Placencia, Belize | December 16, 2017 | 4:10pm
"What about a rec dive?"
Justin, Colleen and I are sitting in our hotel room, trying to connect to the somewhat unreliable internet network, and come up with a plan for tomorrow - our last full day in Placencia. With all of our field work complete, we're excited to have a day to relax and enjoy the beauty of this place.
"I've never done a rec dive," Justin says, not looking up from the data he's inputting into the computer.
"Seriously?" I ask. "You've never gone diving for fun?"
"Nope. Diving is work!"
"But rec diving is so great," Colleen says emphatically. "You don't have to haul around a bunch of equipment - you can just look around. And when you see an amazing coral, you can stick your face right up to it and stare at it for as long as you want!"
I know dozens of marine scientists, but I've never met one quite like Colleen. A lifelong advocate for the ocean, she has logged over 200 dives. She talks about corals the way most people talk about beloved pets or family members.
When she walks into the bathroom, Justin turns to me and says "you know, sometimes I feel bad because I don't love corals as much as Colleen does."
I laugh. "Don't get me wrong," he continues. "I care about the work we're doing. But I don't love corals that much."
"I don't think anyone loves corals as much as Colleen does," I say, smiling at the thought of her staring lovingly at corals. "We should do a rec dive though."
When we walk onto the dock the next morning, we feel a bewildering sense of lightness. We're not carrying dive gear, tools, buckets, or a tile saw. We just have our wetsuits, snorkels, and fins.
We're heading to Laughing Bird Caye, the only marine area in Belize designated as a national park. When it comes to coral reef conservation, death and despair tend to dominate the headlines. But Laughing Bird is a success story, thanks in part to the hard-working folks at Fragments of Hope and other local people who care deeply about preserving the Belize Barrier Reef. In the 10 days we've spent here, one thing has been made abundantly clear - the locals have great pride (and concern) for the natural environment.
We've been working in the water every day for the past week yet when we jump in at Laughing Bird, I see an array of brand new animals and plants. Lobsters, barracudas, and giant grouper.
I really want to photograph the lobsters - I've never seen them underwater before (only in tanks and on dinner plates) but they seem skittish. Every time I get near one with my camera, it disappears under a rock. After a few failed attempts, I decide to film some angel fish instead. Just as I'm capturing the angel fish swim by a sea fan, a small lobster inches out from under a rock. When I turn my camera towards him, he doesn't move.
I go back up to the surface for air, and formulate a quick plan. I want to film a long shot that goes through the corals, and then ends on the lobster - assuming he's still there. I take a big gulp of air and dive down, filming all the way. When I reach the rock, the lobster comes further out from his protected area. He reaches his antennae up towards my camera, almost as if to say "what is this thing??"
I spend the next ten minutes filming and photographing this guy. When I look through the photos later - maybe I'm just being a sappy nature photographer - I think it looks like he's smiling.
These kinds of interactions with wildlife can only happen in places where fishing and hunting don't exist. Justin, Colleen, and I talk about this late in the afternoon as our boat zooms back towards Placencia. I'm in the middle of saying something to Justin when I yell "Dolphin! Just off the bow!" This is third time we've seen a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins on this trip (the first time they swam right by us) but the excitement never wains.
The captain cuts the motor and we spend a few minutes drifting and watching their slick gray bodies crest in and out of the waves. I resist the urge to grab my camera and jump in the water - not every beautiful sight in nature can be documented. Sometimes it's better to just sit back and enjoy the experience.
As the dolphins swim off and we continue back towards Placencia, Justin and I talk about what the future holds. He will likely return to Belize three more times over the next year to take measurements of all the corals we transplanted. I discuss the possibility of joining him next December to document the growth, and to follow up on his findings.
"That would be awesome," he says. "Let's do it."
I turn back into the wind and stare at the rugged coastline of the Placencia Peninsula, thinking about how much I love working with marine scientists. I can't wait to come back here.