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Jungle Adventures behind the Machete

"It 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."

That's 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 inland.

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 Creek.

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 Cortez.

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.

Excerpt from "Tales from on the Surface ...And The Road Goes On"
by Julian Monroe Fisher

Tales from on the Surface

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