Stop and Smell the Orchids

One thing I love about living in Central America is the everyday encounters with exotic flora and fauna. I know that what is “exotic” to me is normal to the people who live here in the same way that North American birds and flowers that are normal for me would be “exotic” to them. We used to laugh, for example, when people would take manatee tours in the Indian River Lagoon—we would hear the vacationers screaming, “Look! A manatee!” as they nearly tipped the boat in their eagerness to photograph a slow-moving sea cow. We saw these gentle animals in our back yard nearly every day and became inured to them. To be fair, my friends in Panama laughed when I would stop by the same tree every day to look up to see what the sloth was up to (usually sleeping in the same place as the day before, but sometimes, gasp, it was scratching!). I never got tired of looking at this strange animal, but this strangeness and newness is part of why we travel. Nature is full of surprises—even when you’re used to the surroundings, a closer look always inspires wonder and awe.

On the way home from an afternoon out with Jay here on the Rio Dulce, we stopped to take a closer look at a tree surrounded by a cloud of pink blossoms. We idled over in our dinghy and realized that the flowers were not part of the tree, but were growing attached to the trunk, that they were, in fact, orchids. They were beautiful—with ruffled pink/purple petals and a deep magenta throat. I snipped a small cluster to bring home and show the kids and to see if I could identify the type of orchid. Suddenly, ants were crawling all over my hand and down my arm—the orchids were teeming with them. I gave the flowers a quick dowsing in the river and brushed the ants off my arm. I felt bad for having so thoughtlessly disturbed the flowers and their residents and regretted not carrying the good camera so I could have captured a closeup of the flowers without taking them off the tree.

Myrmecophila orchid, Guatemala

My initial research made identification seem a difficult, if not impossible, task—there are over 1000 species of orchid in Guatemala, and there are several books and identification guides to enthrall the orchid-lover. There is even an annual orchid festival in Antigua, Guatemala every year, and many viveros which sell them to collectors and gardeners from around the world. I looked through pages and pages of images, and with a little patient digging, I was able to narrow down what kind of orchid I had. And it made perfect sense. The genus is myrmecophila: myrmex meaning “ant” and “philos,” love. These orchids and ants share a mutual affection for each other—they are, in fact, symbiotes.

Myrmecophila orchid, Guatemala  (closeup)

Myrmecophilia (exaltata?)

I found a lovely article written by Ivan Gabaldón, whose curiosity about this phenomenon led him to closer observation through macro-photography of ants and orchids. He had done his own research and interviewed conservationist Joann Andrews in Mexico. She describes the relationship thus: “the ants help the flower bloom, defend the plant from herbivores and take up residence in its bulbs, where they store dead insects that in turn provide protein for the orchid. The reward for the ants is to feed on the orchid’s nectar.”

Further reading reveals another mystery: the ants are not the primary pollinators for the orchids, rather, each species of orchid produces its own signature fragrance that attracts flying insects—a different kind of bee for each orchid.

How often do we zoom past such wonders in our hurry to get somewhere or to do something? A microcosm, mysterious and beautifully complex, lies within our reach, but unless we slow down and take the time to look, and to study what we see, we miss it entirely. Perhaps this is the best gift nature offers us: the chance to pause in our busy-ness and get a different perspective, to notice and appreciate something new and strange.

For more information on orchids in Guatemala:

Ivan Gabaldón’s article, “On the Miracle of Orchids and Their Love of Ants” from www.rideintobirdland.com.

James Bateman’s book, Orchids of Mexico and Guatemala (updated by John A. Denson in 2010, Lulu.com).

Oakes Ames’ and Donovan Stewart Correll’s Orchids of Guatemala and Belize (1985, Dover).

 

Geography Report: Belize

Basic Facts

Capital: Belmopan

People/Customs: The population of Belize is 387,879, of which more than half are are Mestizo, a quarter are Creole (descendants of white Baymen and their black slaves), more than a tenth are Mayan, and the remaining small fractions are Garifuna, German-speaking Mennonites, Europeans, North Americans, and Chinese. A large percentage of the people are Roman Catholic or Protestant, but there are also small percentages of Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Mennonites, Seventh-Day Adventists, and practitioners of traditional Mayan and African religions. (Garifuna are the descendants of black slaves and Carib natives which were relocated to Belize from the Bay Islands, where they had been brought from St. Vincent. They have their own distinct music, language, dress, and religion.)

Language: English is the official language, but an English creole, Garifuna, Mayan dialects, and Spanish are also spoken.

Climate: Belize has a dry season and a wet season and is inside the Hurricane zone (June-November). Cold fronts moderate the temperature and bring wind from North America during the winter and spring, and tropical waves bring heat and humidity from the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea during the summer and fall. Average temperatures in the coastal regions are between 75 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Food/Farming: typical dishes consist of rice, beans, cabbage or salad, corn tortillas, and some sort of meat (pork, chicken, beef, or seafood). The Fyffe’s fruit company exports Belizean bananas to Ireland and the U.K. Other tropical fruits like pineapples, oranges, and mangoes are grown in Belize. Cacao is grown and processed into chocolate. Coconuts are also common, and coconut milk is used for drinking and cooking. Sugarcane is grown for local use and export.

Government: Belize became an independent state in 1821. Though it is no longer a British Crown Colony, the Queen is still the symbolic head of state of Belize, which is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. The Prime Minister is the head of the government and there are two houses in the National Assembly, which makes laws. There is an independent judiciary and a Supreme Court for hearing serious cases.

Currency: the Belize dollar (BZD), equivalent to about $0.50 USD.

Art/Music/Culture: The culture of Belize is influenced by its many ethnic groups, among them the British, Spanish-speaking Mestizos, Mayan tribes, African slaves, Garifuna people, German-speaking Mennonites, and American expats. One popular type of music is called “punta rock,” a hybrid of soca, calypso, reggae, salsa and meringue. There are also traditional Garifuna drumming groups. Artisans carve wood and slate, make pottery, embroider cloth, make beaded necklaces, and weave baskets.

History

The Mayan civilization plays a large part in Belize’s history. The Maya settled in Belize starting in about 1500 BC, and there were as many as 1 million people living in Belize during the late Classic Era of Mayan civilization (600-1000 AD). When the Spanish arrived in the early 1500’s, there were three distinct Mayan territories (each with its own dialect which persists to this day). The Mayans believed that the world was flat, and they believed in many different gods, so when the Spanish arrived, they tried to convert the Mayans to Christianity. They were largely unsuccessful, though some Catholic concepts were added into the Mayan religion.

When the conquistadors arrived in Belize, they claimed it for Spain but did not develop settlements because of the lack of resources and the hostile Indian tribes of the Yucatan. In the 1600’s, the British wood-cutters started to come and settle the land. In 1763 and 1783, the Spanish granted land to the British wood-cutters but still retained sovereignty until 1786, when the British started to take control of the area that is now Belize in order to protect themselves from incoming Spanish settlers. In 1798, the Spanish sent a fleet to remove the British Baymen, English and Scottish settlers and pirates, using force, which resulted in the battle of St. George’s Caye. On September 3-5, the Spanish tried to barge their way through Montego Caye shoal, but were stopped by the British defenders. And on September 10, the Baymen repelled the Spanish fleet again in a short engagement with no known casualties.

By the early 19th century the British sought to reform the settlers and abolish slavery, but because of social and economic limitations, the lives of the imported blacks changed little after emancipation in 1833, and they were still used as the labor force to harvest logwood, which was used in the dyeing of cloth, and Mahogany, a hardwood. In 1836, Central America became independent from Spain and the British claimed the right to administer the area. It officially claimed Belize in 1862 as a British crown colony and renamed it British Honduras.

In the years 1847-1853, many thousand Spanish-speaking people started to settle the area resulting in the Caste War in Yucatan, causing the Mayans to flee to the west and the north and allowing the Spanish-speaking refugees to colonize Belize.

The Belize Estate and Produce Company dominated the politics and the economy for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with British landowners holding half of the colony as privately-owned land. The economy collapsed after the Great Depression, when demand for mahogany went down. Soon after, there was a devastating hurricane, which worsened the economic situation. Unhappy with British management of the colony, the colonists began to demand independence. By 1964, a new constitution gave Belize full autonomy. In 1970, Belmopan replaced Belize city as capital and in 1973, British Honduras changed its name to Belize. Belize claimed its independence from Great Britain in 1981, though it is still considered a Commonwealth nation. Guatemala, which had never accepted British control, refused to recognize that Belize was a sovereign nation until 1992, claiming that the entire country was actually part of Guatemala. The border disputes have been contentious and continue to the present day.

Today, Belize’s reef, tropical islands, and rain forests make it a perfect vacation spot. Many North Americans have migrated to English-speaking Belize and made it their home. In 2006, crude oil was discovered near Spanish Lookout, and Belize exports crude oil but imports diesel and gasoline, since it has no refineries. Belizean bananas and oranges are also exported around the world.

Land forms/Flora and Fauna

Belize has a land area of 8,800 square miles, and the second largest barrier reef in the world. It also has hundreds of mangrove islands, barrier islands, and vast areas of marshy wetland. The Maya mountains have rivers and waterfalls and are covered in rainforest. On land you might find jaguars, the national animal of Belize, along with many other large cats, agoutis, tapirs, iguanas, and snakes. In the air you might see toucans, quetzals, sea-birds and many different species of parrot and macaw. In the water you might find whale sharks, tropical fish, turtles, and manatees.

Things to do

Hiking in the Jaguar Preserve, going to the Bunches of Fun Banana Farm near Placencia, white-water rafting, river tubing, or cave tubing, snorkeling or diving on the reef, zip-lining, kayaking, fishing, taking a boat tour up the Monkey River, and going to the Mayan ruins like Caracol, Xunantunich, or Nim Li Punit,

Bibliography  

“Belize.” Wikipedia. June 28, 2018.

“Belize: the Arts.” Encyclopedia Britannica. June 28, 2018.

Rauscher, Freya. A Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast. 2004: Windmill Hill Books, Madeira Beach, FL.

“Timeline: Belize.” BBC News online: www.news.bbc.co.uk . June 28, 2018

 

Bunches of Fun

How do bananas grow? I learned the answer to this question at the Bunches of Fun Banana Farm Tour in Belize.

Well, first the farmer plants seeds or small banana plants. It works both ways. They require a lot of water because their trunks are made of channels full of water. Banana plants need good soil, so farmers re-use old tree trunks, bananas, and leaves chopped up to make a mulch. They need warmth and sunlight, which is why they grow well in Central America.

Banana Blossom 3

The plant grows rapidly. A banana flower begins to grow. What is growing under each petal? A hand of bananas! Each banana is called a finger, and many hands make a bunch. Each plant produces only one bunch during its life.

Baby Bananas]

The farmer protects the bananas from bugs. The two small bananas at the bottom are sacrificial bananas that protect the rest of the bunch from fungus.

Banana Harvest 2

After the bananas are full grown, the bunch is harvested. The farmer uses paper and plastic to protect the bananas from latex, a gooey brown sap that stains the bananas and makes them hard to sell. The bananas ride a kind of zip-line or cable to a large building where they are washed, cut, and sorted, then packed very tightly in boxes. Then they get loaded into containers and go by truck to a big ship. They are stored at 58 degrees Fahrenheit to keep them from ripening too quickly.

Banana Plant Stump

Once a banana plant has produced a bunch of bananas, they chop it down. However, a daughter plant is already growing right next to the old stem, starting a new cycle of life.

My favorite part of the tour was at the end, when we got to eat some fried green bananas, which are better than potato chips!

Up the Rio

After much discussion of family goals, summer plans, boat projects, and seasonal weather, we made a decision while in Belize in June to head up the Rio Dulce in Guatemala instead of sailing back to Florida to haul out for hurricane season. This is a departure from our original plan, but for those who know us, this will not come as a surprise since all of our plans are written in wet sand at low tide.

Take Two Crew in the Rio Dulce 3

Crew of Take Two heading upriver

While some of the crew is ready to go back to the United States for good, others of us would like to spend more time in the Caribbean and Central America. The compromise is to spend a season in Guatemala, fly back to the US for a long visit, and eke out one more cruising season before sailing back to Florida. The cost of boat work and risk of hurricanes are both significantly reduced here as well.

View of Rio Dulce Guatemala

So far, we are loving it here–we’re plugged into a marina with a pool, and have met some new friends as well as connecting with some old ones. The day we pulled into the dock, Jacob and April and their two girls from s/v Lark were having lunch at our marina, and they formed a welcoming party.  One of the reasons we love this lifestyle is that boat-friendships, no matter how transient, are really special–the world is small and you never know when you’ll run into an old friend.

Shell Bay Waterfront Rio Dulce

For those land-lubber family members and friends we haven’t seen in a while, we look forward to seeing you sometime this summer or early fall when the crew of Take Two goes on the road!

Geography Report: Honduras and the Bay Islands

Basic Facts

Capital: Tegucigalpa is the capital and largest city of Honduras. Roatan is the capital of the Department called Las Islas de la Bahia which includes the Swan Islands, Guanaja, Roatan, Utila, and the Cayos Cochinos.

People/Customs: The population of Honduras is 9,112,867 while the Bay Islands’ population is 65,932. There are many different people groups living in Honduras, such as the indigenous Chortí, the Copán, the Lenca, the Jicaque, the Pech, the Tawahka, and the Miskitos of the coast, which have a mixed heritage including British and African. There are the mestizos, of mixed Spanish and Indian descent, and the Garifuna, descendants of a tribe of black Caribs from St. Vincent which was transported here 200 years ago. Most of the population practices Catholicism, but several protestant denominations can also be found in Honduras and the Bay Islands, including Anglican, Pentecostal, and Seventh-Day Adventist.

Language: The official language of Honduras is Spanish, although English is spoken in the Bay Islands, because they once belonged to Great Britain. An English Creole is also spoken in the islands.

Climate: Honduras is both tropical and mountainous, and has a wet and dry season. Wet season coincides with hurricane season (June 1-November 30). The Bay Islands enjoy the cooling effects of the trade-winds.

Food/Farming: Typical Honduran food consists of rice and beans, corn tortillas, chicken, beef, pork, or fish, cabbage, and Conch soup. Many tropical fruits are grown in Honduras for consumption and export: bananas, mangoes, melons, pineapples, papayas, and citrus fruits. Coffee is grown at high altitudes on the mainland.

Government: Honduras has a democratic republic with three branches of government, many political parties, and an elected president.

Currency: The currency is Lempira. 1 USD=23 Lempira. The currency “Lempira” is named after one of the native heroes. When the Spanish found that they could not defeat the Indian chief Lempira, they raised the white flag, and invited him to sign a peace treaty, but when he entered the conference room the Spanish leader shot him, which led to the defeat of the native armies.

Art/Music/Culture: The culture of Honduras and the Bay Islands is influenced not only by the native and Latino peoples, but also by the African slaves, Spanish rulers, British invaders, Cayman fishermen, and American fruit companies. Popular music consists of merengue, calypso, salsa, punta, and Mexican ranchero. Hondurans love to play and watch soccer, or “futbol.”

History

Honduras was found by Christopher Columbus whose first stop was Guanaja (in the Bay Islands) in 1504. When Columbus ventured out of Guanaja he came to Punta Caxinas on the mainland, which he named Honduras, or “depths” in Spanish, for the deep water he found off-shore. In 1524, Gil Gonzalez Davila came to Honduras and Guatemala to make a small community near the mouth of the Rio Dulce. The next year, the Spanish settled on the northern coast of Trujillo and started to explore the central highlands where Comayagua was established. In 1570, the Spanish found gold and silver, and began shipping their treasure back to Spain; the treasure also drew pirates to the area, who were using a bay they called “Port Royal” (after the famous pirate port in Jamaica) to stage raids on passing ships. The Spanish also used Roatan as a shipping base.

Although the Spanish held the interior of Honduras, in 1572, after an appeal was made by the chiefs in the Miskito region, the British more or less took the coastal waters of Honduras, and a British protectorate was declared over the Bay Islands until 1859, when they were relinquished to Honduran control.

On the 15th of September 1821, Honduras declared its independence from Spain, and in 1822 Honduras declared loyalty to the Emperor of Mexico, Augustin de Iturbide. Later that same year, he was deposed and the five central American nations: Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, joined into the United Provinces of Central America. But in 1838, after many quarrels between the five nations ended the Federation, Honduras became a separate republic. Thus began a series of political changes which resulted in decades of instability. Between 1853 and 1860, an American named William Walker hired an army and made several attempts to take control over territory in Central America and lower California. He had a few successes, declaring himself President of Sonora, Mexico and Emperor of Nicaragua, but was always driven out and he was eventually caught by the British and executed in Trujillo, Honduras.

In 1888, the first rail-road was built in Honduras; it ran from the Caribbean coast to a town named San Pedro Sula which grew to be the second-largest city and main industrial center of Honduras. At the beginning of the 1900s, three large American fruit companies (United Fruit, Standard Fruit, and Cuyamel Fruit) bought up about 75 percent of Honduras’s banana plantations and exported fruit back to the United States. The remaining 25 percent, smaller plantations, were either bought out or forced out of business. Because 60 percent of the exports were bananas, this gave great economic and political power to a few foreign “invaders” and Honduras became known as the “Banana Republic.”

Honduras in the 20th century has been characterized by violence due to government corruption, political unrest, border disputes, crime, and gang warfare. For example, in 1969, El Salvador invaded Honduras during a border dispute which is now known as the Football War, because the conflict became violent during the World Cup qualifying matches between the two countries. Honduras was a staging area for the United States during their involvement in Nicaragua during the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s. While violence and crime on the mainland made it unsafe for tourists, the Bay Islands enjoyed relative safety, and developed their diving industry and built beach resorts so that today they are a popular tourist destination.

In October of 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras and the Bay Islands. Three days of torrential rain caused continuous landslides and floods that buried several towns and destroyed about 100 bridges throughout the country. Mitch was said to have killed 13,000 people in the whole of central America. Today, you can still see evidence of Mitch’s destructive forces on the landscape, though the country has largely recovered.

Land forms/Flora and Fauna

Honduras has several habitat zones, including mangrove islands along the coast, rain forests,  cloud forests, and tropical dry forests. There are many colorful bird species, including parrots and macaws (guacamaya). Animals such as jaguars, panthers, many species of monkeys, tapirs, and reptiles like snakes and iguanas can be found in Honduras. Underwater one will find coral reefs with many varieties of tropical fish, reef sharks, nurse sharks, and rays, and just offshore whale sharks can be spotted feeding on plankton.

Things to Do

Here is a list of fun things to do in Honduras: white-water rafting in the Rio Cangrejal, ziplining in La Campa, camping or hiking on Pico Bonito (the tallest peak in Honduras), and horseback riding in the forests. In the Bay Islands, there are beaches, coral reefs, hiking to waterfalls in Guanaja, scuba diving or fishing in Roatan, and freediving or swimming with whale sharks in Utila.

Bibliography    

Pavlidis, Stephen J. “Honduras.” A Cruising Guide to the Northwestern Caribbean. Seaworthy Publications, Cocoa Beach Florida, 2014.

“Honduras.”  www.CentralAmerica.com . May 2018.

“The Culture of Honduras” from Countries and Their Cultures. http://www.everyculture.com/Ge-It/Honduras.html . May 2018.

 

Deep Thoughts

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am chicken-hearted. I look at danger and run for the hills. Eli says that I am the kind of person that can turn a perfectly-fun activity into a life-threatening situation. (Arguably, I could say the same about him!) I have an uncanny knack for imagining the worst possible scenario. I go straight there, do not pass go, do not collect $200. When one of the kids gets hurt, Jay has to remind me to stop planning the funeral. And it’s not just a “mom-thing;” I have always had a nervous disposition.

If I operated according to my natural instincts, we would still be living in a ranch-style house with a white picket fence in a quiet little suburb. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I would certainly not be pursuing my dreams. While my instincts are to live a small, safe life, my dreams are the opposite—I want to try everything, to go everywhere, to talk to everyone. I’m like Aladdin’s genie-in-a-lamp: “phenomenal cosmic powers, itty-bitty living space.” I have written about this dichotomy—and about my greatest fear: regret. This is what drives me to live despite my fear. And every time I experience something new, I have to confront that fear and decide whether to heed or ignore it.

For example, I climbed up, but decided not to jump from Morgan’s Head in Providencia. I don’t even like jumping from our high dive, where there is no rocky outcrop to surmount or coral heads to avoid upon landing. (The kids thought the 30-foot jump was great fun.)

Morgan's Head, Old Providence

But I did go ziplining in Panama because I wanted, just once, to know what it was like to jump out of a perfectly good tree and go screaming through the jungle. And, while I have enjoyed snorkeling or SCUBA diving (both of which involve breathing), I have never liked freediving (which involves not breathing). At the same time, I love to watch my kids take a deep breath, swim down into a sandy canyon between walls of coral, and glide comfortably at 10 meters/33 feet or more below the surface, for a minute or two. I sometimes follow them down, to take a closer look at something on the reef, but I get below the surface only a few feet before I begin to feel panicky, like I must get to the surface immediately to breath open air.

Sarah Freediving

So, when the opportunity arose to take an Apnea Total class at Freedive Utila, I signed up along with Jay, Eli, Sarah, and Sam. Aaron opted out (he’s not much of a water kid) and agreed to keep an eye on Rachel while we were in class for a couple of days. I had no depth goals, really, but wanted to conquer my fear of holding my breath underwater so I could enjoy adventure-snorkeling with my family more. Jay and Eli have good breath-holds and are comfortable at greater depths, but Jay had trouble equalizing the air space in his ears past 12 meters/40 feet, and Eli wanted to learn about practicing safely. Sarah and Sam both like to freedive and wanted to improve their skills.

Freediving is a sport with many faces. We recently watched Le Grand Bleu/The Big Blue, an 80s film by Luc Besson about two divers who practice no-limits freediving, an extreme sport where divers compete to go deeper and deeper, using whatever means available. (The current record-holder is Herbert Nitsch of Austria, who dove to 214 meters/702 feet.) The film is interesting because it explores two sides of freediving: the desire to go deeper and find the limits for the human body, and the equally strong desire to see and understand what life is like in the ocean and to get closer to our mammalian neighbors beneath the waves. But if you have seen that film, then you may have gotten the wrong idea about freediving.

Most freedivers are not ego-driven maniacs who risk everything to go deeper. Most are using only their breath, a descent line, and maybe a pair of fins to safely reach depths of 100 meters/330 feet or more. Often, freediving is a means to an end, to go underwater unencumbered by SCUBA gear and explore reefs and wrecks, to go spearfishing, or to experience the Zen calm of descent and the emotional rush of coming back to the surface. And, like any sport, there is the challenge of training one’s body and mind and the fun of doing something you couldn’t do before, always improving and besting your previous depth or breath-hold.

Initially, it seems counterintuitive to go down and down into the deep blue while holding one’s breath—after only a few seconds, the build-up of carbon dioxide signals your brain that it is time to exhale, and after that the diaphragm begins to spasm. We’re land mammals, after all, only distantly related to the whales, some of which can swim down thousands of feet and hold their breath for an hour or more. But we share some interesting adaptations with these cousins and have only discovered our potential by pushing the limits. The human body is a well-designed machine—capable of much more than we demand of it. With training and breathing exercises to improve relaxation and gas exchange, it is possible within only a few days to improve breath-hold, and to dive deeper and more comfortably than one thought possible. (If you’re interested in freediving, I can recommend a book we read: James Nestor’s Deep.)

Jay Ascending from 21m, Freedive Utila

Of course, there are risks, too. Hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) can cause loss of motor control (sambas) and blackouts—rarely at depths, but more often in shallow water as a diver ascends, or at the surface after a dive. Pressure can damage the ears if one doesn’t properly manage equalization of air spaces. This is one reason we took the freediving class—to better understand and mitigate the risks. I have been snorkeling with Eli and watched him go down (deeper than I can follow) and disappear into an underwater cave or tunnel, then waited for him nervously at the surface for what seems like forever. Invariably, he comes calmly gliding to the surface, unaware of my discomfort. Preventing accidents and learning what to do if things go wrong was one of the best parts of our 2 1/2-day class. Already we have changed the way we practice freediving so that we take better care of each other and enjoy safer, more-relaxed snorkeling adventures.

Time for School

Oddly enough, the biggest discovery in the class was that learning to hold one’s breath is, ironically, all about breathing. We spent a significant amount of time during class and in the water just breathing. Having practiced yoga in the past, I was familiar with some of the exercises, like belly-breathing or lengthened exhales, and with the benefits of certain kinds of breathing to the nervous system. When one practices a “breathe-up” at the surface before a dive, it is not hyperventilation, like you might imagine—this only increases tension and decreases safety. It is instead a pattern of deep, slow breaths which induce an almost meditative state that helps one prepare for a stress-free descent. Freediving is all about relaxation and the careful management of oxygen supply. Efficiency is everything; one wants to expend the least amount of energy so that one has more time underwater, either to reach a greater depth, or stay longer at a desired depth. And an anxious brain is a big oxygen-consumer, so learning to calm and quiet one’s thoughts and lower the heart rate makes a big difference. To some degree, it is all in your mind.

Watching my kids prepare for a dive was like watching them fall asleep as babies. Having spent their whole lives around and in the water, they have a comfort that I envy. Observing their dives was one of my favorite parts of the class.

Sam, Constant Weight to 17m, Freedive Utila

Going down myself was more challenging. Even at the end of the first day (when I managed to get down to 6 meters/20 feet), I still felt my heart rate accelerate before the dive, experienced discomfort during the dive, and was ready to come up before I’d reached half-way down the line, the bottom of which was at 12 meters/40 feet. When our instructor, Mariano, asked how I felt, I said, “Happy to reach the surface and breathe again.” He was incredibly encouraging and positive, and offered helpful advice after every dive. And he said the next day would be better.

He was right. The second day, I ignored the goal entirely (the end of the line was at 21 meters/70 feet, which Jay reached easily) and focused on quieting my thoughts and relaxing in the water. Having worked through my fear and learned that I could safely ignore my body’s message to “Breathe now!” for at least a minute, I was able to pull myself down the line, relaxed with eyes closed, to 10 meters/33 feet. Most importantly, I was able to do this without that familiar feeling of panic. Coming back to the surface, as my lungs expanded, I experienced euphoria. I began to understand why people say freediving can be addictive.

Class completed, we got in the dinghy the next afternoon and took our new skills out to the reef. The weather was calm, the sunshine bright, and the water crystal-clear. I love that feeling at the surface when I first get in the water with my mask on, like I’m flying, looking down on coral canyons, rays swimming along the sandy patches, fish darting in and out of rocky caves, the water gradually changing from turquoise to violet-blue as the reef drops off into the inky depths. First one, and then another, of our family dropped down to glide along the bottom of a trench, or down along the reef wall at the drop-off. Each person had a partner at the surface, watching to make sure he was safe, and each took the careful steps of a breathe-up at the surface to make going to depths more comfortable. I also dove down, gliding along a sandy canyon-bottom, like an airplane flying low, looking at the ripples in the sand and getting a close-up of colorful fish at home in forests of coral. I came to the surface, happy to take some recovery breaths, but no longer afraid.

 

What follows is what I wrote in my journal about fear as I mentally prepared for diving the second day.

Fear

Warns me of danger.

Keeps me from repeating bad experiences.

Makes me aware of risks and consequences.

Helps me to stay on the straight and narrow.

Keeps me alive.

But fear

Can cripple me

Can keep me from experiencing

Adventure, discovery, friendship, love.

Is the enemy of faith, the destroyer of hope.

Prevents me

From making progress,

From achieving my goals,

From fulfilling my potential.

Keeps me from really living.

Fear:

What should I do with it?

Name it:

What exactly am I afraid of?

Look at it from all sides:

Is it legitimate?

Is it keeping me from danger or preventing progress?

Should I listen to the warning, or silence the alarm?

Pray about it:

What does the Spirit tell me?

Do not let your heart be troubled.

I am with you always.

Perfect love casts out fear.

If I speak to God about my fears,

He can quiet my thoughts or confirm a warning.

Make a choice:

Allow it to keep me away or proceed with caution.

Keep it in bounds.

Do not be ruled by it.

Make decisions using logic, comparing risks and rewards.

Do not live each day under its shadow.

Do not listen to the thousand whispers,

but search for the one clear voice of reason.

Fear

If I do not master it, it will master me.

 

Final thoughts, from Psalm 139

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast… Search me O God, and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Go Big or Go Home

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. Weighing around 20 tons and reaching lengths of over 40 feet, they are bigger than any other currently-living species of fish or non-mammalian vertebrate. They are slow-moving filter feeders, eating krill, plankton, and other tiny sea creatures. Their gentle nature, graceful movements, and tremendous size make whale sharks one of the more majestic creatures on the planet. We swam with some.

Swimming with a Whale Shark

We had been in Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, for a little over a week, enjoying the excellent diving, and were making plans to leave for Utila. Mom mentioned that there were whale sharks in Utila, and would we be interested in taking a tour to see them while we were there? Would we?! I should think so! It sounded just like the sort of incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience that we try to collect.

Utila is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks can not only be found year-round, but can be found easily, as their migratory route takes them past the Bay Islands. Whale sharks are very rare, secretive, and shy, and as a result, very little is known about their life cycle, breeding patterns, or migrations.

We arrived in Utila a few days later, after a short half-day passage. The weather would be calm and sunny for only a few more days, so one of the first things we did was to sign up the whole family for a tour the next morning with Bush’s Bay Island Charters. The trip would start at eight, and we would be out “whale-sharking” for several hours.

We had just finished breakfast when our captain came by in a dive boat. His name was Denny, a local guy whose family had originally come from Louisiana and the Cayman Islands. We got our snorkeling gear and cameras together, and loaded up. After a quick fuel stop, Denny took us around to the north side of the island, along the edge of the drop-off. The sharp peaks of the Honduras mainland were clearly visible to the south, while in the north, we could see the hills of Roatan low on the horizon.

Denny and Jay, Looking for Whale Sharks

On the way, he told us a little bit about finding whale sharks. Whale sharks eat plankton, an extremally abundant commodity in this area of the ocean, so they should be able to go wherever they want. But they don’t. For some unknown reason, whale sharks follow the schools of tuna, which feast on the bait-fish, which, in turn, feast on the plankton. Whale sharks can almost always be found near a tuna boil, a place where a school of tuna feeds near the surface. Then it is a simple matter of locating the shark, and jumping in on top of it. There were already several dive boats out looking for tuna boils when we got around to the north side of the island.

We soon found such a boil, and Denny told us to jump. We pitched ourselves over the side. The water was deep, disappearing into inky blue-blackness far below us. Tuna swam around in the upper few feet, snapping up bait-fish. Then we saw the whale shark. It was huge, maybe twenty feet long, greyish-blue and covered with white spots. It was most definitely a shark, and not a whale. It wasn’t just the fin alignment, the gills, or the vertical tail, there was something distinctly un-mammalian about it. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the least bit frightening. Maybe it was the knowledge that they had no teeth. The shark seemed shy, and soon ghosted off into the depths.

Whale Shark

We got back in the boat, to look for the next boil. The sharks always seemed to be near the surface in the middle of a boil. Denny said that later in the afternoon, when the tide rose, they would become less skittish, sometimes letting snorkelers swim with them for 30 minutes or more.

By this time, the other dive boats had caught on, and were beginning to arrive. At the next boil, we were joined by a half-dozen other snorkelers. We didn’t mind; the pool was big enough for all. In total, we made five dives, with about 15 minutes in between. We saw a whale shark on each dive, sometimes two at a time. A few were over 30 feet long. They seemed more annoyed than scared at our presence. They would swim around for a few minutes, then go deep. We brought along a couple of cameras, and I got lots of video footage of whale sharks swimming majestically away from the obnoxious snorkelers.

Whale Shark Tail

Eventually, it was time to go. We climbed back into the boat, and Denny headed us for home. Rachel, justifiably a little leery of swimming in ridiculously-deep water with ridiculously-large fish, had elected to stay in the dive boat the whole time, but had still seen some from the surface. As for me, I’m happy I took the plunge. It will stand out as one of the highlights of our trip. If I’m going to swim with sharks, they might as well be 30 feet long.

Bay Islands of Honduras

Picture this: a volcanic island covered with pine trees, sparsely settled, fringed by coral reefs, with a small round cay lying just offshore, covered, and I mean every available inch, with brightly-colored, multi-story buildings, some built on pilings out over the water. Shrimp boats with names like Flaming Arrow and Lucky Lady line the wharf along one side. A system of alleyways and canals crisscross the island, and water taxis buzz here and there, picking up and dropping off people going to the main island or through a channel to the north side, where there are sparkling sandy beaches and resorts, and one small settlement in a mangrove bay. At night, the taxis all retire, and country music begins to waft over the water from several bars. You might think to yourself, where am I? If you talk to anyone official, you will need some Spanish. If you meet someone on the street, you will speak English. The inhabitants of the island come in all shapes and colors, religious backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes. If you feel confused, this is part of the charm. You are in Guanaja, in the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Bonacca Waterfront, Guanaja, Bay Islands of Honduras

Bonacca, the Venice of the Caribbean

This place is full of seeming contradictions: a local who grew up in New Jersey and used to work in the New York Public Library returned to his island home to teach English to kids in the afternoons in a make-shift sidewalk-school. A Frenchman sails here every year on his way to or from Rio Dulce, Guatemala, but hates the water, so he comes only to hike in the pine forests. A German who settled here twenty years ago serves pizza in a palapa-on-stilts. A local couple who grew up in crowded Bonacca bought a hillside property on the main island and opened a first-class bar and restaurant which looks more like a chalet on a lake in Switzerland than a tropical island bar-and-grill.

Mi Casa Too, Guanaja

An Australian couple who have traveled the whole world by every conceivable conveyance house-sit on shore near where we are anchored (we met them in town on the day the supply boat came in). You never know what or whom you will encounter in the narrow streets of Bonacca.

Casa Sicaffy Storefront, Empanadas for Sale, Bonacca

Roatan is no less strange. Isla Barbareta, to the east, has virgin hardwood forest and good diving—it’s owned by a Texas tycoon. Mannie and Tita, originally from Mexico, run The Mango Creek Resort, a quiet getaway in Old Port Royal—yet another old pirate lair—with pastel-colored bungalows over the water, where people come for fishing vacations.

Mango Creek Resort, Old Port Royal, Roatan

Jonesville and Oakridge are local villages on bays lined with shrimping boats that ply the Cayman banks several months each year. The area looks and feels more like Louisiana than Latin America.

Shrimping Fleet, Roatan

French Harbor boasts Fantasty Island, an exclusive dive resort with a hotel, marina, dive shop, restaurant, and white-sand-lined lagoon—guarded by Hondurans with shotguns. In the same area, Little French Key brags that it is the “#1 Tourist Attraction in Honduras”—an island complex of beaches, restaurants, gift shops, swimming lagoons, and wild animals in cages, including lions and tigers and jaguars (Oh my!). We’ve never been anchored where we can hear lions roaring at sunset. It adds to the feeling that we have stepped into a Salvador Dali painting.

Horses On the Boat to Little French Key, Roatan

Coxen Hole, where the cruise ships come in to unload their thousands of passengers, has a reputation of being unsafe, and West Bay is the place said passengers go to play for the day—think parasail boats, jetskis, overloaded snorkel boats, and beaches lined with lounge chairs. West End is a little quieter—a small beach community with boutique hotels owned by North-Americans, open-air restaurants, cruising sailboats, and walls of coral to explore just offshore. A cruise around the island offers, if nothing else, variety. Each time we anchored, it felt like we’d arrived in a different country.

West Bay, Roatan

Utila is as different from Roatan as Roatan from Guanaja. A mere 17-mile sail takes you into a different weather pattern and social atmosphere. There are still palatial gringo-retiree houses with ocean views, still tin-roofed houses on stilts in town, but Utila is obviously a young diver’s mecca. Dive shops with palapas strung with hammocks line the waterfront, delicious after-dive lunches can be found for a reasonable price at lots of establishments, and the dance music starts at sunset and doesn’t finish until the wee hours. Young people from all over the world come here to get certified to dive and to become dive instructors themselves. Others come to swim with whale sharks, which are often found in the waters along the north side. Like Guanaja and Roatan, Utila has clear water, beautiful living reefs, lots of fish, and inexpensive dive-shops, which makes for phenomenal snorkeling and diving.

Swimming with a Whale Shark

The Bay Islands of Honduras have always been a crossroads. Mayan glyphs can still be found here—relics of a once-expansive population which had established trade routes throughout Central America. The first European explorers who came to get fresh food and water were welcomed by indigenous Paya in cayucos. The ubiquitous pirates of the Spanish Main lurked here. The Garifuna (Black Caribs) of St. Vincent were shipped here by English Colonizers during the wars between the intermarried “Black” Caribs and pure-blood “Yellow” Caribs of the Eastern Caribbean. The people from Africa, those whom “England left behind” have formed their own unique culture and language. Seafaring Caymanians sailed downwind from their islands to the East. Louisiana shrimpers seeking a new fishing grounds plied the nearby banks. The Hondurans who took over the islands brought Latin culture and cooking and Spanish language. The tourists seeking pristine reefs and beaches, the expats looking for cheap property in paradise, the sailors looking for a quiet anchorage—they have all come through the Bay Islands and left their mark. We too have come, made friends, formed impressions, created memories, and enjoyed the beautiful waters of the Honduran coast.

Sailing Away from Guanaja

Code Zero

When we bought Take Two, she was a lean, mean sailing machine. We tacked back and forth toward the mouth of the Manatee River and sailed across Tampa Bay on weekends and learned how to make her go fast. We used our spinnaker on calm days for a downwind run. We outran afternoon thunderstorms.

Sailing in 20 knots

And then we moved aboard.

We brought tools, spare parts, books, cast iron skillets, 5-gallon buckets of grain, scuba tanks—and, how could I forget? —five kids and all their clothes, toys, sporting equipment, and sundry items. “And sundry items” raised our water line 6 inches over time, and now our sleek sailboat is a fat cat. It takes a lot of wind to get her going. On passages, we don’t even bother to raise the main unless it’s blowing a steady 15 knots. Sure, we might be motor sailing with the jib out, but when the wind drops to 10 knots? Fuhgeddaboudit.

That all changed when we commissioned a Code Zero from Calvert Sails before we left for the Caribbean. We had added a crane to the top of the mast and a bowsprit to accommodate the new sail when we refurbished the rig in Fort Pierce (Spring 2015).

IMG_5341

We hoisted it for the first time on New Year’s Day 2016, and as it rolled out in all its glorious enormity, I heard angel choirs. We were hoping it would turn Take Two back into a sailboat, and we have not been disappointed. It is a reaching sail that fills the gap between our foresail (a genoa) and our spinnaker. We intended to use it for light upwind sailing and heavier downwind reaches.

Code Zero

We sailed across the Bahama banks in March in 15-20 knots of wind and fairly flew along the leeward coast of New Providence, seeing 10-11 knots of boat speed. When the wind started to pick up, we swapped it for the genny, not wanting to be overpowered. Good thing, too, because we saw nearly 40 knots on the banks that afternoon as we approached the anchorage at Highbourne Cay.

After that day, we wrestled it down into a locker (to protect it from the sun) and didn’t see it again for a long, long time as we bashed eastward toward the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands. Once we reached the Windwards, we discovered that the trade winds were too strong or too southerly to fly the Zero, so it stayed coiled away for another day while we sailed with reefed main and jib.

That all changed as we began the next leg of our Caribbean circle. Heading north from Grenada, we sailed fast beam reaches to St. Vincent and the Grenadines and St. Lucia, rolling out the Zero when the wind grew light, sometimes ghosting along at half-windspeed in 10 knots of breeze. Heading west from St. Lucia, it’s all downwind, so we expected to use the Zero a lot.

On our way to Bonaire in November 2016, we learned something important about that sail. We had raised, and then subsequently lowered, the mainsail after sloppy seas caused it to bang around too much. We hoisted the Zero without the main and seemed to have a lot of success. Until we hit some squally weather one night during my watch, when I decided to wake Jay to help me furl it. Without the main to blanket the huge sail, all the pressure of 25-30 knots of wind made it nearly impossible to furl. I was easing the sail as Jay furled the continuous line, but as the top and bottom of the sail rolled tightly, the middle caught the wind and bagged and ballooned. Jay was pulling as fast and hard as he could, but if he paused for even a moment, all ground was lost. Of course, it was night-time, he had been awakened from a dead sleep, and had never considered how hard the job would be, so he wasn’t even wearing gloves. We eventually got it sloppily rolled, and then dropped it onto the trampolines. As his hands blistered and bled, we learned a hard lesson—the Code Zero never goes up without the main (and, sailing gloves are not just for race crew).

We used the sail again heading west from San Blas during a period of light wind in January 2018, and, most recently, to sail from Guanaja to Roatan, Bay Islands of Honduras. The wind was directly behind us at about 10 knots. We considered using the spinnaker, but it shares a halyard with the Zero, which was still rigged since our sail from Grand Cayman. Though we swore never to fly the Zero without the main up, it seemed like the perfect light wind day to try it. And it was lovely—quietly swishing through indigo seas instead of listening to the drone of a motor or worrying about the spinnaker folding in on itself as it sometimes does in ocean swells. I went with the kids and lay on the trampolines in the shade and echo of that great sail and enjoyed a gorgeous day on the water. Though we’re still straightening out the proverbial (and sometimes literal) wrinkles, we have grown to love the Code Zero.

Sun Dog