It’s the last day of the year, a year that sped by lightning fast, but then again don’t they all? This is how we spent December 31 snorkelling with stingrays and nurse sharks in Belize. It still is etched on our collective hearts as the best way to spend the last day of the year.
If You Go, Consider This:
In hindsight I wished that I had bought a GoPro HERO4 SILVER
before we took our first ever cruise. I had no idea we’d need one out in the ocean, flying along in a jam-packed speedboat on our way to swim with nurse sharks and stingrays and sea urchins galore. These shots are the ones I captured despite the lack of a Go Pro. I was a little worried about dropping my iPhone in the water as we whipped along.
The Faster Years Fly By
Who can tell me how it is possible that the older you get the faster the years go? What strange voodoo is this? I have no rational explanation for this phenomenon. It seems to defy laws of physics. But I know this..as we slide towards the end of the year as a family, I feel it is my job to remind everyone what a great year this has been. What a blessing too! We will seize the last moments of this year and ring them dry and enjoy all the feels together as a family and we will do this in Belize.
Plan Ahead For Cruise Excursions
In fact, I started planning this day almost as soon as we booked our first ever cruise back in October of 2014.
Waking Up in Port
The last day of the year jumps to a start, on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, and so do I, climbing quickly through the unfamiliar furniture, and into the restroom of our stateroom to throw a swimsuit on. I gather tickets and sunscreen, wake sleepy children, nudge my husband, and we are off to grab breakfast and wait in the amphitheatre with all the other people striving to get to the second port of call.
Our Ports of Call
This cruise has four ports of call and I have been labouring over the excursions for days, if not weeks, this winter, while I plot this last day of the year together. It gives me some motivation, comfort and strength to get through a chilly winter in Ontario – looking forward is the best way. Moving forward too.
Together the four of us eventually surge forward with the crowd of people heading to Belize. A rush onto the transferring boat and then we are in Belize. Together, about 30 of us pile into the smallest speedboat capable of fitting this many people. My younger daughter sits at the very back with my husband and I try not to worry that she could fall off at every sudden wave we jump. I try relaxing, enjoying this, looking forward, sun on my face, my thirteen-year-old cuddled beside me, water spraying up off the boat.
The Boat Ride
It is a fast and, at times, scenic boat ride through the inland mangrove islands en route to our destination. The driver cuts the motor and we come to a narrow passageway lined with mangroves. I recognize them easily from all the times we have visited the Dominican Republic. The driver tells us there are often dolphins here. Everyone holds their breath. You can hear the silence out here at least until and someone points and says: “Right there. Look.”
Spotting Dolphins From a Distance
One dolphin swims along. Then another. Gentle splash-less jumps in and out of the water. Not the gigantic aquarium style ones you see at animal shows, but quiet, natural, lovely motions, right before they vanish out of sight. My kids are mesmerized. There are manatees here too, says the driver. Cows of the sea. But not today. We spend a long time searching through the water from the relative comfort of this boat, but we don’t see any. One more dolphin. And another. One puts on a show for a time and we spot him repeatedly, as we all try to jockey for pictures.
The motor starts the boat again and someone comes around with snorkelling apparatus we try to fit on our feet. The water shoes are back in Ontario, Canada, having missed the plane ride, the luggage or cruise ship…(why do we always forget those? And why did I buy them again?)
As we move through the inlet the one dolphin follows the boat. Everyone clings to the rail. The children stand on the benches. He continues on with us for several minutes. You don’t see that every day.
Our First Cruise
This is our first time in Belize. Our first time on a cruise. The first time two of us have snorkelled at all. My older daughter and I snorkelled in Puerto Vallarta in June last year on a media trip. That time we were bitten by tiny mosquito jellyfish repeatedly. It was a one of a kind adventure.
My husband has never snorkelled. My younger daughter, a fish in our pool, has never snorkelled. I can’t wait to see them try this. My youngest has a small obsession with sharks and so I chose this adventure partly for her. Nurse sharks and stingrays – two of her favourite things.
She assures me: “nurse sharks are very gentle mom.” “Most sharks don’t want to hurt humans.” I know this. I have heard it almost daily for the past two months, but I let her tell me all the great things she has collected about sharks.
Snorkelling Near the Reef in Belize
We stop. Ahead there’s a reef in the middle of the ocean. Okay, not literally the middle of the ocean. It’s a reef off the coast of Belize. The famous Belize barrier reef. The girls clamour and chatter excitedly. How fun! There are five or six other small speedboats with tourists anchored here too. We stake our claim to a small portion of the salt water reef. The water is light green almost transparent and turquoise too. Clear, crystal waters. This is magical. This is Belize. I have dreamed about this and here we are. The air is chillier than the other ports of call but I knew this coming into this daytime adventure. I warned the girls to dress appropriately 21 and 22 degrees and a gentle rain starts to fall.
Slipping in to Crystal Blue Water
One by one we slip off and into the five foot high water. Payton jumps happily and without any other intention but to get to the stingrays that are everywhere. They are swimming easily without any apprehension or concern for the tourists among them. I slide in and look down and there’s one right beside me. My heart jumps. Multiple others bounce into the water and swim around and I remember ‘salt water close your mouth.’
Beside me Payton is happily, excitedly hollering: “Look at them. One just swam under me.” Someone splashes and she crumples: UGH, salt water. Memory is funny that way. Somehow we forget this every trip and someone always tastes salt water by accident. I worry she is done. She swims back to the boat. The rest of us are told to follow the leader, so we do.
We are told put your face in the water. My husband grabs my hand and one of my daughters on the other side and we wade forward. The water is a bit wavy and cooler than we imagined. But here we are on a reef off the coast of Belize and I will be darned if I will let anything stop me from enjoying this day.
Delight Looks Like This
The last day of the year and we snorkel and my husband starts to get the hang of it. The first time ever. He lights up and he begins to chatter on. And with each new sight he sees under the water he motions for me to see it too. I have rarely seen him this carefree and excited. Life is sometimes not carefree. Thank heavens for these moments that are.
We swim around and follow the instructor and we are suddenly somehow a smaller group than the one we started in. There comes a point where the waves get bigger and it starts to rain gently and the instructor keeps on walking. My comfort level is not as high as it was when I could effortlessly swim back to the boat. We are disappearing slowly into the reef area, each one of us swimming wildly around hunting for nurse sharks and then someone yells: “Look back towards the boat. There are a couple under the boat.”
I look. There they are just resting under the boat quietly motionless. Sluggish and lazy looking. I know they will not harm humans. They freak me out a bit. We are swimming with sharks. We are swimming and snorkelling with stingrays and nurse sharks in Belize. I let that sink in.
Then we stop again and the tour guide says “Look!” and he holds up a sea urchin that looks like a bristle, a prickly little black thing (this is where a Go Pro would have been brilliant) and it is also, he tells us poisonous. We all do double takes together. “Did you just say poisonous?”
“Yes, it’s poisonous,” he repeats. “Then how can you touch it?” someone asks.
“I am used to it. I’ve been bitten a couple of times and so I know where to handle it. Anyone want to touch it? he asks, then warns us to touch only the spiny textured bits on the top. So we do that. One brave person and then another actually volunteer to hold it. My husband holds one and he is clearly amused. Of course he tries to hand it to me. I take a step back and let him keep his poisonous sea urchin all to himself.
Swimming Near the Reef Carefully
Another few feet and we are told to swim carefully with face in the water around red coral that is poisonous also. My daughters have fallen behind but I can clearly see them snorkelling closer to the boat, where they feel comfortable. I relax knowing they are there.
I swim through the poisonous coral and avoid injury. We spy numerous interesting tropical fish, more stingrays than I ever imagined and an eel hiding between some rocks and coral. I am surprising myself again that I am still out here enjoying this.
If you look towards the shore you can barely see land. It feels like we are very far out. I am silencing the voice in the back of my head reminding me there could be other bigger sharks and creatures out here. It’s not brave if you aren’t a little bit scared, right?
I hear my husband talking to other tourists in our group. He is swimming around, his head popping up, his entire body almost vibrating; “Did you see that?” I nod yes. A few moments later, again. There’s a whole other world down there beneath the water and we are seeing just a glimpse today. I heard my husband say: “That is amazing. Now I understand why people love to scuba dive and snorkel.” Nearby my older daughter is doing the same thing as her Dad. Ainsley, meanwhile has caught a chill and climbed back onto the boat. She is done and ready for food. I see her helping someone clean the snorkelling masks.
It’s a short ride to shore and we spy dozens of pelicans and big Tarpon fish. There are seagulls too. My daughter feeds the massive Tarpon. Each one of the fish tries to out jump the other, manically frisky.
Lunch in Caye Caulker
We stop for lunch at Caye Caulker. My husband and I each share a beer after waiting in line for one of the two restaurant bathrooms where our group changes into the clothing they have brought with them. A leisurely lunch and a stroll through this small fishing village and we head back to the port on the speedboat again.
Later that Night
Later, much later, we will have a family New Year’s Eve dinner together and the kids will each head to their respective Camp Carnival or kid’s camp group for a special New Year’s Eve late night youth event. It will be hard to top this. December 31, 2014 – the day we spent snorkelling with stingrays and nurse sharks in Belize. Our best last day ever.
The cruise ship we took was Carnival Pride. The excursion was Belize City Adventure excursion Sharks, Rays and Island Getaway.