Images courtesy of Luke Daniel Photo
You cannot snorkel with a mustache, a lesson Luke learned the hard way a few years back in the Florida Keys. However, it would be a crime to miss seeing Belize’s Barrier Reef, the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to limitations imposed by facial hair.
We found an excursion that split the difference – I would get to snorkel while Luke hung out on a picturesque tropical island sipping cocktails. Ranguana Caye is located roughly 18 miles off the coast of Placencia. It takes about $100 per person and an hour-long boat ride to get to this privately owned island for the day.
We loaded into a small boat with an interesting cast of characters. There was a mixed group of outdoorsy 20-something’s from Colorado spending the weekend on the island. The Canadians – Randy, a boisterous, larger-than-life jokester, his wife who ended up puking in the ocean while snorkeling, and a friend they picked up somewhere along the way. Bo, a linebacker-sized man with a work-hard, play-hard attitude and his very tall parents from Denver. Roxy, an understated, Anne of Green Gables redhead who turned out to be the free-spirited life of the party, and her clone of a mother from California by way of NYC. Finally, there were two beautiful young women from North Carolina wearing long summer dresses, heavy jewelry and full makeup. One rarely looked up from her romance novel the entire day.
We traveled across increasingly clear, blue water until a tiny, tree-topped bump appeared on the horizon. We reached the island and stopped briefly to drop off our bags and the passengers not snorkeling. This gave Bo and Roxy the opportunity to become acquainted over Panty Ripper shots.
We loaded back into the boat and drove another five minutes to the reef. After strapping on fins, masks and snorkels that tasted like dish soap, we dropped into 20 feet of crystal clear ocean. We took a moment to practice breathing underwater and keeping our fins at the surface before swimming over to the reef, which was a world unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Coral of every color and type blossomed from the sea floor supporting schools of rainbow-colored fish, sleek barracuda and stingrays burying their bodies in the sand. Our guides Keith and Ron would point to interesting plants and animals and we’d pop our heads out of the water to hear what species they were. I stayed close to Keith who has having good luck spotting rare creatures, like the lionfish partially hidden in the rock.
I was closely examining a purple sea fan when I heard a commotion at the surface. I popped my head up to catch Roxy talking about a shark. Just as I was about to ask where she saw it, Keith said the words no one really wants to hear: “Robin, there’s a shark below you!”
I plunged my mask back into the water just in time to see a nurse shark swim a few feet beneath me. It lingered near the bottom for a second, then did an abrupt about-face and swam off into the reef.
Seconds later, I saw Keith motioning underwater to get my attention. He pointed to the left and out of the blue appeared a massive spotted eagle ray with two large parasitic fish attached. It floated past, gracefully flapping a wingspan that exceeded 10 feet across. It was one of the most majestic things I’ve ever witnessed in nature.
We explored the reef for about an hour before heading back to the island for a barbecue lunch and beach volleyball. Mid-game, I got distracted by a trio of red-footed boobies perched in a nearby treetop. Boobies are hands-down my favorite bird and I went full-tilt geek on everyone by launching into enthusiastic detail regarding their foot fetish-centric mating ritual. The opposing team graciously paused the game, pretending to care about three birds in a tree.
After our team dominated the competition (thanks in large part to Ron and Keith’s mad skills), Luke and I found a perfect palm tree to shade us from the intense mid-day sun. We watched hundreds of tiny silver and striped fish circle our feet as the water lapped lazily onto shore.
I decided to go out for a second round of snorkeling off the backside of the island. Ron offered to go with me, but he looked content hanging out in the shade, so I declined. I geared up and jumped into the shallow water – landing directly on top of a buried stingray. It shot out from underneath me and I simultaneously screamed and swallowed a mouthful of salt water, giving Ron the general impression I was drowning.
“I’m coming with you,” he said, this time without asking. We swam through tall sea grass where I fully expected to disturb another reef shark or stingray. Instead, we encountered schools of curious little fish called slippery dicks and a moray eel.
We were nearing the end of the day and everyone was fairly liquored up. The older women were fawning over Roxy’s pale skin and Ariel the mermaid hair. Bo had racked up a $230BLZ bar tab buying rounds for the entire island. Randy was shout-singing lyrics to classic rock songs and spouting off an endless stream of “Dad jokes” and “Randy-isms,” such as “Bob’s your uncle, “waxing the dolphin,” and “what time is she?”
Several hours after returning to Placencia, we spotted Roxy, Bo and their parents at the Barefoot Bar still wearing their swimsuits, hats and cover-ups. Toward the end of the evening, Roxy and Bo hugged their parents goodbye and took off down the beach, hand-in-hand. Their love story is just a sliver of the magic that’s found on Ranguana Caye and the best episode of Bachelor in Paradise I’ve ever seen.