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The Great Blue Hole, in the middle of Lighthouse Reef Atoll, is a perfectly circular limestone sinkhole about 300 metres across and 120 metres deep. Exploring it with his mini-subs in the 1970s Jacques Cousteau determined that it was the collapsed roof of a gigantic cave. The huge, stalactite-hung galleries could only have formed in air, when sea level was hundreds of feet lower than present. Its rim is draped with a variety of fan and brain coral but lack of sunlight prevents any growth on its steep inner walls. We saw only a few fish and a couple of sharks swimming far below us it takes more than a snorkel and mask to fully appreciate the Blue Hole.
I hauled in the anchor and propped myself up in the bow for the rest of our trip to Half Moon Caye on the southern rim of Lighthouse Reef. Watching the sandy bottom slip beneath me was like flying in a dream. Through water so clear it was almost invisible every detail of the coral-studded bottom was visible. Half buried stingrays surfaced in a flurry of sand and flapped off to one side. Queen conches stopped dragging themselves across the sand and retreated into their massive shells. A school of porpoises played in the bow wave, leaping clear of the water only a few feet from my perch beside the anchor.
On Half Moon Caye, careful to stay clear of overhanging coconuts, we pitched our tents on the sand of a long white beach, built a fire and helped Sarah and George prepare dinner freshly filleted barracuda pan-fried to a golden brown in Sandbore Caye coconut oil. It was one of the most memorable meals of the trip.
For scores of other mariners arriving here was not a happy event. The outer reef of the atoll is the final resting place for dozens of boats that were swept onto the coral and battered into oblivion by the pounding surf. Most of them have long ago crumbled back into the sea but the rusted hulks of six grounded freighters still tower above the coral, dwarfing the tiny, low-lying islands in the lagoon.
We pumped up our fleet of inflatable kayaks and spent a day exploring the wreck of the Ermlund, a 4,000 gross ton freighter which lost power in a storm and was swept onto the reef in 1971. Alternately paddling or leading the kayaks behind us while snorkeling we made our way out to the wreck, reminded of the awesome power of hurricanes that periodically sweep across this island paradise.