Beginner takes the diving plunge in Belize

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Contributing editor Carla Hunt went to great depths for this story. Here is her report:

AMBERGRIS CAYE, Belize -- Question: Can those of us eligible for AARP membership take the plunge and learn to scuba dive?

Answer: "Of course you can, Mom," said my daughter.

"You once were a swimming instructor," said my son.

"You want to do what?" asked my husband.

That was the clincher.

Diveboat I've traveled often to Belize and I've snorkeled in the past, but I'd never committed to adding a tank to mask and fins for a closeup look at the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.

In fact, the reef stretches 185 miles along the Caribbean coast from Mexico to Honduras. At Ambergris Caye, the reef is just a half mile offshore, one reason why the 20-mile-long-by-one-mile-wide sliver of an island is Belize's leading dive resort.

I booked us into Victoria House. My husband would swing in a hammock by the sea with a good book and a margarita or two while I would learn how to dive.

I was the only beginner at the inn, but I inherited a supportive family. As the qualified divers headed out each day to the reef, they called back a parting message: "Carla, don't forget to breathe."

Indeed, I spent as much time remembering not to hold my breath as I did holding it over the spectacle of the Belize aquatic wonderland, with its 50 types of coral and more than 400 species of marine life.

Yes, I am now a certified diver, although I'd better get back in scuba gear soon before I forget how to clear my mask underwater (a toughie) and keep my fins off the coral (easier).

Learning to dive is a rewarding resort activity, but a learn-to-dive vacation -- whether a five-day course or the less taxing three-day resort course -- is not for everyone.

Clients should be reasonably proficient swimmers, comfortable in the water and in overall good health. Agents do not have to be divers to join the booming dive market. However, they should be familiar with the product, its locations and the resorts that deliver diving best. A good place to start is the Dive Travel Association's Web site at www.divetravel.com.

Learning to dive is not difficult, it is learned rather quickly and makes accessible a new world. At the Victoria House pier is Fantasea Watersports, owned and operated by PADI instructors who live in Belize and who supply dive and snorkeling equipment, dive boats and instruction.

The equipment was top quality but an even greater asset was my assigned divemaster Rene Bradley. For four days, he became the most important person in my life. He patiently drilled me on safety measures and dive techniques. He transformed me from a klutz in a tank and weight belt to a diver who could trail a green sea turtle and float horizontally (more or less) above a resting nurse shark.

The drill began with classroom work, tests from material in the PADI textbook and a final exam. Along with school work came practice on donning the wet suit, fins, air tank, depth and air gauges, regulator and mask.

Two days were spent learning water techniques in sheltered 12-foot shallows. Showtime on the barrier reef came on days three and four. On 30-minute test dives, I followed Bradley off the boat and into the water.

We stopped every 10 feet so that I could equalize pressure by squeezing my nose and blowing out. At 40 feet below the surface, my view was a panorama of parrot fish, damsel fish, angel fish and moray eels, moving about a seascape aglow with sea anemones, blue and red vase sponges, lavender seafans and yellow tube sponges.

Learning to dive was like taking a special-interest guided tour through a foreign but safe destination. In this case, the tour cost $400.

In addition to resort and open-water certification courses, Fantasea offers advanced dive instruction, daily reef trips, night dives, snorkeling and deep-sea fishing.

The 29-room Victoria House proved a good choice. It was a pretty place to return to after a morning or afternoon in the sea. The colonial-style plantation house had airy verandas and gardens of bougainvillea, hibiscus and oleander, facing one of the island's best beaches.

The air-conditioned rooms and suites in the main building have wrap-around balconies. (I can especially recommend room No. 11.) A variety of other accommodations include air-conditioned plantation rooms with balconies, casitas with ceiling fans and two- and three-bedroom villas with living and dining areas and a full kitchen right on the beach.

Half the guests were divers and anglers. Catches included sailfish, marlin, tuna, wahoo and shark. The others guests chose snorkeling trips to the five-square-mile Hol Chan Marine Reserve, manatee tours in the waters off Goff and Sergeant Caye and mainland tours to the Maya ruins.

We all biked or took a golf cart on the two-mile ride into funky San Pedro where the sand streets are bordered by a few good restaurants and shops. However, the food was very good at Victoria House, and most guests were happy to just stay put under the palms by the beach bar.

The property is informal, nicely secluded, offers good service and proved to be the finest I have stayed at on Ambergris Caye. Nightly rates for a double room range from $130 to $200 through May 14. Low-season prices range from $115 to $155 per room, per night, double, plus the 7% government tax and 10% service charge.

The MAP option is $25 per person, per day, and AP is $35.

The five-night dive package includes three full dive days, one night dive, roundtrip air transfers between Belize City and San Pedro, land transfers to and from the resort, accommodations, all meals, taxes and service charges.

For casita accommodations, the cost is $957 per person, double. For plantation room lodgings, the rate is $1,030.

Victoria House
Phone: (800) 247-5159
E-mail: [email protected]

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