Belize beauty: Shark eye's view

A Memorable Place

December 18, 2005|By CHRIS JUSTICE | CHRIS JUSTICE,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When my wife and I journeyed through Belize, I bought a T-shirt depicting a kaleidoscopic snapshot of underwater treasures, the kind that certifies Belize as an aquatic paradise. On the sleeves was the phrase, "Seeing is Belizing."

That T-shirt has gotten many holes since our trip, and my wife has frequently urged me to "get rid of that shirt already!"

But I decline, and my refusals are because of the 7-foot nurse shark I almost swam into while snorkeling one evening off Ambergris Caye. That image has been etched in my mind since, and whenever I wear the Belize T-shirt, I am reminded of paradise and the lateral brown ghost that underlines what is for me the essence of this tropical place.

In Belize, it seems an exotic surprise exists around every corner, and once surprised, you're never the same again.

On the night of our snorkeling trip, twilight arrived, and we departed for the reefs with Pedro, our portly guide, whose quiet demeanor was as relaxing as the lapping waves. The white sands disappeared as we hovered over the crystal waters. After we anchored, Pedro quickly established the rules: "Stay within 10 feet of me at all times," he said.

We plopped into the water with our masks, snorkels and flashlights. Above us, the pastel strokes of twilight faded into a giant blanket of black.

In what seemed like minutes, I lost my way. Seduced by the clownfish, brain coral, angelfish and triggerfish, I unknowingly allowed the distance between Pedro, my wife and me to increase.

My focus locked onto a reef formation where the coral seemed particularly explosive and the squirrelfish particularly skittish. A massive Nassau grouper was nearby. Absorbed, I suddenly realized I had lost my partners.

I turned around, and within a few feet of my mask, the nurse shark glided across my path. Though harmless creatures, the sight of a shark larger than my frame and so close to my eyes was - and still is - humbling. I floated there, amazed, and a minute later Pedro seized my arm.

During that snorkeling trip, I had no idea I was suffering from dysentery. But while in those cool Belize waters, with so much excitement all around me, my stomach didn't hurt at all. When immersed in Eden, pain ceases.

Snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef of Belize was as close to paradise as I've been in a long time, dysentery and all.

I have since snorkeled in many other places. While they were all beautiful experiences, they pale in comparison to the colorful surprises and lessons that lurk below the surface of Belize's waters.

Chris Justice lives in Owings Mills.

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