Saturday, November 10, 2012
Adventures In Belize - Day Five
Monday, October 15th, 2012
After a hearty breakfast of pancakes, we slipped the mooring lines, swung about, and headed due east under engine power for the short trip to Queen's Cays, a national marine preserve.
We changed course slightly to avoid a lighter colored patch of shallower water, and then swung around to approach the southernmost cay heading upwind. We dropped the anchor in 25 feet of water, and after a few moments it took hold, bringing us to a stop twenty or thirty yards from two other sailing catamarans already at anchor.
Queen's Cays, also known as Gladden Spit or Silk Cays is an extended area of very shallow reef where the surf breaks, at times awash at low tide. There are three very tiny islands stretched out in a line over about a half mile.
The southernmost where we and the other boats were anchored has exactly ten short coconut trees crowded onto a cay that couldn't be more than two hundred feet long and a quarter that width. It also has one barbeque pit, and a small shack with men's and women's flush toilets. The cay is also manned during the day by park rangers who are supposed to collect ten dollars for each crew member aboard every boat that visits.
Jane stayed aboard while John, Sheila, Ruth, Mary Anne, and I dinghied in to the pale green shallow water on the east side of the cay to go snorkeling. I talked to one of the rangers who informed me that the next cay, about five hundred yards to the north is a good place to land a small dinghy, and has excellent snorkeling. The third cay, another five or six hundred yards north of the second is a sanctuary where birds are nesting, and that nobody is allowed ashore there.
The sandy bottom is only about two or three feet below the surface, very gradually sloping out to deeper water. Millions of silvery inch-long fish formed a dense shimmering layer a few inches about the bottom, parting around me and joining again behind as I floated along.
The transition from sand to dense populations of sea fans and soft corals was rapid as I swam toward deeper water. Although the water was a bit cloudy, I enjoyed a good hour of watching the many kinds of fish, and taking underwater pictures and video.
Just after noon, a long open boat with a powerful out board motor on the back, and the words "Nature Reserve Ranger" stenciled on the bow approached our boat as it lay at anchor. The two rangers I had seen earlier on the beach cooking about two dozen chickens on a barbeque grill were aboard, and waved to us. They had come to collect the park fee. They said that the quoted price of ten dollars per night, per person was incorrect, and that it was a one-time charge only. We could stay as long as we liked, but that if we left and then came back again the fee would be collected again. After handing one of them the $60 for the six of us on board, the ranger said, "Well, I only have four tickets, but I can bring you the other two tomorrow if you are still here."
This was not difficult to figure out. If they had collected sixty dollars, but had to show the sale only four tickets when they reported to their office, they could pocket a nice 33% personal profit on the transaction. John was of the opinion that they likely made only a pittance in salary, and said nothing as he handed them the full amount. They handed him the four tickets, gunned the outboard in a sharp turn, and instead of heading back to the cay, raced off straight toward the deep ocean waters to the east, probably to spend the rest of the day fishing. Although the cruising guide book said that the Queens Cays are manned twenty-four hours a day every day, we have not seen a ranger presence since.
After lunch on board we watched two sailboats pull up anchor and head out, leaving only one more sailboat lying at anchor with us. A solitary dolphin surfaced a few yards away, took a breath and submerged again, coming up one more time farther away before disappearing.
The wind picked up a bit in the afternoon, and far off to the west a dark bank of clouds appeared. We decided that an afternoon snorkeling trip should be done sooner, rather than later. This time Ruth and Sheila stayed aboard while the rest of us stumbled aboard the pitching dinghy, and headed for Middle Queens Cay.
Approaching the shoaling water from the southeast, the foot and a half to two foot high swells looked a bit to intimidating, and John swung us around to head back to the South Queens Cay where we had gone swimming in the morning.
The choppy waves were washing across the shallows, but we hopped overboard onto the white sandy bottom in three feet of water, taking the tiny anchor out thirty feet from the front of the dink. Its short eight-inch hooks would not hold in the soft sand, so I dropped it behind a small head of dead coral.
Although there is only a foot and a half difference here between high tide and low tide, this afternoon there was less clearance between the surface of the water and the tops of the sea fans and soft coral. That, combined with the larger choppy waves sweeping across the reef made it feel as if you would be deposited on something unpleasant with each dip into a wave trough.
John and Mary Ann struck out for deeper water immediately. Jane floated in three to four foot deep water for awhile before deciding that it was just a bit too uncomfortable. As we headed for the tiny beach I saw that the dink anchor had slipped, and was dragging toward the beach, so I retrieved it and reset the anchor behind a larger coral head.
We ambled out onto the short sand spit at the southwest end of the tiny cay, watching tiny hermit crabs scrabbling their tracks across the damp beach while they avoided the inch-wide holes where ghost crabs appeared every few seconds to toss sand from their excavated burrows.
The diner of chicken casserole prepared by Sheila, Mary Ann, and Jane was served on deck, and we spent the evening there chatting. The sky was partially clear by eight o'clock, and we spent some time looking at constellations and the gauzy arc of the Milky Way stretching high across the sky.