A Tale of Two Atolls: a Trip Report on the Belize Aggressor III, 18-25 November 2017

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Ironborn

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Location
Miami, Florida
# of dives
500 - 999
Introduction

This trip on the Belize Aggressor III (BAIII) - my first liveaboard experience and also my first visit to Belize - yielded mixed results. The highlight of the trip was the day and a half that we spent at Lighthouse Reef, which had some of the best diving that I have ever encountered thus far and fueled my desire to return there in the future in order to explore that atoll more thoroughly with a terrestrial dive operation. We spent most of the rest of the trip on Turneffe Atoll, where the quality of the diving varied considerably, from good to poor, and left me with no desire to return there. My assessment of the quality of the overall experience might have been higher and more consistent with that of other reviewers if we had spent more time at Lighthouse Reef, which would appear to be the norm.

Mechanical, safety, and crew issues put a significant damper on the trip, caused us to miss some dives, and left a rather unflattering first impression of Aggressor Fleet. Key factors included a sandbar collision, a generator failure that prompted a return to port, and a highly unsatisfactory dive guide. Other guests reported other problems that I personally did not experience. It was nonetheless a very educational and informative experience, albeit with some lessons learned the hard way, and prepared me well for future trips on other liveaboards. Beyond popping my liveaboard cherry, other milestones included my completion of my 100th dive and my receipt of the BAIII's “Iron Diver” award.

Genesis and Planning

I had hoped to take my first liveaboard trip during this week. I wanted to diversify my diving experience, almost half of which up to that point had consisted of Bonaire and Curaçao shore dives. Liveaboards appeared to be the most reliable and cost-effective way to get the high number of dives that I usually seek in a dive trip, given my general enthusiasm for the sport, my status as a solo traveler, and the lack of non-diving activities that appeal to me in most dive destinations. Other selling points included the enhanced ability to visit more remote and pristine dive sites and the opportunity to sample multiple areas in one trip, rather than staying in one area with a terrestrial dive operation.

I originally had my eye on the Turks & Caicos Explorer II. Hurricanes Irma and Maria and reports of reef damage and greatly reduced visibility in the Turks & Caicos persuaded me that I should give that destination more time to recover. I thus considered a wide range of alternate liveaboard and terrestrial options in the Caribbean and beyond. Belize was on that list of liveaboard options, given its general popularity as a dive destination, the near-uniqueness of its three atolls within the Caribbean, and the received wisdom that liveaboards are the best or most cost-effective way to explore at least two of those atolls. I also hoped to visit all three Mesoamerican dive destinations eventually: Cozumel (which I visited earlier this year), Belize, and Roatan and the other Bay Islands (which are still on my list).

I nonetheless had to overcome initial reservations about Aggressor Fleet, as they are currently the only liveaboard option in Belize. My research on liveaboards in various destinations suggested that non-Aggressor liveaboards are usually the better option wherever they are available (except for Siren Liveaboards, whose boats have a remarkable tendency to sink). It struck me that non-Aggressor liveaboards tend to have more favorable or more consistently positive reviews and lower prices, yielding better value for the money. I read many horror stories and other significantly negative reviews about Aggressor liveaboards in particular; maintenance and mechanical problems that disrupted diving struck me as a recurring theme. I nonetheless realized that one cannot necessarily judge one Aggressor by the others, since the local owners of each vessel operate them in their own ways, and different crews can yield different experiences. I had heard good things about the Belize Aggressors, so I investigated.

As I read reviews on Undercurrent and trip reports on Scubaboard, it struck me that the Belize Aggressor IV (BAIV) yields far more reviews and reports than the BAIII. Granted, the BAIV is larger and can accommodate more divers, but the disparity in the number of reviews seemed even greater than one might expect in light of that factor. The BAIV reviews also struck me as more favorable than those of the BAIII, but it appeared that the difference stemmed from the greater spaciousness and comfort of the larger BAIV. The BAIII reviews also seemed favorable, and I saw nothing in them that gave me any cause for concern or prepared me for the actual experience. My subsequent experience leaves me to wonder if there are other reasons why the BAIII had a disproportionately smaller number of reviews.

The BAIV was full that week. When I initially contacted Aggressor Fleet to reserve the one remaining spot on the BAIII for that week, I learned that it was for a female diver only. I thus explored many other options in the meantime until I contacted Aggressor Fleet again a month later to inquire about another boat, only to learn that the one spot left on the BAIII had since become a male spot. I learned on board that a female diver had canceled, prompting a cabin rearrangement that created the new male spot for me. Aggressor Fleet could have saved me a lot of time and effort that I spent researching other options if they had put me on a waiting list, and they could have sold that spot to me sooner.

Finding a suitable flight to Belize was another obstacle. There were no direct flights to Belize from New York/Newark, and the connecting flights were outrageously expensive and required either very early departures from New York, perilously short layovers that risked missing the connecting flights in the event of any significant delays in the departure from New York, or both. Aggressor Fleet's travel specialist could not find anything better than I did until I noticed a Southwest itinerary that was at the very bottom of my Google Flights search results because Southwest does not publish its fares on such platforms. The Southwest itinerary, from Newark via Fort Lauderdale, was the best one that I found in terms of timing and also a few hundred dollars cheaper than that of all other airlines. The flights worked out well, except for a minor delay of the return flight to Newark from Fort Lauderdale.

(to be continued)
 
OP
Ironborn

Ironborn

Contributor
Messages
381
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365
Location
Miami, Florida
# of dives
500 - 999
Running Aground on a Sandbar and Losing a Generator on the Same First Day

The week before this first liveaboard trip of mine, I read about the sinking of the Fiji Siren liveaboard, possibly due to a collision with a reef or another underwater hazard. With that story in the back of my mind, perhaps you can imagine my reaction on the first morning of our trip, when the BAIII ran aground on a sandbar en route to the first dive site on Turneffe Atoll. Black smoke emanated from the stern as the captain struggled to extricate the boat from the sandbar for approximately 10-15 minutes. It later emerged that the captain had missed the channel for safely bypassing that sandbar at low tide. Needless to say, this incident left a rather poor first impression on me and other guests.

Our first and checkout dive was at Amberhead. Checkout dives are usually at easy sites, so that divers can readjust to the marine environment more easily and in order to facilitate the resolution of any gear problems or other issues. Amberhead was one of the harder sites that we visited throughout the entire trip, with greatly reduced visibility and significant surge and chop. I had an initial gear issue that required attention, and the significant chop and low visibility impeded the resolution of that issue.

We learned later that afternoon, after only three dives, that the boat's primary generator had failed. Some guests suspected that the sandbar collision might have caused the generator failure, although Aggressor Fleet denied that claim. The captain decided to return to port for repairs, as the crew had been unable to repair it at sea. The captain initially claimed that the return to port would just be for that afternoon and evening, but we spent the next morning at port too, as the repairs required the acquisition and installation of new parts. The return to port for repairs caused us to miss the second afternoon dive and the night dive on the first day and the two morning dives on the second day. The crew did not offer us any alternative diving, lodging, or entertainment options when we were stuck in port, beyond a bottle of rum – not even a fish ID slideshow. We just sat there, and some guests got drunk.

This first day on the BAIII illustrates one of the risks and downsides of liveaboards – you pay in advance to put all of your eggs in one basket. If it does not work out well, you are stuck with it. If I had similar experiences on my first day with a terrestrial dive operation on which I was not dependent for my lodging and for which I had not paid in advance, I would have switched to a new operation. I switched operations during my terrestrial trip to Cozumel and thus salvaged what would have otherwise been a disappointing trip. I could not do that here without walking away from a huge investment.

NB: The captain's logs for this trip on the Aggressor website pointedly omitted any references to the generator failure, the return to port, and the resulting loss of dives.

The Boat

I found the BAIII suitable as a place to live, sleep, and dine and had no problems in those areas. My main criticism is the waste of space in the upper decks, which featured a small bar and an empty beer keg that no one used and a hot tub that was not hot because of the loss of its cover several weeks earlier (why did they not replace it?); another guest sarcastically dubbed it the “lukewarm tub.” Other guests reported other problems, including a failure to accommodate a guest's previously noted food allergy and an air conditioning failure in the honeymoon suite that left it unusable for its intended purpose, which struck me as all the more egregious because its occupants actually were on their honeymoon.

I learned quite a bit about the greater complexity of operating, navigating, and diving from a larger boat, and in that regard the captain's normally thorough and detailed briefings were both informative and educational. The height of the boat exposes it more to the force of the wind and causes it to “swing” on its mooring. I had read about this phenomenon in my liveaboard research but did not fully appreciate what it meant and the implications thereof until this experience; perhaps the use of the term “rotate” would have made it clearer. The best way to adapt to this phenomenon when returning to the boat was to return to the mooring pin, perform one's safety stop at the bow, and then swim to the stern to board the boat again, so as to avoid the current that the boat created behind its stern. For the same reason, upon entering the water via giant stride at the stern, I found it best to descend soon, rather than wait at the surface. The swinging was substantial enough that it could be a navigational issue; one solution to that challenge is to listen for the very loud sound of the boat's generator (when it works). The boat was easier to find visually at night and in the late afternoon because of the lights at its stern.

I wondered what complications (if any) the boat's size could pose that the smaller boats of a terrestrial dive operation might not experience. For example, the captain explained that the boat's swinging necessitated a specific set of wind conditions for us to dive the Blue Hole, as there were underwater hazards within swinging range of the Blue Hole mooring, which the boat's deeper hull could hit if the wind blew in the wrong direction. We ultimately missed the Blue Hole for broader weather reasons.

I would have thought that the loud generator noise (when it was working) would scare away marine life, but I found that the boat may have actually attracted marine life, and a surprisingly high proportion of our notable creature sightings and encounters occurred under or near the boat. The lights at the stern could explain this phenomenon at night and in the later afternoon, but it occurred earlier in the day as well. This observation perplexed me until I saw crew members dumping leftover food overboard and realized that perhaps some marine life has learned to associate boats with food. I am curious about the environmental impact of this practice, beyond the issue of exposing marine life to greater risk from fishing vessels. I recall that a boat captain in Cozumel instructed us to refrain from throwing orange peels overboard, as they had chemical preservatives that could poison creatures that ate them.

(to be continued)
 
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Ironborn

Ironborn

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The Crew

The captain's overall style of engagement with guests, including his informative briefings, was helpful. He nonetheless impressed me more as a divemaster than a captain. I did two dives with him on Lighthouse Reef that I consider some of the best dives in my experience thus far. His style was highly compatible with mine, moving very slowly and keeping an eye out for creatures that one might otherwise miss. These dives taught me the value of having a compatible dive buddy; I had some of the lowest air consumption in my experience thus far, logging my longest-ever dive with an aluminum 80 tank (74 minutes). This trip would have been a better experience if I had more opportunities to dive with the captain, although I realize that he was probably too busy captaining the boat most of the time.

The boat had two full-time divemasters; only one of them was in the water during most of the dives. One of these two guides was excellent; she was not only very proactive in pointing out marine life to us but also used her slate to teach us the names of the creatures, particularly small-to-medium sized reef fish. Diving with her was almost like an informal fish ID course. I dove with her whenever possible, although it appeared that she dove less frequently than the other guide, and it was sometimes unclear if or when she was going to dive, as she appeared to operate on “island time.”

The other dive guide was not only useless but detracted from our experiences. One thing that I have learned is the degree to which divers' personalities often seem clearer or magnified underwater; behaviors that are noticeable topside may become more obvious. This guide had a slightly abrasive demeanor at the surface, which rubbed me and a few other guests the wrong way; he was totally toxic and obnoxious underwater. Other guests used words to describe him that I will not repeat here. Perhaps he could have redeemed himself if he were of any use as a dive guide, but he was not. In the few dives that I did with him, before I gave up on him, he did not point out any marine life to me; other guests were far more helpful in that regard. When I tried to get his attention to update him on my air status at one point, it was clear from his body language reaction that he had forgotten that I was with him.

This guide clearly focused more on his photography and capturing video for the package that the crew offered to sell us at the end of the trip for an extra fee, rather than providing the dive guide services for which we had already paid, or actually pointing out any marine life in person. To the extent that his presence enabled me to see marine life that I might not have spotted myself, it was by looking at whatever he had been photographing after he was done, although that approach was sometimes difficult, given his evident taste for macro subjects. He sometimes picked up and moved macro subjects in order to photograph them more easily. Other divers and I also became the subjects of his aggressive photography, given his tendency to sneak up on us and occasionally disrupt our own attempts at photography by taking pictures of us taking pictures. The only time that I saw him contribute to divers' experiences was when he chased and shepherded a sea turtle into position for guests to photograph.

Most guests chose to dive in their own pre-existing pairs or groups, rather than follow the guides. Given our experiences with the above guide, I can see why, but I sensed that they probably would have stuck to their own pairs or groups most of the time anyway. There was only one other solo traveler on the boat; I did not want to buddy up with that person, who only did two or three dives a day anyway, for various reasons. I dove with the good guide and the captain whenever possible; when the useless guide was in the water, I joined one of those pre-existing groups that befriended me. It was a pleasure to meet and join them, and we had some good experiences. Their diving style and taste in marine life nonetheless differed from mine. They tended to move faster, as if exercising in an athletic experience, and focused on larger marine life. I tend to move slower, as if savoring an aesthetic experience, and keep an eye out for marine life of all shapes and sizes. This trip persuaded me that I should find a compatible buddy with whom to travel in the future and rely less on guides and “insta-buddies.”

I dove Nitrox throughout the trip, as did all but one of the other guests. There were only two Nitrox analyzers for all 18-ish divers, which struck me as insufficient and occasionally created a bit of a mad dash to use them in preparation for dives. The crew required us to analyze and log our mixes, which was probably prudent because of the frequently inaccurate mixes that some divers reported, ranging from 24% to 37% (we were supposed to be using 32%). I may have had one or two mixes that may have been as low as 29% or as high as 33%, but most of them were in the 30-32% range. I had often read about such problems on Aggressor boats and wonder why it seems so hard for them to do it right.

One of the two swing bars at the stern had an octopus on it for emergency use. I noticed upon my return from the first dive that the octopus was leaking. I reported the leak to a crew member, who said that he would fix it. Upon my return from another dive, I noticed that it was still leaking and reported it again; a crew member said that he would fix it. Other guests also noticed that it was leaking and reported it to the crew. The octopus continued to leak until the end of the trip. This example illustrated to me what I took to be a rather lax attitude toward such issues that might explain problems as minor as the failure to replace the lost cover of the now-lukewarm hot tub and as major as the generator failure.

It was the best of dives, it was the worst of dives.”

My pre-trip research indicated that some divers found the diving on Lighthouse Reef to be better than that on Turneffe Atoll; that assertion made sense to me, given the former's more remote location. I wholeheartedly agree with this statement; in fact, I found the differences between the two atolls to be much greater than I had anticipated. I propose that this distinction deserves greater emphasis and further discussion for the sake of other divers planning trips there, perhaps along the lines of Grand Cayman vs. Little Cayman discussions. My pre-trip research suggested a tendency to lump “the atolls” together as one destination, but they struck me as more different from each other than say, Bonaire and Curaçao, separate island destinations that are nonetheless quite similar to each other in key ways.

This assessment comes with the caveat that we spent much more time on Turneffe Atoll than Lighthouse Reef, so the discrepancy in my sample size of dives on each atoll may have skewed my observations. My assessments of local marine life also come with the caveat that I had a professional guide with me less than half the time, which may have reduced my opportunities to observe marine life in comparison to my prior experiences in other destinations, where I always dove with guides.

(to be continued)
 
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Ironborn

Ironborn

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Lighthouse Reef

The eight dives that we did in our day and a half on Lighthouse Reef were among the best in my diving experience thus far and may have surpassed mainland Bonaire's west coast, which has been my gold standard thus far. I read the captains' logs of the BAIII and the BAIV and noticed that they usually spend more time on Lighthouse Reef than we did, sometimes just stopping on Turneffe Atoll on the first day or so out from port and on the last day or so on the way back to port. Given the higher and more consistent quality of diving on Lighthouse Reef, I can see why. Perhaps if it were not for the generator failure that forced us to return to port, we could have reached Lighthouse Reef sooner than Tuesday afternoon and thus spent more than a day and a half there before inclement local weather prompted the captain to return us to Turneffe Atoll early on Thursday morning.

Our first stop was Half Moon Caye, where the superior diving conditions and richer marine life became evident even before we entered the water. We could see the relatively shallow bottom quite clearly and in detail from the boat and observe the southern rays feeding in the sandy and grassy flats and various fish species feeding throughout the water column. A spotted eagle ray also breached the surface there. The island itself looked picturesque from the boat, but we could not visit the bird sanctuary that day.

The combination of excellent visibility and relatively shallow depths yielded great lighting, to the point that one diver had to remove the red filter from his GoPro because it was adding too much red to his images. The only issue was that the amount of diver traffic often disturbed sand from sandy areas and pushed it up into the water. The water was consistently calm, with hardly any current, chop, or surge.

Our first two sites, Half Moon Caye Wall and Lighthouse Wall, had similar topography that enabled more variety in multiple dives at the same site. One could dive: along the outside of the vertical walls; above the large coral heads that grew high above the edge of the drop-off and the sea floor; through swim-throughs in between those coral heads; between the coral heads and the neighboring sandy or grassy flats; and through the sandy or grassy flats, which often hosted a variety of marine life. For example, here are some photos of a school of fish swimming around one of those tall coral heads:

Instagram post by Paul • Dec 8, 2017 at 11:44pm UTC

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Here are some rays, hermit crabs, flounders, and other fish that we saw in sandy or grassy flats:

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Our third site, Quebrada, as it Spanish name (“broken”) suggests, had a rather different topography, with more nooks and crannies in the wall that harbored abundant marine life. All three sites finally sold me on the virtues of highly vertical wall dives, about which I had been skeptical up to this point. (“Hey look, it's vertical! Woohoo!”) Quebrada had more coral and other benthic growth in the flats behind the wall, rather than sand or seagrass beds. Quebrada's coral and other benthic growth had a distinctive color scheme, with a notable preponderance of yellow, as you can see in my below photos:

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The coral, gorgonians, and sponges were consistently healthy and abundant at these sites, with little algae or dead coral. Mobile marine life was also abundant, yielding more numerous and more significant encounters. For example, I saw two different turtles at Quebrada on two successive dives:

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The presence of larger predators, such as sharks and groupers, suggested an overall healthy ecosystem. There were at least three encounters with Caribbean reef sharks at these sites (including one at night) and many groupers that followed us around like lost puppies, as in these photos below:

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One phenomenon that I noticed throughout the trip but more so at Lighthouse Reef was that the animals displayed greater interest in us than I have seen elsewhere. Perhaps a lower volume of diver traffic left them more curious about us, in contrast to say, the casual nonchalance with which the creatures at a destination with more diver traffic like Bonaire disregarded us and went about their lives as if we were not there at all. The sharks were clearly checking us out in detail. I had seen plenty of groupers elsewhere before, but Lighthouse Reef was my first personal observation of groupers' frequently reported interest in divers' cameras and touches. I let this grouper get up close and personal with my camera but felt that touching a large predator was probably not a good idea:

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Ironborn

Ironborn

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(continued from previous post)

This solo squid that I encountered and photographed during a night dive at Quebrada was even more curious about my camera. In fact, he fixed my previous inability to get good pictures at night with my dive light and red filter by pulling the snap-on red filter off of the housing and dropping it on the bottom. I picked it up and was about to replace it when I realized that the red filter had been adding too much red to the light from my dive light. I got better nighttime photos without it and was kicking myself for failing to figure it out sooner – perhaps the squid knew more about underwater photography and lighting than I did, or perhaps he wanted to get a better view of himself in the camera's lens.

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Turneffe Atoll

Turneffe Atoll differed significantly from Lighthouse Reef in their diving conditions, topography, and marine life. There was also considerable variation in the diving conditions, reef health, and mobile marine life from one dive site to another on Turneffe Atoll. The differences were obvious even to non-divers to whom I showed all of my original photos (only the processed highlights are on Instagram).

I would rank the best Turneffe Atoll sites as comparable to average sites at more affordable and easily accessible Caribbean destinations, such as Cozumel and Bonaire, and below those of Lighthouse Reef. The worst sites left me wondering why Turneffe Atoll is a popular terrestrial destination at all, given its cost and remoteness, and perhaps those sites need some more conservation measures. Subsequent discussions suggested that 2016's Hurricane Earl may have been responsible for some localized damage at these sites, but I observed other factors that are clearly not attributable to hurricanes. My below assessments come with the caveat that the captain may have chosen some sub-par or unusually poor dive sites, which would not surprise me in light of the many other things that detracted from our trip.

The Turneffe sites that we visited were either gradually sloping reefs or flatter areas with stand-alone coral heads. Turneffe sites tended to be deeper than those of Lighthouse Reef (unless one chose to dive deeper along its walls). Visibility varied significantly from one site to another, ranging from great to near-whiteout conditions. In fact, during a few dives, visibility changed during the course of the dive, which led me to wonder if some of the reduced visibility may have been due to non-weather factors, such as plankton. Throughout the trip, zooplankton, small jellyfish, and other tiny mid-water creatures seemed larger and more numerous and noticeable to me than elsewhere in the Caribbean. (Speaking of jellyfish, I had read about the greater abundance of jellyfish in Belize in my pre-trip research and thus decided to dive in a 3mm full wetsuit, rather than the 3mm shorty that I would normally use. The captain also warned us to be wary of sea wasps on night dives, when they are more common, and that many people who are allergic to bee stings are also allergic to sea wasp stings).

One group of divers spotted a nurse shark on Turneffe Atoll, but we did not see any “real” or “sharky” sharks there. There were, however, many remoras that congregated under the boat and tried to attach themselves to us – perhaps they could not find any actual sharks to which to attach themselves.

Instagram post by Paul • Dec 14, 2017 at 2:11am UTC

In the ostensible absence of “real or “sharky” sharks, green moray eels and tarpon appeared to be the top predators of Turneffe Atoll. The green moray eels that I saw on Turneffe Atoll struck me as far bolder than those I had observed elsewhere in the Caribbean. They came out of their holes during the day more frequently, and I had many more opportunities to photograph them closely.

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One green moray eel charged straight at me from out of nowhere under the boat at Grand Bogue as I was preparing to ascend for my safety stop. I backed off, as I thought that he might attack me, but he backed off and swam away when he saw that I had backed off. I am curious as to what his intentions might have been, as he had begun to approach me directly from quite a distance away. At first I thought that it might have been a territorial display, but then I remembered accounts of green moray eels approaching divers for handouts because other divers had fed them dead lionfish.

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Another major difference between Lighthouse Reef and Turneffe Atoll was the degree of lionfish infestation. In eight dives on Lighthouse Reef, I saw a total of one lionfish. In one dive at Grand Bogue on Turneffe Atoll, I counted more lionfish than I did during my entire week-long trips to both Bonaire and Cozumel earlier this year. That one dive was late in the morning too, rather than in the afternoon or towards dusk, when lionfish often prefer to emerge. That one dive was an extreme example, but the lionfish invasion was clearly worse throughout Turneffe Atoll than on Lighthouse Reef. The Turneffe lionfish, in contrast to those that I observed elsewhere, displayed no fear of divers and did not react to my presence at all, even when I imitated the motion of firing a speargun. They were not hiding but out in the open, occasionally in pairs or larger groups, which I had not seen before.

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I wonder if Turneffe Atoll's remoteness reduces the amount of lionfish hunting, leaving lionfish with less fear of divers or reason to hide, compared to places with more diver traffic. If remoteness were the reason, though, then one would expect the lionfish problem to be worse on Lighthouse Reef, but it appeared to less of a problem there. The crew explained that they do not hunt lionfish in the presence of guests but did not explain why – perhaps they feared that it would arouse larger predators.

Other notable marine life on Turneffe Atoll included the endemic whitespotted toadfish, which were, in my experience, easier to find and photograph than their splendid toadfish cousins on Cozumel. They tended to protrude further from their holes than their Cozumel counterparts and croaked at all times of day and night; perhaps the often reduced visibility made it harder for them to distinguish day and night.

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Ironborn

Ironborn

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Miami, Florida
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(continued from previous post)

Our best dive on Turneffe Atoll was at “Fabian's Roost,” a relatively shallow site with excellent visibility, robustly healthy reef growth, and a good amount of mobile marine life, including this sea turtle that swam past us just as we were about to ascend for our safety stop:

Instagram post by Paul • Dec 9, 2017 at 1:16am UTC

Instagram post by Paul • Dec 9, 2017 at 1:19am UTC

Instagram post by Paul • Dec 9, 2017 at 1:23am UTC

Instagram post by Paul • Dec 9, 2017 at 1:27am UTC

Instagram post by Paul • Dec 9, 2017 at 1:31am UTC

Instagram post by Paul • Dec 9, 2017 at 1:38am UTC

Unfortunately, this arguably best dive of ours on Turneffe Atoll only lasted 45 minutes, and we only got to dive it once. The crew decided to organize it as a guided and timed drift dive for unexplained reasons that made no sense to me, as there was no current there and the BAIII is not ideal for drift diving. If we had been free to guide ourselves, we could have had more time to enjoy it, as the relatively shallow site would have yielded lower air consumption and longer NDLs.

“Johnny's Wrench” had similarly good reef health, visibility, and other conditions but was a bit less productive in terms of creature encounters. Of note, the site derives its name from an incident in which an Aggressor crew member dropped a wrench on a diver who was installing the site's mooring pin.

Grand Bogue had a healthy reef, great visibility, and comfortable diving conditions but few fish or other mobile marine life except lionfish. I am curious as to why the lionfish infestation would appear to be so vastly disproportionate at this one location, and why the site would otherwise appear healthy.

Amberhead featured some noteworthy mobile marine life, including two spotted eagle rays and a sea turtle that we could barely see because of the significantly lower visibility here. Perhaps there would have been more mobile marine life to see here if the visibility had been better. Reef health was decent.

Sandy Slope was similar to Amberhead, but with better visibility and less interesting creatures to see. We only did one dive here before the generator failure forced us to return to port.

Black Beauty – large parts of this site deserve the name “Green Ugly” instead. It had some notable reef health problems, with quite a bit of dead coral and algae growth. The site takes its name from some black coral that once grew there but was later stolen. There were nonetheless some interesting creatures to observe here, especially on the night dive, which featured some octopus encounters. Three dives at this site was more than enough, but for some reason that I do not understand, the captain brought us back here later in the week for a fourth dive, which was abysmal. It was a dawn dive, which was so early that whatever marine life there was here had not yet woken up. The current was also extremely strong and visibility deteriorated over the course of the dive to near-whiteout conditions.

Front Porch – they should change its name to “Coral Graveyard” or “Algae Alley.” I have never seen so much dead, algae-covered coral; this desolate site was quite depressing. Mobile marine life was scarce – even the lionfish appeared to have moved on to healthier areas. If you looked hard enough, you might see a lobster or some Pederson cleaner shrimp, but that was about it. One cleaner shrimp signaled to me for a cleaning – perhaps he could not find any actual marine life to clean. Ironically enough, when we arrived here, a fishing boat had appropriated the Aggressor mooring. The crew told the fishermen to surrender the mooring, which they did, but they nonetheless continued to fish nearby. One diver got caught in their active fishing lines. Perhaps we could have gotten them to leave by telling them from our first-hand observation that there were no fish there down there to catch – only divers.
 
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Ironborn

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Conclusion and Further Discussion

Do I consider this trip a success? Yes and no.

I wanted to determine whether or not liveaboards are a desirable form of dive travel for me. Despite the many downsides of this trip, I remain interested in future liveaboard trips to other destinations and learned many lessons that will probably make future trips more productive. I also determined what I suspected from my pre-trip research: that I can probably do better than Aggressor Fleet in most other liveaboard markets that interest me, and I will probably stick to non-Aggressor liveaboards whenever possible. I nonetheless remain interested in the Cayman Aggressor IV (CAIV), which I would have preferred over either Belize liveaboard if there had been any open spots on it that week. Aside from the lack of non-Aggressor liveaboard competition in the Cayman Islands, other guests on this trip told me that their experiences on the CAIV had been vastly superior to this trip, and that I should give it a shot despite this sub-par experience. One guest added that the CAIV has consistently higher quality than other Aggressors because its owner is a senior Aggressor Fleet executive, so that boat receives closer attention and better maintenance and does not suffer from the same problems as other Aggressors.

Another purpose of liveaboard trips is the enhanced ability to visit remoter, healthier, and more pristine dive sites. In that regard, the eight dives at Lighthouse Reef were a success, but the rest of the trip on Turneffe Atoll did not deliver. Turneffe Atoll may be remote, but I would say that it is on average less pristine or healthy than other Caribbean destinations that are much closer to civilization (and cost less), such as Cozumel or mainland Bonaire's west coast. My pre-trip research indicated that Turneffe Island Resort (TIR) is a popular terrestrial alternative to the Belize Aggressors for those that want to dive one of the atolls. If the sites that we visited were representative of Turneffe Atoll (and maybe they were not representative), then I wonder why it is so popular, when there are other places in the Caribbean with a higher and more consistent quality of diving that are more accessible and/or more affordable. I took three full-time dive trips this year – Cozumel, Bonaire, and Belize – and this trip was both the most expensive and the least satisfying overall, so the value for the money was significantly lower.

My attitude toward both diving and non-diving destinations that I have visited is usually “been there, done that” - it takes a lot to impress me enough to visit the same place twice, especially when you consider how big the ocean is. Lighthouse Reef impressed me enough that I want to return there. Given my experience with the BAIII and its crew, I would not consider returning to that vessel or trying the larger BAIV. I would instead seek out terrestrial alternatives that cover Lighthouse Reef exclusively and bypass Turneffe Atoll altogether, such as the Huracan or Itza dive lodges. My experience leads me to question the received wisdom that liveaboards are the best way to dive Belize's atolls – aside from maintenance and crew issues, I would not want to risk wasting time on mediocre Turneffe sites that I could spend on Lighthouse Reef. In this case, the ability to visit multiple areas in one liveaboard trip was both an advantage and a disadvantage. It exposed me to two different atolls and enabled me to find one that I enjoyed greatly. The disadvantage is that the other atoll was occasionally so disappointing that it felt like a waste of time and money, and we spent the majority of the trip on that atoll.

My pre-trip research and actual experience piqued my interest in the two other Caribbean atolls. Glover's Reef sounds like it is more off the beaten path for most divers, and perhaps more pristine and healthy. I am also curious about the fourth atoll, Banco Chinchorro, which is in neighboring Mexican waters, but I have heard hardly anything about it as a dive destination.

Below are some questions for further discussion, the answers to which may aid divers considering trips to Belize (including my intended return to Lighthouse Reef):

  • What resources do you use to research and vet liveaboards, other than Scubaboard trip reports and Undercurrent reviews? In other words, is there a Trip Advisor or a Yelp for liveaboards?

  • How would compare your experiences on Aggressor vs. non-Aggressor liveaboards, in terms of both overall quality and value for the money?

  • What are the terrestrial options for diving on Lighthouse Reef, such as the Huracan and Itza lodges, and what are their respective pros and cons?

  • How does Glover's Reef compare to Lighthouse Reef and Turneffe Atoll? What are the terrestrial options for diving on Glover's Reef, and what are their respective pros and cons?

  • If I have heard little about Banco Chinchorro as a diving destination, is that because it is of little or no interest, or is it a relatively pristine gem off the beaten path of most divers?

  • Did the captain take us to sub-par and unrepresentative sites on Turneffe Atoll? Would I have had a more favorable impression of Turneffe Atoll if he had taken us to different sites?
 

Trailboss123

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Thanks for taking the time to provide such a detailed report. I am booked on the BA3 for the end of April, so this report was particularly timely. As for some of your questions, I believe that Huracan and Itza are the only options for Lighthouse Reef, terrestrially speaking. At least they are the only ones I have discovered in my research. I have done a fair amount of research on Banco Chinchorro, as I love "off the beaten or rarely visited locations". My research leads me to the conclusion that it would not be worth the time and effort. You cannot stay there. Only day trips offered and it is quite a travel distance from the mainland and the diving is not so spectacular and different to warrant taking my precious vacation time to explore. It would be a limited number of dives and can get spendy. I have crossed it off my list as a pure dive vacation destination. I think your assessment of Lighthouse Reef aligns with what everyone else I know has said and is why I have looked into a terrestrial based trip there for the future. Bummer you didn't get more dive time there. I got a smoking 34% off deal for the Aggressor trip, so I jumped on it. I hope we will get more dive time at Lighthouse than you did, and I'd be very happy to skip the Blue Hole in favor of more dive time anywhere else.
 
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drrich2

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A fine trip report, covering the good, the bad and the ugly. Ironic, since you poured more effort than most into research and consultation to determine the best destination option possible, then ran into a number of unusual complications. Therein is a lesson for us all, from the old John Lennon quote that life is what happens while you're making other plans; resiliency is important on dive vacations! Congrat.s on your Iron Diver medal; they make neat mementos.

Hypocrisy spoiler: I hope my trips go smoothly without such complications!!!

Like you, my early diving was heavily weighted toward shore diving Bonaire (but haven't done Curacao); I've spent 8 weeks there. I consider Bonaire my 'scuba home,' the dive destination I identify with most and long to return to. But I branched out, and grabbing an old Robert Frost line IIRC, 'that has made all the difference.' Keep branching out and don't give up on exploring these new destinations. I check Southwest Airline's website routinely - 'Wanna Get Away' tickets and free 2-checked bag allowance rock for destinations they visit, and Orbitz doesn't show them as an option. They fly to Turks & Caicos, by the way...

If I'd stuck with Bonaire only, I'd have missed the larger schools of larger fish on some Key Largo sites, the goliath grouper and multiple shark species (albeit shark feed diving was used) of Jupiter, the sand tiger sharks of North Carolina, the kelp, sea lions and harbor seals of the Californian Channel Islands...and there is so much more out there. I've never seen a manta, and all my dolphins have been topside.

I think a history of lionfish feeding is why those sharks and grouper were so interested in you guys. Caribbean reef sharks can get a lot more 'real shark' when somebody's got a lionfish on a spear. A couple made life interesting for one of our guides when I was on the Sun Dancer 2 (a.k.a. Belize Aggressor IV). On my trip, we only hit Turneffe Atoll a couple of dives that last '1/2 day' diving, on our way back to the mainland.

Like you, I've gotten the impression from other threads that Aggressor Fleet boats should be judged by the boat, not the 'fleet.' Some, like Cayman Aggressor IV and the Turks & Caicos Aggressor II, get strong reviews (though the latter competes with the also strongly endorsed Turks & Caicos Explorer II), but not every boat in the fleet gets the same. I loved the Sun Dancer 2 and Cayman Aggressor IV.

Also enjoyed your perspective on the 'one stop shop' simplicity vs. 'stuck on a boat' dilemma; a live-aboard offers very convenient diving without worrying about breaking down gear daily, driving around/navigating topside or dealing with traffic, no hunting restaurants...but what you get is what you get. Which is usually quite good.

While your trip wasn't 'typical,' it's a good reminder not every trip is, and some good can still come out of such.

Richard.
 

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Thnx for the lengthy review.
 
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