was just past 7:30pm on Monday, October 8, 2001, when Hurricane
Iris, a category four hurricane packing sustained winds of over
140 miles per hour, churned her way through the mangroves, to
come ashore from Placencia to Independence to Monkey River. Forty-five
minutes after she arrived, she was gone."
word for word the way Norman Leslie, the owner and operator of
the 'Sea Spray Hotel' which is located on the southern coast of
Belize in the village of Placencia, told me about the horrible
events that cool October evening.
The harsh reality, well three-quarters of the buildings in the
small fishing village of Placencia were either damaged or destroyed
completely by the powerful hurricane. Eyewitness accounts abound
of whole houses being flung up in the air, then later being placed
down gently nearby. Other stories tell of how a picture remained
hanging on a bedroom wall throughout the storm, while the hurricane
reeked her havoc and destruction elsewhere, only inches away.
Sadly, I saw for myself the destruction left in Iris' wake and
of course, it was not a pretty sight.
And worst yet, some twenty-five miles south of Placencia, within
minutes of the hurricane's landfall, the entire town of 'Monkey
River Town', all but vanished. Following Hurricane Iris, only
one building remained standing. In all, there were said to have
been some fifteen thousand people left homeless from the storm,
and as the first reports rolled in, "Only some fifteen to
twenty are dead."
Those dead are the reason the most tragic 'tale' of 'Hurricane
Iris' will always be about the seventeen US Americans, members
of the Richmond, Virginia, Dive Club, who died aboard the chartered
dive boat, the 'Wave Dancer'. The real mystery is just how a one
hundred foot chartered diving boat broke loose down in Big Creek
in less than two-foot waves. Breaking loose from its mooring and
then capsizing, to roll out of control out in the mangroves.
Some say the decision that night by the passengers to ride out
Iris' storm fury was ill advised. For as the locals all say, "The
'Wave Dancer' passenger divers were repeatedly offered, at least
three separate times by the Leslie family alone, by radio to move
Claims made by Norman Leslie, who had decided to spend the night
at his brother's house in the village of Independence, where he
monitored the radios for the Leslies, well Norman stresses he
personally radioed to offer his help and the boats of the Leslie
family by saying each time, "Wave Dancer...Wave Dancer...we
can evacuate you now. Please evac now...".
Tragically, Norman Leslie and other locals will also tell you
how the people on the other end of the radio calls that October
night all pleaded with the people in Big Creek to leave the ship
for safety. Instead, they say the divers decided to "party
out the storm".
Norman Leslie told me about what he heard on the citizen's band
'c.b.' ship to shore radio band that night when, as he puts it,
"all hell broke loose down in Big Creek", when the passengers
realized that they were in real trouble, when they were screaming
on the radio for help. But when that happened it was too late.
The first eye of the storm had hit Placencia peninsula and nobody
could leave their shelter to attempt a rescue.
In order to see for myself the slash of devastation down in Monkey
River town following Hurricane Iris, seeing where I have friends,
hoteliers as well as guides I've worked with for chasing 'Howler
Monkeys' up Monkey River, I hired out Norman's nephew, James Leslie,
for a trip to Monkey River town.
On the way back as you make the regular route up through the maze
of mangroves, you eventually cut by the industrial docks of Big
In fact I have spent countless hours tied up right to that very
dock. Because that's where you're required to check out with Belizean
immigration when you make the trip with Captain Morrell on his
'Gulf Cruza' passenger boat across the Bay of Honduras to Puerto
As James Leslie slowed the boat engines to make a turn in the
mangroves, suddenly appearing directly in front of us was the
'Wave Dancer'. She had only days before been flipped back over
and seemed to my layman's eyes, worthy to return to the sea.
James idled the engines, as I noticed the calm that embraced the
'Wave Dancer' there in the backwaters. Tucked away there in the
mangroves, where all hell broke loose that night in Big Creek.
from "Tales from on the Surface ...And The Road Goes On"
by Julian Monroe Fisher