And my octopus is in my pocket

Kristen Johannsen, diving Belize's great barrier reef, reflects on the work being done to protect coral reefs around the Caribbean

  • A team of divers heads for Turneffe. Photograph by Kristen Johannsen

Diving Belize’s great barrier reef

It was when I saw that palm tree go sailing through the air that I really began to question what I was doing in Belize. I had volunteered for a coral reef conservation project, to count fish and save the world. Why was I standing neck-deep in a muddy lagoon during a tropical storm?

The ad in the back of my scuba diving magazine had sounded so appealing: underwater surveys of remote locations; dive to save the reefs. The meso-American Barrier Reef, along the Caribbean coast of Central America, is second in size only to its Australian cousin, but many parts of it remain unexplored. The fact that Coral Cay Conservation calls their projects “expeditions” should have tipped me off. My group of new volunteers arrived at the base on Calabash Cay, an uninhabited island in Turneffe Atoll, after a four-hour ride from Belize City on an ancient, wallowing tugboat.

“Lunch is ready,” said Anthony, an old hand on the island, “and you’d better enjoy it because it’s the last relaxing you’ll do on Calabash.” He was serious. Dessert segued straight into a lecture on coral. By the end of the week, we had memorised (and been tested on) the names and identifying characteristics of 50 different coral species.

Those stony boulders turned out to be living creatures with habits and opinions of their own and names like giant flower and blushing star. We also got intimately acquainted with 206 different fish, from the spotted drum to the puddingwife. Before long, we were out surveying, morning and afternoon. The surveys themselves are ingeniously simple. A team of four divers descends, equipped with underwater notepads, a compass, and a 10-metre rope. Two divers swim along a specified compass bearing, sketching a map and recording species of fish, until the rope is taut. Then they wait while the second pair, noting down coral species and plant forms, moves up to meet them. The team swim and measure their way in towards shore, compiling information for a database that now covers 350 square kilometres of reefs, lagoons and cays in Turneffe Atoll.

And in between dives, we worked: from five in the morning until it was too dark to see. Every inch of the camp had to be raked before sunrise to kill bloodthirsty sand fleas. Every drop of water we used was pumped by hand. The generator had to be fuelled, air tanks refilled with the compressor, dilapidated boats and dive gear nursed along, and endless maintenance done to keep things from falling into ruin.

My job was cooking, and I started before dawn, boiling up vast cauldrons of porridge for breakfast. It was no easy task keeping 30 ravenous divers fed, without refrigeration or hot water. I baked bread twice daily. Fresh food came by boat once a week, giving me the opportunity for a scientific study of decay in vegetables: tomatoes flatten, while green peppers get black spots and cave in. Surprisingly, the main item missing from our menus was seafood: we were not allowed to interfere in any way with the ecosystem we were studying.

But the diving made up for everything: immense schools of purple harlequin wrasse glittered all around as we descended into the peaceful blue; gold-spangled angelfish of surreal size studied us from behind massive barrel sponges. Weightless, we glided through a maze of coral canyons, green and pink and orange. “I want to live down there,” said one volunteer, coming up from a dive.

I soon learned that, much like the old saying about the army, there were three ways to do everything: the right way, the wrong way, and the Calabash way. Normal divers enter the water by taking a long walk off the end of a short boat. On Calabash, eight of us did a simultaneous backward somersault. Normal divers carry out a methodical safety check. Ours was a machine-gun recitation sometimes ending with the startling observation, “. . . and my octopus is in my pocket.” (An octopus is the second mouthpiece for emergency use, and one’s pocket is in no way a sensible place to keep it.)

Even life on dry land was filled with imponderables. Why was the big brown dog named Blackie, and how had he learned to catch his lunch way out on the reef? Why did the huge land crabs that prowled the island at night clatter like menacing stacks of dinner plates? And why did the British consul send each of us four pints of ice cream on a very slow boat? And as for standing in the lagoon in a near-hurricane . . .

Several weeks into our expedition, the weather turned so ugly and the rain so relentless that even our Belizean scientists got depressed. After one of the dive boats slammed into the reef in a torrential squall, we could no longer venture out for surveys. Karen, the diving instructor, decided we should use the time to become certified as rescue divers, since the course could be held in shallow water near shore.

When that blast of wind hit, I was learning to rescue a “panicked diver”. I took one look at the dirty cyclone of debris high in the air and ducked back down into the nice safe water. Karen had forgotten to teach us about panicked rescuers.

Coral reefs provide food and income for millions of people. More than a third of all fish species depend on the reef for survival. But Coral Cay estimates that 40% of the world’s reefs have already been destroyed, and another 30% are immediately endangered. Global warming, oil pollution and sewage all have a serious impact. Over-fishing devastates reef ecosystems, and in some countries, chunks of the living reef are brutally chopped off for use as building material. Currently, only 1% of the world’s reefs have any form of official protection at all.

Coral Cay also aims to help raise living standards through the wise use of reef resources. We knew how important this was, but for us the reef was a private and magical playground. Every dive brought some new wonder. We knew how lucky we were to dive on this utterly unspoiled reef. In our rare leisure time, we relaxed by going for a dive. We also made astonishing “scientific” discoveries: a balloon inflated with pressurised air at a depth of 30 metres takes off with the velocity of a rocket!

On our only free weekend, a group of us travelled to nearby Chetumal, in Mexico, to enjoy chocolate bars, running water, and other half-forgotten pleasures. It was also our first talk in weeks with outsiders. Off Calabash, we felt lost. In fact, we had a terrible time explaining ourselves to the Dane we met in our hotel.

“You are very lucky people,” he said enviously. “A vacation on a real desert island!”

“Well, not exactly,” said Christian. “We work. Chopping trees and fuelling boats and running compressors and all that.”

“Every day?”

Kate giggled. “Yeah, but only from dawn to dark.”

“How much do they pay you for this?” he asked, eyeing our scabby knees and broken fingernails.

We all looked at each other. “Actually,” Alex finally admitted, “we pay them.”

“But it’s all worth it. It is,” said Kate. “For the diving.”

We all nodded in reverent agreement.

But the Dane just looked at us as though we were mad, so we left to get some enchiladas.

Kristin Johannsen

Coral Cay Conservation work in Belize culminated in the establishment of the Belize Barrier Reef as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The organisation is now involved  in new projects in Roatan, in the Bay Islands of Honduras. For more information: Coral Cay Conservation Expeditions Inc., Suite E-202, 725 North A1A, Jupiter, FL 33477, USA; tel. 561-741-3840, fax 561-744-5871;,

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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