So my father and I landed in Belize city. Not wanting to participate in the lame cruise ship diving excursion, we decided to look for our own on land. This would be my first dive since my checkout dives two weeks prior. We talked to people at the kiosks where various tours were advertised, but to our suprise no dive trips were advertised.
Finally we met a man who led us to a place outside of the main tourist area. The people there were friendly, and professional. They advised that there was no diving near belize city, but that if we wanted to dive they could fly us to San Pedro about 60 miles away. Thinking that this would be extremely expensive, and would push the envelope on our time constraint, I was apprehensive about even entertaining the idea. Finally my dad asked "How much is it?" Suprisingly, including airfare and equipment rental, it was less than the price of the cruise ship excursion. I had my doubts about the whole diving and flying thing, but they assurred me that since this was just a little puddle jumper aircraft, and was not pressurized, it wouldn't be a problem. They also assurred me that we would return in time to make it to the cruise ship.
They provided transportation to the airstrip, via a 21 year old with a minivan. Being a Deputy Sheriff, I was a little taken back by this young man's driving habits, but we made it alive. The airstrip, had an indoor/outdoor non-airconditioned building, and was made of dirt and gravel. There were approximately three planes parked near the runway, and the pilot was dressed in a white shirt with shoulder boards that looked as if it hadn't been washed in a month. We sat behind him, and even though we could reach out and touch him from where we were sitting, he spoke to us over the PA ala Ron White.
The trip to San Pedro took about 20 minutes, and was beautiful. Aquamarine greens and blues shimmered as we passed over several large bodies of water finaly landing at another small airstrip where the pilot directed us to an area where a section of the wooden fence along the perimeter had been knocked down. He advised us to exit the airstrip through the gap, take a right and keep walking down the dirt road to the beach where the dive shop would be on the right.
When we stepped out onto the road, it didn't look like there was a beach nearby much less a dive shop. Slightly worried we made a short journey past a school where uniformed children played and laughed as we passed. Finally we made it to the beach, and sure enough there was a dive shop just to the right. There were wild parakeets, and iguanas around the beach as well.
As we entered the dive shop, (The name escapes me) we were greeted by two professional staff who were obviously british expatriots. They issued us our gear, had us fill out the usual paperwork, and directed us to a peer where the boat was waiting. The Dive staff were also friendly, and professional. They explained to us that during this dive we would be drift diving starting at 80' then going to 60', and ending at 40'. He also explained that we would be going into a swim through, that had no lighting.
During my certification I learned that swimming into an natural hole with no natural light, was called a cave, and required a special certification. I also learned that it was only reccommended that I dive to depths of 60' or less. Against my better judgement, I went along anyway. I figured that they did this on a daily basis, and that I should be fairly safe. This may not be sound reasoning, however; being prior military, and being in law enforcement, this type of calculated risks have become commonplace in my life.
After the ride out, the divemaster gave us our safety briefing, and the pool was open. As with most carribean dives, this was guided. We went throught the swim through early on, and I must say I was pretty nervous. There was about 20 feet of complete darkness, but I followed the diver in front of me, and kept thinking of "Finding Nemo" (Just keep swimming). Anyway when I saw the beautiful blue light at the end of the tunnel, I was relieved. I looked at my depth gauge which read 100'. I thought the max on this was supposed to be 80'. Again I rationalized, "These guys do this all the time." As we exited the swim through, I was hypmotised by the ammount of marine life. Sea turtles, nurse sharks, one bull shark, sea snails, all the usual tropical fish, and a seemingly endless array of coral.
As I followed the group, approximately 19 minutes into the dive I found it difficult to breath. I looked at my pressure guage which read 0. How can this be, I never use that much air. I tried to get my dad's attention, but he was approximately 12' below me looking under a rock. My depth guage now read 80 feet. All the other divers were swimming away from me, and had their backs turned.
Although I didn't panic, I knew that waisting energy catching up with another diver who was moving away from me would be difficult, especially if they didn't see me. Well I did know where there was plenty of air. In training my emergency accent was only 40', but I did have to swim an entire length of an olympic size pool underwater at the beginning of the class. I figured that once I got up a few feet, the air in my tank would expand, and I would get a breath or two. Wrong! I guess I was bone dry.
About 10 feet to the surface I felt a tug on my fin. It was the divemaster, and boy was he upset. I continued to the surface, since I was now really starving for air. Once there he chastised me, explaining how dangerous it was doing an emergency accent from 80'. I then explained how dangerous it was being 80' below the Carribean without air. He asked if I normally used that much air, and I advised that I didn't but that it was only my 6th dive. I suspected a leak in my first stage, which he balked at. When we returned to the boat, they checked the reg, and sure enough there was a slow leak. I guess coupled with my nervousness of going through the swim through without a light, and my excitement of all the marine life I sucked air like a Hover. The divemaster, stayed with my dad, and assured him that I was ok. On the next dive I was extra careful, and watched my guages like a hawk. At the conclusion of the dive, I tipped the crew well, since I caused them to almost have a heart attack.
On the flight back to Belize City, the pilot made one stop at a larger paved airstrip, which made me a little nervous since we were pressed for time. Dad and I were giggling like ten year old kids, and were making plans about how we would meet the wives in the next port of call. Miraculously, we made it back to the ship with five minutes to spare, but I thought we were going to have to spend the night in a lounge chair on the upper deck after dealing with my wife and mom.
With it's problems, Belize was the dive which I have compared every dive to since. In approximately 30 dives since, I have dove the Cayman Islands, Cosumel, St. Thomas, St. Marteen, Nassau, Key Largo, Key West, and Loe Key. So far no dive has surpassed Belize, however; the expierence has also made me a much safer diver. I have since bought my own equipment, and check it well before every dive. I communicate with my divemaster if there are any questions or apprehensions before a dive, and I check my guages as well as my buddy's regularly. I reccommend diving Belize to everyone, but as with any dive operation, rely on yourself for your safety.