The sparkling ocean reveals the massive, wing-like shape a second time, now lapping a slow, curiosity-driven circle around us.
Knowing precious little about stingrays, I knew only that the stinger-tipped tail, now out of sight and snaking downward somewhere even further below us, became a potentially deadly weapon if provoked. But I would provoke nothing, I promised myself, bobbing along the surface inside my yellow snorkeling vest as the cocktail of wonderment and fear I now experienced surged through me.
Though Christian, reclining comfortably inside his anchored, weathered craft bounds barely 15 yards away, the takeaway for me is clear: when you’re off the grid in Belize, you’re on your own.
Indeed, self-sufficiency, an adventurous spirit, and a great deal of patience are mandatory tools to equip yourself with for an island experience in Belize. And Glover’s Reef, a partially submerged atoll approximately 45 kilometers from the country’s southern coast, tests your mettle but does so only playfully, the ideal marriage of island relaxation and adrenaline-pumping thrills.
Low-key resorts abound throughout the Reef, ours featuring humble thatch-covered bungalows, hanging over ankle-deep, sun-kissed water, stand like alert sentries, each patrolling a swatch of sandy shore. Luxury doesn’t live here, but these modest, electricity-free accommodations – little more than a simple bed, table with chairs, hot plate and hammock (swaying gently on the back porch, naturally) – exist subtly, suitably perfect for an unplugged escape. You’ll be expected to work here, lending muscle to load and subsequently unload the mid-sized, chartered boat transporting you and your island mates the handful of hours from the mainland, but the investment is small when compared to the pairing of adventure and tranquility awaiting you.
Sandy banks give way to shallow, clear waters, where you’ll likely track curious parrotfish or any number of gliding stingrays sweeping the ocean floor. Here, promises of prime snorkeling spots reachable from shore truly exist, as Glover’s has been a protected nature reserve since 1993. Well over 700 patch reefs thriving with rich, colorful coral, the perfect playground for grouper, barracuda, and tarpon. Float in further and let the current take hold, drifting over one after another towering coral buttresses to witness rainbow-flecked fish at play. If you’re truly lucky, you may spot a manta ray, its massive form projecting an equally intimidating shadow as it motors across, sweeping tiny trails of sand in its wake.
Raising the adventure level even higher, we hitched a ride on one of the scuba diving boats headed out one morning. Mirroring a scene from a spy blockbuster, I admittedly became a little unnerved after dropping myself backward into the middle of the sun-warmed ocean with three other snorkelers, squinting through dancing, bright sun as the nimble craft’s throaty engine dimmed from the distance between us. Even at such depths, where visibility easily rivals 100 feet or more, life reveals itself, presenting itself in the form of a hawksbill turtle lazily swimming near the deep, blue unknown of the ocean wall apex.
But no single experience from the entire trip rivals the sheer thrill of night snorkeling. At dusk, just as the glowing, orange sun slowly dips westward, we board small motorboats crammed full of red and yellow life jackets and snakes of thick, knotted rope scattered about the floor. A thin sliver of sun is all that’s left as engines, purring softer, slow. I’m handed a bright light on a string that reminds me of the color of a Halloween jack-o-lantern and I secure it tightly – but not too tightly – around my neck. Then, I check and re-check the waterproof flashlight I’ve brought with, landing a long, yellow beam on the seemingly empty, still ocean. As the blackening night sky moves in, I already spot faint traces of stars high above.
Holding a large, square-faced flashlight, our guide rises quickly from his seat to share some words on safety before launching himself overboard, disappearing into black ink momentarily before surfacing.
“Your turn,” he tells us, lowering his blue mask over his eyes just before playful shining his light across the group.
Taking several deep breaths, I descend from the boat, purposely keeping close as I sink slowly into the cool ocean. Water slaps intermittently at the lightly rocking boat. Amid the virtual silence, I follow the lead of my fellow snorkelers and wade gently, making sure not to splash too loudly or make quick, sudden movements. Beneath the spec of moonlight provided, our guide rolls his neck along his shoulders a few times before aiming his light, landing it five yards to his left along the black, glass-like surface. I follow the radiating beam as it goes under several feet, tracing it back to its now neck-deep owner, and I know what’s next.
“This way,” the guide calls, breaking into a swim as his massive light source sweeps the shallow ocean floor.
Allowing no hesitation, we bunch closely and move in quickly behind, trailing, glowing fireflies inching into the expansive night. When the guide darts suddenly left, I sense a slight chill as I notice the single row of warm, amber light, strung loosely to mark the main office on our island, set far off in the distance across the expansive pitch. Being deep into the ocean, in practically sheer darkness, doesn’t merely threaten my sensibilities. It strikes them. Hard. The equivalent of delivering a stinging ‘what do you think you’re doing?’ – type slap across the face designed to shock you back into reality.
I decided to focus on my swimming, to stay close to the group, and most of all, to embrace the adventure, a large part of what Belize embodies to me. Before long, after spying resting spiny lobsters and small schools of reclusive grouper hiding among the craggy coral outcrops, I’m now comfortable. Still very mindful of my surroundings, I embrace the privilege I feel for the nighttime showcase I’m allowed to witness beneath me. We boarded the boat for our return to the island nearly 20 minutes later, without any appearances from the nurse sharks and stingrays we had spotted during day snorkeling excursions.
I was comfortable with that, too.
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