An Underwater
Adventure

In Belize, scuba diving
with sharks -
and a whole lot more

What kind of Year of Adventure doesn’t include swimming with sharks?

Not mine, that’s for sure.

At the moment, I’m kicking along a reef at Half Moon Caye off the coast of Belize. Our small group of scuba divers has caught the attention of two or three blacktip reef sharks that are making close passes, 5- or 6-foot “men in gray suits” staring at us with steely eyes.

Honestly, it doesn’t bother me. I’ve been diving long enough — about 20 years — to understand that these sharks don’t want to eat me. They’re just curious.

RELATED: Life slows down on Ambergris Caye

I also know that sharks play a critical role as apex predators. They help keep oceans clean by eating dead and dying plants and animals, and they keep populations of other species in check. They’re strong and beautiful to watch, if you can get over the fear factor, and they draw tourists, which help support seaside economies.

During this week on a live-aboard dive boat, I’ve encountered sharks nearly every day, mostly blacktip reef sharks like these, plus a smattering of nurse sharks, which are more like giant ocean-faring catfish than anything else. Unless, as it turns out, someone in the group is spearfishing. (More on that later.)

On the upside, these reefs look healthy, with lots of lush-looking coral and oodles of baby fish. On the downside, we’re recording water temperatures between 86 and 87 degrees — the warmest I’ve experienced in more than 350 dives in places from Fiji to the Galapagos Islands and all over the Caribbean. The water is so warm that for the first time ever I don’t need a wetsuit. That’s worrisome, because when water temperatures get too high, corals can bleach, or turn white, expelling the symbiotic algae that live in its tissue.

RELATED: Head to Fiji for colorful underwater action

A southern stingray patrols the sandy bottom of a reef off the coast of Belize.

It’s my first trip to Belize, other than an airport layover years ago, when a rhinoceros beetle the size of my fist trundled through the tiny terminal building. Today, destinations like Ambergris Caye are popular among visitors looking for an island getaway, and the airport is bigger and more modern.

But it’s the ocean my husband and I have come to explore.

In the waters around Long Caye and Half Moon Caye, I’ve seen groups of transparent squid, velvety-looking green moray eels thicker than my leg, crabs the size of my pinkie, eagle rays with glowing blue spots on their backs and fish in all shapes and sizes, from triggers to trumpets, flounders to tarpons, barracudas to puffers.

Earlier this week, I felt like I was swimming into that scene from “Finding Nemo” where a shape-shifting school of fish tries to communicate with Dory by clustering, in turn, into the form of a ship, a shark and the Sydney Opera House. In my version, a glinting group of silversides hovered in an overhang. Every now and then, a predator fish darted in to pick one off and the school bolted in unison, forming up a few feet away in an all-new shimmering mass.

Pam LeBlanc declared her Year of Adventure after hiking the John Muir Trail.

Inspired by a 15-day backpacking trip on the John Muir Trail last year, Pam LeBlanc has declared this year her Year of Adventure. So far she’s raced (and won!) a naked 5K run, jumped off a 10-meter dive platform, rappelled down a 38-story building while wearing a Wonder Woman costume, attempted a water ski jump, paddled the Devils River, scaled cliffs on Lake Travis, bicycled with Lance Armstrong, jet surfed and more.

We’ve also spent a morning at the Blue Hole, made famous by Jacques Cousteau, who visited it in the 1970s (and famously blasted an opening in the circular reef so he could squeeze his vessel, the Calypso, in to do some studies). Divers flock there to see the pillar-shaped formations in submerged caves. Dives there are deep and short, though, so I skipped the plunge and lolled instead in the shallows surrounding the hole.

The beauty of a live-aboard trip? No decisions to make, other than how manydives to do each day. Most days, I stop after four, because diving becomessurprisingly exhausting when it’s all you do. Boat accommodations are less thanglamorous, with pint-size quarters and a marine toilet, but they’re all youneed. Food is fine but not gourmet. The boat carries 20 passengers and a funand attentive crew of about 10. (We paid about $2,300 for the excursion,including diving, meals and boat lodging.)

Blacktip reef sharks patrol the reef off of Half Moon Caye in Belize during Pam LeBlanc's recent trip to Belize.

Most people who book this type of trip have been diving for years, and webring all our own gear, from buoyancy control device, or BCD, to wetsuit, finsand mask. The boat provides the air tank and fills.

But the Belize trip marked a first live-aboard for two in our group, BrendanBeggan, 45, and Nathan Davis, 45, who met as roommates at Colorado University.

“To me it’s a completely new experience most people don’t have,” Davis says. “There’s so much to see underwater. The landscapes are different. There’s so much life, and it’s peaceful.”

A large brain coral seen while scuba diving off of Half Moon Caye.

A large brain coral seen while scuba diving off of Half Moon Caye.

For Beggan, the trip was sort of a crash course in serious diving. Before this week, the deepest he’d gone was 20 feet. At the Blue Hole, he dove to 130 feet.

“I was nervous about everything,” Beggan says. “I got a little less nervous as the trip went on, until the Blue Hole dive. But I’m glad I did it.”

Another first for Beggan? Swimming with sharks. “I saw them from far off first, and then they started to swim among us. I was afraid they could sense that I was nervous.”

A yellow-headed jawfish emerges from the hole where it hides on the ocean floor off of Half Moon Caye.

A gray angelfish swims over a grassy expanse near Long Caye.

A tiny blenny perches on a bit of coral off a reef in Belize.

Divers aboard the Belize Aggressor IV spent half a day at the Blue Hole off the coast of Belize. The popular dive site plunges to 407 feet.

Not all was smooth sailing.

My husband and I flew to Belize City through Houston. One couple’s luggage got misplaced. Other passengers loaned them clothing and gear for a few days, until United Airlines arranged for a boat to deliver their suitcases to us.

And then came the Great Nurse Shark Incident.

RELATED: Invasive lionfish threaten Gulf of Mexico ecosystem

A nurse shark nipped a dive master that was spear fishing during a trip aboard the Belize Aggressor IV.

A nurse shark nipped a dive master that was spear fishing during a trip aboard the Belize Aggressor IV.

All over the Caribbean, lionfish are proliferating. Scientists surmise that some of the brightly -colored spiny fish were released from aquariums into the ocean. Since they have no natural predators here, they began to multiply, eating the fry of native species and upsetting the natural balance on the reef.

To help protect the local reef, many divers now legally spear the invasive fish. During one of our dives, a dive master speared a lionfish, and a nurse shark swooped in to eat it. For the next 15 minutes, the normally unaggressive shark swam from diver to diver, presumably looking for more.

An octopus skims along the ocean floor during a night dive off the coast of Belize.

An octopus skims along the ocean floor during a night dive off the coast of Belize.

It’s a tough problem. Lionfish are causing problems here, but what are the repercussions when a native species begins to associate divers with food? In this case, it ended with the dive master getting nipped.

And while sharks play a role in my Year of Adventure, getting bit by one doesn’t even make the top 10.