“Hurricane Earl leaves a path of destruction on Ambergris Caye” - The San Pedro Sun, August 4th.
We arrived August 6th.
Not exactly the weather report you hope for when you start packing. But, with our Kickstarter campaign around the corner, and flights booked, we boarded a plane in Grand Rapids and hoped for a Somewhere-Over-The-Rainbow scenario in Belize.
To set the stage and the stakes:
- Number of working drones: 1
- Days until Kickstarter Launch: 24
- Career opportunities turned down: 3
- Funds in the company bank account: $150
Needless to say, there was quite a bit on the line at this point.
To be clear, we did not self fund this trip. We we’re lucky enough to have familial connections with a surplus of unused frequent flier miles. Enough to get us down to Ambergris Caye, Belize on a shoestring budget with a mission to showcase the Fathom One in one of the premier dive sites of the world, also home to some of the best seafood I’ve ever had in my life.
But first, this week's driving culture highlight: golf carts.
In Dubai, 4-lane highways pave the landscape, offering the spectacle of super cars in their natural habitat (100+ MPH). San Pedro on the other hand, a small city off the eastern coast of the Belizean mainland on the Ambergris Caye, is comprised of narrow and labyrinthine roads. So narrow in fact that 99 of every 100 cars you see, are actually golf carts. The city follows the peninsula, stretching only several miles north and south, and roughly one-third of a mile latitudinally. As a result there are only three, count ‘um, three roads that run north and south through the city, logically referred to as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd street. I’m sure they had more creative names, but no one used them. Numbers were both more descriptive and easier to remember than the abstract ‘pelican path’ or ’sea turtle trail’. And while driving a golf cart all week was a blast, it also reached at a deeper feeling of community and family felt throughout the city.
Hurricane Earl swept through Ambergris Caye just days before we arrived, and in the process wiped out 95% of the docks and structures built along the beachfront. The first picture in this post is of the Palapa Bar and Grill, completely destroyed in the storm. Marked in the water by a circle of seabed without any seagrass, every piece of kitchen equipment was sunken in the sand, ten feet underwater. By the time we got had explored the beach enough to find the wreckage, individuals in the community had gathered at the site, pulling grills, dishwashers, and fridges to shore. Mind you, these we’re not even employees at Palapas, but rather community members that felt the urge to lend a hand. This mindset seemed to follow us throughout the trip, with each person we met being more genuine, friendly, and selfless than the last.
Anyways, back to the story. We arrived in Belize with a mission: bring the Fathom One underwater drone to an amazing location and explore. But as we’d soon discover, even the best laid plans often go awry. We boarded a small prop plane that taxied us from the mainland to San Pedro, rented a golf cart, and off we went, drone in hand, only to discover a decimated coastline. Luckily, in a twist of fate, it turns out that the wildlife was totally cool with damaged docks and piers, in fact, in someways they prefer it.
In the wake of the hurricane, debris was left scattered along the coast. This debris offered new hiding places for small fish, like the one above, to escape the chase of hungry predators. And while the storm may have left the people of San Pedro shaken, the marine life were right at home.
Belize is home to the second largest coral reef system in the world, the first being the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The reef system is also classified as a ‘barrier reef’ as it runs parallel to the shore as a sort of ‘barrier'. This is where we did much of the filming that made it into our Kickstarter campaign. More specifically, we dove at a site named Hol Chan, a Mayan phrase meaning ‘little channel’. Quite literally, Hol Chan is natural channel cut into the reef about 75 feet wide and 30 feet deep. Within this channel, wildlife abounds.
Unfortunately our good fortune wouldn't last. We began experiencing issues with the prototype drone the following day and thus began our expedition for electrical equipment in a small Belizean city.
All we really needed was a soldering iron and solder to fix an electrical connection that we had accidentally severed the day before. Climbing into our cart, we search out a local hardware store, but to no avail, they were fresh out of soldering irons, go figure. We spent the day scouring the city, but the combination of the recent hurricane disrupting normal restocking, in conjunction with the fact that normal people don’t usually need to solder anything while on vacation, we were stranded. It wasn’t until late in the evening the following day on a trip to grab a few liters of purified water that we happened across a convenience store to which we had not been. There, tucked into the dark back corner of the shop, between a shovel and a few rolls of duct tape, were not one, but two different soldering irons and spare solder to boot. We paid a very confused shop manager $9 Belizean, or $4.50 USD, (Belize has a fixed 2 to 1 exchanged rate with the U.S.) for the most valuable item I will likely ever purchase in the country of Belize. The next day, this picture was taken, as we simultaneously repaired our hopes, dreams, and drone.
With the alpha prototype of the Fathom One repaired, and a couple days left in San Pedro, we set out for one last ambitious expedition to film. It’s unfortunate that I don’t have any pictures of this set up, because it involved exposed electronics, zip ties, and party balloons.
Essentially, do you see that white pill-shaped container? That was the original Fathom One Buoy. It was never meant to be a permanent solution, as it didn’t have a way to manage the tether used with the drone. It did, however, turn on, which was good enough for us at the time. Our plan was to get the drone out to the end of a collapsed dock, with the only issue being the whole collapsed thing. In it’s then present state, this dock consisted of two small sections. Dock A, still connected to the beach, and extending no more than 20 feet towards the sea, and Dock B, located another 100 feet past the end of Dock A, held up by several dock posts that were just too stubborn to be ripped out by little old Hurricane Earl. Getting to Dock B required a bit of a swim.
We had flippers, snorkels, and plenty of ambition, but we also had a patched together drone (our only one, let me remind you), a very not-waterproof Playstation 2 controller, and the aforementioned buoy, which had an entirely open side where all the electronics were inserted. The solution? A swim cap of sorts for the buoy to hold in the electronics and keep out the water. This cap was made from jumbo party balloons, purchased from the same corner store where we bought the soldering iron, (we had to stay loyal at this point, of course) stretched over the top and secured using cut-up balloons fashioned into makeshift rubber bands. The buoy was zip tied to our ps2 controller, which was in turn zip tied to our spool of tether. With everything sorted, we began our swim.
Side note: If you're reading this and you're nervous about the build quality of our current drones, no need to worry, we are have much better facilities than an Airbnb in San Pedro in which to build the current Fathom One, the world's most affordable, portable, underwater drone.
As much as I wish I could say that story gets better, an untimely wave washed away those dreams. If you were wondering how Playstation 2 controllers handle salt water, the answer is: terribly.
We retreated with our flippers between our legs and decided it might be better to return with the content we had already captured than risk losing the only working drone we had at the time. With that, we packed our bags, returned our golf cart, and hopped in a little prop plane headed for the mainland.
An update to the checklist from the top of the page at the end of the trip:
- Number of working drones: 0.5
- Days until Kickstarter Launch: 16
- Career opportunities turned down: Still 3
- Funds in the company bank account: < $100
Until next time,