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Girls Gone DivinGSeven women learn thereS much more to a Dive trip than DivinG. they anD belize will never be the Same.
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By Megan Padilla Photos By tanya Burnett
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GreGory D. i shout out, then spell: capital G, r, e, capital G, o, r, y, capital D. For Girls Gone Diving!
the name sticks. after all, here we are,
Jen is the resident biologist at lamanai outpost lodge, and shes here to collect data on the reproducing population of crocs in belizes new river lagoon. tonight, we seven women are her assistants.
She snares a five-footer and pulls it onto the bow, then duct-tapes its mouth shut. the rest of us take turns holding it its skin is astonishingly dry, soft and smooth as Jen measures and weighs it, determines its male and locates the implanted chip that reveals our croc has been in this position before. you want to name him? she asks.
holding a croc in the moonlight on our last night in belize. there is no better mascot for the week of adventures weve shared.
Girls Gone Diving began at a backyard dinner party when a friend spoke of her early scuba experience: an impatient dive master, an advanced destination and a photographer-husband who proved an inattentive buddy. Shed never taken to
Chicken on a StickDrive your own gas-fueled golf cart on Ambergris Caye. Venture to the north of the island for cocktails and appetizers at Captain Morgans. Drive south at dusk to feed the local crocs just tie some chicken to a stick and stand back.
1. Half moon Caye Wall2. small mouth3. Hol Chan Canyons4. Hol Chan marine Reserve5. Cypress gardens
diving imagine that. then i met Sara on a flight to mexico. we clicked right away. Shes a diver the dabbling-while-on-vacation variety, and always with a boyfriend whod deal with the gear. but Sara didnt feel like a diver in her own right, confident with her equipment and self-reliant in the water. these two women inspired me; i wanted to transform each of them into a Diver, the kind who plans her next dive trip while on a dive trip.
i extend an invitation and Sara jumps, immediately booking vacation time from her engineering job at lock-heed martin. my sister erin, a divemas-ter, is game, making arrangements to be away from her jobs as a lead project man-ager and as a single mom. She extends an olive branch to crystal, who is essentially erins daughters stepmother. crystal rec-ognizes the gesture and signs up for her paDi open water course right away. i
close encounters Right: the lush walls of Lighthouse Reef are live-aboard country. Far right and below: Who said marine life is unpredictable? At shark Ray Alley, encounters with nurse sharks, stingrays and jacks are guaranteed. Previous pages: girls hit the dock for an early-morning pickup at Chabil mar villas in Placencia.
The spotlight pans across the flooded savannah and settles on two red reflections a crocodiles eyes. Jen, Jen! the driver shouts above the din of the airboats fan-like motor, over there! he sidles the flat-bottom boat closer to our prey. apparently, crocodiles dont hear so well.
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add to the mix photographer and vet-eran diver tanya burnett, who is perfect for this trip in every way. tanya invites experienced diver mary, who is taking time off between consulting gigs to dive every chance she gets (she and tanya met while diving in the Galapagos). and last is my mom, carol, who this past summer, at the age of 66, became a cer-tified diver so she could join her daugh-ters. as for me, i get an off-campus pass from my cubicle in magazine land to go do what most people think i do all the time dive. the common denomina-tors among those in our group: enthusi-asm and an appreciation for wine. i ask each person to bring two of her favorite bottles to share.
Figuring out where to go was just as important as identifying who would go. i wanted these women to have adventures theyd never imagined. belize instantly came to mind: its a safe country where english is spoken, yet it feels utterly for-eign. the charming and little-developed ambergris caye is a mere giant-stride to dive sites up and down the second-longest
barrier reef in the world. wed have our choice of dive sites that are easy enough for beginners but varied enough to interest advanced div-ers. we could dive three times a day and still have time to hang at a simple beachfront ho-tel, hopscotch through happy hour in golf carts and go exploring on our own. For mainland at-tractions, i recalled my own jungle hikes and
river excursions during which id encountered troops of howler monkeys, iguanas basking in the sun and crocs resting on riverbanks at night not to mention the mysterious maya ruins. belize had once rocked my world; i suspected it might rock my companions.
Belize City thanks to tropic airs convenient and affordable in-country flights, we could spend five days on ambergris caye diving, one night in a low-key beach town on the mainland and still spend a few nights in the jungle.
ours is the only boat bobbing in the inky darkness at the hol chan marine reserve. the waves breaking 100 yards away on belizes famous barrier reef are silver in the moonlight a decidedly different scene from the last time i was here, sev-eral years ago.
that was the day i overcame my fear of wearing a mask and breathing through a snor-kel; the day i felt the soft fleshiness of a stingrays wing as it glided between my outstretched hands. that was the day a be-lizean guide named Juni opened the underwater world to me, ultimately bringing me to this mo-ment, on this boat, with this gang of six other ad-venturesses keen to expe-rience their own firsts.
crystal, a beauti-ful blond veterinarian, is visibly shaking. todays the first time shes used her freshly minted c-card, having completed her check-out dives in la
Jolla the weekend before. in the spirit of our adventure and after the day of great diving weve already had shes game for her first night dive. this site is shallow, rarely exceeding 25 feet, and her buddy is erin, who gets as stoked turn-ing new divers on to the sport as she does actually doing it. in fact, it was she who persuaded me to trade up my snorkel for a second stage. it was she who invited me on my first dive trip. crystal is in good hands.
From the moment we enter, i know this is special. i shouldnt be surprised,
AVerAGe WAter teMP: 76-86F WHAt to WeAr: Dive skin or shorty in summer; 3-5 mm fullsuit in winter AVerAGe VIZ: 100+ feet WHen to Go: Year-round
Get your Advanced Diver specialty. For more info, go to padi.com.
tellInG storIes Above: Wine, food, a fire and friends at Chabil mar villas complete a perfect day of diving. Opposite, top: A birds-eye view at Lamanai. Opposite, center row, from left: skimming Belizes surface on snorkel; Lamanai biologist Jen displays a juvenile boa; Half moon Caye; shopping in Placencia. Opposite, bottom: A playful dive buddy.
Deco Stops BelizeTheres a T-shirt logo that aptly describes san Pedro (ambergriscaye.com) as a quaint little drinking town with a diving problem. Youll need some stamina to do it all, though; the locals dont start their parties until at least 10 p.m. Wednesday is ladies night at Wet Willys, and you can groove to live music nearly every night at Fidos. The restaurant at the sunbreeze Hotel is perfect for everything from a juicy cheeseburger at lunch to an inventive dinner infused with Asian influences. Before diving, try rubys Bakery for cin-namon rolls or a breakfast burrito. Rent a golf cart from Island Adventures to explore the island. Throw
your own wine-and-cheese party with provisions from Wine de Vine. In Placencia (placencia.com) its ready, set, shop. Gift shops, artists studios and craft collectives line the sidewalk. Placencia has also spread out to the back road which is really the main road where youll find everything from Ital-ian gelato to coffee shops with high-speed Internet access. Of course, theres always the beach.
MEXICO Hol Chan marine ReserveSan Pedro Hol Chan Canyons
Half moon Caye Wall
shark Ray Alley
C AR I
B BE A
n SE A
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considering the fact that ive seen this channel packed with marine life before. the first thing i notice is the unusual tex-ture of the sand. i hold still and stare.
a dome-shaped eye looks back. i sweep my light slowly side to side, then in front of and behind me. its a slumber party of stingrays, their wings overlapping one another. i hover over one brute so ex-pansive that i envision eight people (10, in my old new york apartment) pulling chairs around for a dinner party.
if it werent for the competition a pack of hunting squid, a delicate octo dancing clear of its den, a crab devour-ing its lobster dinner, a giant parrotfish (i had no idea they could be so big) tucked motionless under a ledge, prowling tarpon, a curious grouper and a free-swimming
moray eel i could have passed the entire hour-long dive enraptured by the motionless rays.
crystal is triumphant, even though the iron grip she applied to erins hand throughout the dive earns her the nick-name remora. Shes a woman who loves animals, and the number of critters in her universe has just multiplied exponentially.
on the boat ride back, we spot mars