The Blue Ventures boat, Blue Runner, pulled into the gap-toothed grin of a wooden pier leading out from the dive camp. We clambered out of the boat and hauled out the suitcases and backpacks that we had shipped over from Sarteneja. We then shifted all of that onto the beach, carefully making our way along the uneven wood of the jetty. We had been warned about it prior to coming, but the seaweed on the beach was still a bit of a shock. It was piled up in a bank about three metres wide and twenty centimetres high on the sand and then it cascaded out to see for at least another ten or fifteen metres. The water was choked with the red floating remains of all of this sargassum sea weed and the smell was something else. It reminded me of the long-drop toilets at Reading Festival. Not the best introduction to life at camp it has to be said.
But I refused to let that taint my first view of the dive camp. Once you look past the seaweed the sand is a beautiful pale cream and large driftwood logs, acting as benches, sit between palm trees. Immediately behind that is a volleyball court, complete with a net, and five wooden cabanas occupy the space in the circle around the court. The cabanas mostly have thatched roofs (a couple have been replaced with corrugated steel to help with waterproofing) and are raised a foot or so off the ground. Wooden steps lead up to the door and on either side there are large wooden window shutters that can be propped open with pieces of wood.
“Welcome to Bacalar Chico Dive Camp, or BCDC as it’s known,” Jenny said with a smile. “I’m going to give you the tour and then we can move all of your stuff into your cabanas,” We followed her up past the cabanas to the room that lay beyond, the classroom/living room/dining room/ping pong arena.
“This is the room where our learning and eating happens.” She said. There was a large wooden square table in the middle of the room, surrounded by wooden benches on all sides. There were two book shelves, one packed with old and slightly worse for wear books of all genres from Reef Fish and bird books to copies of Cosmo and trashy novels. One of our personal favourites was on entitled Barbara The Slut And Other People. Jemima, or Jimmy as she’s known, quickly took it off the shelf and adjusted the name so that it read Justin The Slut And Other People. It would take Justin several days to notice this change. The other book shelf had more practical items like markers and walkie talkies and PADI Manuals. In the corner there was a little table with tea, coffee, creamer and sugar and in another corner, a little sink. There was also a hammock slung across this part of the room which one of the watchmen slept in.
Beyond the classroom was the kitchen where all of our lovely food was made. We walked out of the classroom and round to the brine showers (all the water that comes out of the taps is salty) and toilet blocks. We had two showers and two toilets. Each toilet had a sign on the front and Jenny explained to us, in all seriousness, that one of them was for ‘shits and giggles’ and the other one was just for peeing.
“I was elbow deep in the U-bend of a toilet there is no way in hell that’s happening again. So no shits in this toilet.” Jenny said patting the door with a sign that read ‘No. 1 – Nothing from your bum’. The other one read ‘No. 2 – Do what you gotta do’. She showed us how to use them, as you needed to turn a tap on so that water filled the tank behind the toilet. When the tank was about half full that meant that you were good to go and you could pull on the flush (in this case a piece of driftwood tied to a piece of string) and hope that it sorted you out. Then there was a bin in each to put toilet paper in that would then be burned.
Then we saw the air compressor for the tanks and the shed that the tanks are kept in. Outside the classroom is an area known as ‘The Alcove’ where all of the wet dive stuff gets put when you come back from the boat. Things can be left there during the day but needs to be cleared out before night time. There are lots of rusty nails to hang masks, slates, dive computers and regulators on and then a wooden rack which you can put your tank on while you kit it up.
“Now you guys are lucky, because the weather wasn’t so good for the last set of volunteers and when they couldn’t go diving they decided to build some lovely furniture which you can now enjoy,” Jenny said as we walked back down to the beach. The smell of rotting seaweed hit us again as we approached the water,
“Don’t worry!” She added cheerfully, “You get used to the smell,” I struggled to imagine how I could get used to it, but I thought that if people can spend their days working in Lush then I could get behind living here. Just down the beach there were some amazingly creative pieces of furniture that people had made. Three hammocks strung across some coconut palms had been made by the watchmen out of old fishing nets. There was a beautiful table surrounded by an octagonal bench that looked out over the sea, alongside a seat, that was clearly made from old wooden crates, that had been strung up into the low hanging branch of a tree to form a swing. It was amazing.
Then if you walk further along the beach there’s another little nook, shielded by mangrove trees. This is the best place in camp to feel properly alone for a little while and it’s known as Jenny’s Folly. There’s a big wooden wooden disc nestled between the branches of a rather spikes-leaved tree, propped up with extra driftwood logs. Then there are logs all around the outside to make the back of it almost like a throne. It really was an impressive place to sit. Then at the other end of the beach there was another bench with a sign that read ‘The Decompression Chamber’. And as well as those there are two bench swings (pieces of driftwood tied to the rafters with old fishing rope) outside the classroom with mobiles made from pieces of shell tied to string. People really do get creative here.
We ambled back along the beach to the volleyball court where Jenny said, “And that’s pretty much everything. I’m sure you’re all itching to know where you’ll be living so this cabana will be for the female staff when they come out to join us for the last couple of weeks.” Jenny said, starting at the cabana furthest to the right. “Then we have the four gals in this one, the three chaps in this one, the happy couple in the next and then the coast guards.”
Oh yes, the coast guards. Something I forgot to mention.
So it turns out that in the time between the last expedition-load of people leaving and us arriving, three armed men from an organised crime ring rocked up at BCDC looking for one of their workers. When it became clear that he wasn’t there, they left everyone at camp in peace but they made further attempts to track him down afterwards and broke into his house. Blue Ventures contacted the Belizean embassy in the UK as well as the British Embassy in Belize and the court magistrates who recommended that this individual lay low for a while and go on paid leave. He’s been an employee of Blue Ventures for many years and they trust him entirely, but they think he must have accidentally gotten mixed in with a bad crowd. I don’t know this bloke from a bar of soap so have no idea if he is involved in Belizean organised crime or not, but we were assured that the camp would still be safe for us to live in. However, Blue Ventures did take the precaution of having armed coast guards come with us to camp.
This was a rather irritating piece of news for us logistically, as Jemima, Lizzie, Cannelle and I had rather been hoping to have two cabanas between us four younger girls rather than having to all share one, which was going to be a bit of a squeeze. Also we felt a little uncomfortable about having armed guards watching over us as we wandered around camp in our swimsuits. I’m sure the guards were totally professional, but still I wasn’t too keen on the idea of being watched like that. I guess it’s better than being killed by a Belizean drug lord, but I figured the odds of that happening were pretty low. We were told all of this in the spirit of total transparency.
Anyways, once we were given our cabana we wandered inside. Jemima and I were very keen to snag bottom bunks (we’re both very prone to getting up for a pee in the night so the extra height would just end badly) and we were lucky because Lizzie and Cannelle didn’t seem to care. We hauled our bags up the beach and into our cabana. Jemima and I unpacked our Mixed Fruit squash and bottles of rum and vodka respectively.
“A drink to toast our arrival?” I asked, holding up two plastic mugs that I had picked up from the kitchen.
“Well it would be rude not to don’t you think?” Jemima replied and we mixed our drinks on the wooden shelf beside our bunk beds. Once we had our cocktails (yes squash and spirits constitute a cocktail) we took them outside where the moon was just beginning to rise off the water. Our first night at camp just happened to be the night of the full moon, so we all came out to watch the moonrise. It was so bright that the moonlight cast long shadows across the sand.
“Cheers guys,” Jemima said, chinking her plastic cup with mine, Ben and Justin’s (who had also brought out their rum and squash).
Okay so maybe it wasn’t champagne, but it tasted pretty damn good to me.