lobsterman and keeps his catch fresh in the wells. Buyers often clean the lobsters at the point of purchase, salting the lagoon between the dock and the wells for the bonefish.

That turns the shallows into a five-diamond eatery for carnivorous marine life, no reservations required. A stingray larger than a dinner platter coasts under the dock, and bonefish tail through the flats in dusk’s dying light. A few awkward casts to judge the wind and find a rhythm, and the fisherman’s line begins to dance.

The boat motor is the dinner bell to them. More will come, but don't worry, they aren’t interested in you.

The calm, shallow waters inside the Belize Barrier Reef combine with the labyrinth of cayes and the light boat traffic to create a cornucopia of fish. More than 25 species of popular sport fish populate the lagoon, and fishermen stalk their prey with fly rods, spinning rods, spears and, in the case of lobsters and conch, snares.

The best fly action is to the south around Placencia. The 16-mile-long peninsula hooks off the mainland like an appendage and borders a series of flats so teeming with oversized game fish the area is known as Permit Alley. The peninsula also shelters several estuaries and lagoons filled with tarpon, snook and snapper.

Being a master caster is far from a prerequisite to successful fishing inside the reef. Pleasure yacht captains such as Trejos and Ellis Nicholas, another Belize Sailing Adventures regular, have lines out almost constantly in hopes of landing a meal. They troll while underway and will cast once at anchor, hooking cobia and skipjack tuna on large, bright lures.

Fresh catch is heated competition among Belizean boat captains. Trejos and Nicholas fillet each other’s fish stories like friendly rivals recalling past showdowns. Nicholas abuses Trejos for his background in lobstering.

“He’s good if all you have to do is empty a trap or pick up a big shell off the bottom,” Nicholas says. “No skill required.”

Refusing to take the bait, Trejos smiles, pulls out his smartphone and thumbs through selfies and photos of clients posing with manna from the sea.

“How many words is a picture worth again, captain?” he says.

Shark Encounters

Image By Stephanie Lipscomb

A satisfying day on the water comes to an end.

Not photo-worthy is the pockmarked plastic bottle that hangs from the end of a rope and is held at arm’s length, both because of the stench that seeps from its many holes and because of the wildlife it attracts when draped over the side of the boat.

Dozens of nurse sharks attack the chum bottle as soon as it breaches the water. They use their snouts and tails to push each other out of the way, desperate to investigate the source of what is, to them at least, the best smell on Earth. The feeding frenzy turns the sea’s smooth surface into a churning cauldron of writhing brown flesh.

“The boat motor is the dinner bell to them,” Trejos tells the daredevils preparing to enter the predatory waters from the portside of the dive skiff. “More will come, but don’t worry, they aren’t interested in you.”

This section of the Belize Barrier Reef is Eden for the slow-moving and relatively harmless nurse shark. San Pedro’s commercial fishing fleet once cleaned their catch here, and while these waters have quieted in the years since becoming part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve in 1999, the sharks remain conditioned to seek out the puttering of an outboard engine.

The view from underwater at what is known as Shark Ray Alley is equal parts chilling and mesmerizing. As promised, sharks converge from every direction, as do hungry stingrays. Meanwhile, majestic eagle rays glide along the sea floor, oblivious to the shark pile above. A black grouper as big as a steamer trunk relaxes in the shade of the bow. A full-grown loggerhead turtle paddles past in the distance.

The adrenaline rush eventually wanes, even if the sharks’ enthusiasm does not. The bait bottle is pulled into the boat, and the gluttons disperse. Back on board the skiff, Trejos notes the presence of at least one blacktip shark in the chum scrum and relates that small hammerheads sometimes cruise the alley, frightening the landlubbers who daytrip from San Pedro and another nearby island, Caye Caulker.

His charges just nod, exhausted and slightly dehydrated from the pulse-quickening swim in shark-infested waters.

“Just another day in Belize,” Trejos says with a laugh as he steers back toward Sand Star.

Shore Leave

Image By Russell Young/Getty Images

Fresh catch goes quickly from water to table.

The setting sun signals the pending end to the Belizean day and acts as an alarm clock at “The Split,” the narrow channel that marks where Hurricane Hattie cleaved Caye Caulker into two islands more than a half-century ago.

The crowd, a mix of sunburned Europeans on holiday and barefoot locals rebounding from a late afternoon siesta, grows as the fiery orb drops toward the western horizon. They claim the tables outside the lean-to tavern that stands haphazardly at the island’s tip or drape their feet off the seawall at the water’s edge.

Every sailor appreciates a lively port of call. And because no man—or megayacht—is an island, even along the Belize Barrier Reef, Caye Caulker is the place to go ashore. The sand streets seem to warm as darkness falls, the smells of the Belizean national dish, red beans and rice, melding with that of the day’s fresh catch. Then the sounds of steel drums, electric guitars and the joviality of the populace intrude to create that uniquely down-island vibe.

“This was San Pedro 15 years ago,” says Trejos as he passes around bottles of Belikin, the local brew. “No golf carts. No resorts. No sprawl. Just a place to dinghy into and have some fun.”

The Belize Barrier Reef shelters several similar respites where yachtsmen can shake the sea from their legs. Beach barbecues on St. George’s Caye. Karaoke or dancing in Placencia. Bonfires and stargazing on the atolls.

Yet Caye Caulker is the epicenter of barrier reef nightlife. The music, dancing and laughter reverberate until dawn, the reggae riffs drifting across the lagoon to the yachts rocking at their anchors.

A late night party lends itself to a late morning siesta in the absolute solitude of the trampoline net at Sand Star’s bow. The tightly trimmed headsail provides shade. An eight-knot breeze dries the last of the moisture from the skin. And the catamaran’s twin hulls slice rhythmically through the water to produce a tranquil soundtrack.

The Belize Barrier Reef is the sailor’s perfect respite, both above and below the sea’s surface.

Sandy Spits of Land

The 450 cayes along the Belize Barrier Reef are actually part of the reef itself. Cayes form as tides and winds pile up sand from the sea bottom on the reef flats. Over time, the sand breaches the sea’s surface, forming islands.

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