Travel: Meet St Francis of the sea

Ingrid Kennedy goes snorkelling with Ras, a diver who has a magic touch with the exotic fish that swim off Belize
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The Independent Travel
This eagle-ray's a Rasta ray," says Ras. "I know this 'cos he turn up on Bob Marley's birthday." Ras Creek is the self-appointed guardian of eco-tourism on Caye Caulker in Belize. Seven years ago he arrived on the island intending to fish, but instead he met the eagle-ray and formed a close bond with the creature and the local nurse sharks. Keen to share his friendship, he converted his boat into a tourist cruiser and started taking visitors out for a taste of a real-life Jacques Cousteau underwater encounter.

Ras, as you may have gathered, is a Rastafarian and finds his religion particularly important in his relationship with the fish. Unlike other boat-tour operators, he has made friends with the sharks and sting-rays by feeding them daily and slowly making them accustomed to human contact. Some of them have been coming to the same spot for seven years.

"The animals will not hurt you unless you frighten them," he assures us, "but it is important to treat them with respect." His system seems to work. As we motor out towards the coral reef which flanks the eastern side of the island, we suddenly become aware that we are being followed by dark shadows in the water. "The sharks have come to say hello," explains Ras and suddenly the crystal-clear water does not seem nearly so appealing.

He suggests we head off to snorkel around the reef while he gets ready for the show. Two English backpackers show no hesitation falling backwards off the boat in a demonstration of newly acquired scuba-diving skills. The American couple and I are more reluctant. I discover they are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary and were given the Ras Tour as a present by their son.

Finally, our curiosity gets the better of us and we plunge in. To our amazement the sharks and sting-rays pay us no attention as we splash into the water and put on our fins and snorkels.

The reef is worth the trip in itself, especially for anyone who is not a confident swimmer. The water is never deeper than five to six feet and there are no currents to speak of. As I investigate a coral formation I come across a group of nurse sharks resting on the sand, but they soon disappear. I clearly do not have that special Rasta touch.

Eventually, Ras calls us back to the boat for the show. We are taught how to feed the sting-rays and how to pat them on the nose. Their skin is surprisingly soft. They seem to enjoy the attention and keep coming back for more. Next it is the turn of the nurse sharks, which Ras holds in his arms for the braver visitors to kiss. This is a fantastic photo opportunity, but some people prefer to stay behind the camera.

The undisputed star of the performance is the graceful eagle-ray, which often makes a late appearance like a true diva. Eagle-rays are very rare creatures which normally appear alone. Unlike sting-rays, they have a distinctive nose and eyes, a bit like a cross between a dolphin and a sting-ray. This one is the shyest of all the fish and she waits coyly on the outskirts of the group until Ras swims over to fetch her. There is a very obvious bond between man and fish, which touches all of us. The noise levels diminish noticeably as she elegantly follows him over to the spellbound audience.

News of Ras's unique ability has spread across the Cayes and boats come from as far as Ambergris Caye to watch the performance. These are far more luxurious (and expensive) tours, but they all rely on Ras to provide the artists. The other guides just sail the boats and provide the snorkelling gear.

The growing numbers of people leads Ras to worry that the animals will be scared away. He has therefore devised a floating wooden pole for people to rest their feet on. This helps them stay afloat in one place so there is no danger of the fish being trodden on. His next challenge is to convince the other tours to provide a similar device. I asked him whether he resented other people making money out of his success, but he was philosophical: "I want everyone to see the animals, but they must have respect. I don't mind the other tours, they need to make money. There aren't too many jobs here."

After the show we sail outside the reef to a deeper coral garden, where with luck you can catch the turtles swimming. This is followed by lunch: fresh coconut, mango and raisins to start and a main course of breadfruit- curry sandwiches. A novel experience for the taste buds and very welcome after a whole morning of swimming.

Ras finishes off the trip with a sail round the island pointing out the iguanas sunbathing on the mangrove trunks. These are so camouflaged that only the keenest eyes can spot them. We finish with Caye Caulker's best- kept secret. Hidden in the roots at the water's edge on the west of the island is a colony of seahorses. Ras dives down and brings one up inside a small glass jar, before carefully placing it back in the sea.

Some of the local scuba-diving instructors have criticised Ras for domesticating the sting-rays and leading them to forget their hunting techniques by feeding them on a daily basis. Ras is quick to refute these claims: "I don't give them enough food to survive, they still have to fish," he says. "Here they are in their own home and come of their own free will. They don't have to turn up if they don't want to."

My fellow sailors find it hard to disagree, but we are all concerned that tours such as this one may not survive for long. With the astonishing growth in long-haul tourism, places such as Belize are awash with tourists, particularly from the US. For the people of these poorer countries this provides a golden opportunity to make money, often at the expense of the environment. But tours like Ras's provide a happy medium between protecting the sea-life and giving holidaymakers a unique experience.

After the trip we all head off to the Sand Box restaurant for a much- needed beer. Most of us are exhausted after all that swimming and too much sun, but Ras holds court, keen to discuss his theories and plans for the future. The sun sets behind the broad fruit trees to the inevitable sound of Bob Marley. It seems that on Caye Caulker, everything's a Rasta.

BELIZE

GETTING THERE

Caye Caulker is the second largest of the Cayes - pronounced "keys" - which lie off the Caribbean coast of this former British colony. (Unlike the rest of Central America, the population here is mostly Creole, descended from the African slaves and British pirates who first settled here, giving it a mix of African, Spanish and British culture).

Journey Latin America (tel: 0181-747 3108) offers return flights to Belize City via Miami or Houston with American and Continental Airlines. Prices vary widely according to the time of year, from pounds 484 in April to more than pounds 700 during peak season in August, excluding airport taxes. From Belize City you can either take a boat for $15 (pounds 9) return or fly to the Cayes ($84 return).

WHEN TO GO

It is possible to visit at most times of year. Our summer is their wet season, though at this time prices are lower. The hurricane risk peaks in September and October.

WHERE TO STAY

Ingrid Kennedy stayed at the Sandy Lane Hotel (tel: 00 501 22 2217). Double rooms with access to a shared bath cost from $12. The Iguana Reef Inn (tel: 00 501 22 2213; e-mail: iguanareef @btl.net) offers double rooms for $90 from 15 November to 15 May, or $60 at other times.

WHAT TO EAT

The local delicacy is lobster, served with baked potatoes and baked beans and a bargain at $12. For breakfast, try freshly baked cinnamon bread with papaya from the bakery on Back Street.

BOAT TOURS

Ras Creek can be contacted via the Sand Box restaurant or the Iguana Reef Inn. His half-day tour costs between $15 and $20 and includes hire of a mask, snorkel and fins. Also available are tours to see the manatees (sea cows), go diving at the Blue Hole or visit Ambergris Caye for a day.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Contact the Belize High Commission, 22 Harcourt House, 19 Cavendish Square, London W1M 9AD (tel: 0171-499 9728).

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