Nearly 6 months ago I stepped out of a small craft on Punta Gorda’s airstrip as a pale English boy with no diving experience, about to embark on a new adventure, and really had very little idea of what to expect. I was greeted with a smile by Jo on a sweltering hot day, who quickly gave me a tour round town and then dropped me off at the guest house which would be home for my time in Belize.
Punta Gorda itself is a pleasant town, with enough isolation to give a real idea of Belizean culture and lifestyle, but still full of all the amenities any traveller would need for any length of stay. I had been told about how friendly the community here was, and until this day have saw the same hospitality every weekend I returned to the mainland, it certainly made fitting into to a new lifestyle very easy. After spending the weekend touring up to the Blue Creek caves with my first group of guests (an experience I would recommend to anybody) the following Monday I ate a hearty breakfast at snack shack – to this day I still treat myself to the sublime brownie shakes before departure – and then headed to the dock ready to head off to the Island and start my diving adventure.
The boat ride was smooth and quick, and with headphones in I couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across my face. Every week, rough or smooth, my “morning commute” is something I know I will miss bitterly, on the occasional week we would be accompanied by Dolphins, and enjoy the sun on a mirror like sea regularly.
I will never forget my first impression of paradise. Getting off the boat I looked down the dock onto an island around the size of a rugby pitch, covered with palm trees and surrounded by beautiful ocean views. The roof of the main building quickly became a favourite place to watch a sunset or sunrise, and just generally enjoy the tranquillity you’d expect from a Caribbean island seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Despite the isolation, for those who need contact with home, Wifi made sure the parents weren’t continuously worried, and over the last few months I could also make everyone back home that little more jealous of what I was doing with regular photos and updates.
I gained my Open Water certification within my first week out, and immediately noticed just how seriously the instructors took their jobs, and how passionate everyone involved was, about what they were doing. This is a testament to ReefCI’s judgement on staff, never once over my entire experience did I feel unsafe or that things were out of control, and the fact that everyone involved in the conservation projects are so passionate, means the informative talks are engaging and stick with you. I was always interested in Marine Biology growing up, and learning in this environment has thoroughly rekindled my enthusiasm. The knowledge I have gained from this trip has been so valuable, and done a lot for me in shaping my views and beliefs regarding conservation and the environment. It’s also driven me to get more involved in certain conservative efforts, my “forte” probably being the efforts made against the invasive lionfish in the Caribbean.
Before coming to Belize, I had heard of the Lionfish spearing, but was interested in learning more, and in a typically engaging briefing learned about the origins, effect and breeding patterns of the lionfish and then went on to be taught how to safely use a spear and bag so I could get involved myself. Guest after guest commented on the way they enjoyed having something explained to them in such detail, and then felt as if they were directly involved with what they had learned in the very next dive, a system ReefCI should be praised for. I quickly picked up the spearing, and in July 2013, broke the record for the most lionfish speared in a single dive in ReefCI history with 54. This was certainly a highlight of the trip, and will remain a fond memory for a long long time. I even got a ReefCI “Lionfish Killer” shirt as a birthday gift (thankyou Polly!) to take home and help spread awareness myself. The other thing I still love about lionfish, is how good they taste. Any fish caught fresh within the last couple of hours that then appears on your plate is quite something to experience, and whether you catch it free diving yourself, or it’s caught by one of the staff, it’s a regular occurrence out on the Caye.
This brings me on to the food, as a young growing rugby player, it’s safe to say I have quite an appetite. My parents even sent Polly an email warning her about the amount I eat, to which she assured them I would be covered. And boy did she deliver. Every morning, afternoon and evening I enjoyed very healthy portions of healthier food, and even learned to cook a few Belizean treats myself (Fry Jacks are a must to try). I also constantly enjoyed the atmosphere of the kitchen, spending many hours laughing with Adrianne, the friendly chef week after week.
I went on to progress through my dive qualifications under the instruction of a number of different instructors, my Advanced Open Water, my Rescue Diver and finally my Divemaster. The relationship I built with each of these instructors made me feel as if my best interests were in all of their minds, and the way in which they pushed me through to my final hurdle made me very proud to have qualified under their supervision, and has given me what I feel to be very competent and proper dive etiquette. Spending such a substantial amount of time with an organization like ReefCI let me experience diving with divers of all levels and abilities, in fantastic conditions. The water is consistently around 28 °C, perfect for a Brit, and the diversity of life is incredible. From the macro stuff and tiny creatures like the nudibranchs to colossal whale sharks, rays, turtles, groupers, eels, a few other sharks and barracudas to name a few, I was fast to realise how lucky I was to have dived in this location every week for as long as I have been. Meeting so many people has also opened up my eyes to a number of dive locations recommended consistently helping give me some structure for my dive future, and more than anything has allowed me to interact with a number of different backgrounds, cultures and ages, really shaping me as a person. The small island makes it difficult not to interact with other guests socially, and as someone who loves to get to know people, this suited me from start to finish. Whether talking dive gear and exchanging exciting diving stories, playing guitar round a bonfire, trash talking on the volleyball court or chatting over a beer at the weekend after a solid week, I hope to have made lifelong friends throughout my journey.
Overall, it’s no exaggeration to say I feel like I could never do enough to really say thank you to Polly and those who have helped enhance my 6 Months here, making it as special as it has been. After witnessing the Belizean work ethic week in week out, and seeing first hand the amount of effort that goes into making things run smoothly left me very humbled, and has given me a lot of important life lessons. Nearly every guest I spoke to said the same thing, that the time they’d had out on the Caye far exceeded their expectations, and I will for sure be one of those guests. A good day on Tom Owens really makes it feel like nothing else matters, with most days being very good days. When telling people about my plans over the last 2 years, not many even knew where Belize was, but this diamond in the rough is not to be missed, whether travelling through or coming diving with ReefCI, everyone and everything out here offers such a unique experience, the effect a stay here will have on you should not be underestimated. Whether staying for a week or a month, or even 6, I couldn’t speak higher of what I have been part of.
To Polly, Simon, Tracy, Jason, Snake, Roland, Yogi, Kaylee, Steven, Adrianne, and anyone else who has worked with me on the island, all of you have made special efforts to make my 6 months the life changing experience it has been, and I want to thank each and every one of you for this. To the guests that have stayed in touch, whether it was the first week or the last week on the Caye that we met, thankyou for the efforts, and lets hope that the Caye is not the final place we all cross paths. Unfortunately, this 6 months has had to come to an end, but Belize and ReefCI will be held very dear to me forever, and I assure anybody this won’t be the last time I appear on Tom Owens. So, until next time, let all who pass through enjoy every minute for what it’s worth, it’s not hard to do, and I look forward to the new adventures, people and stories that next time is sure to bring!