Prolific Wildlife, Both Topside and Underwater, Makes Belize an Adventurer's Paradise
BY RICK FREHSEE
Big islands and little islets; three huge rings of coral and a barrier reef that seems never to end. Shallow gardens of golden, billowy corals, steep drop-offs laced with vibrant sponges and yawning blue holes;including the largest one in the world, a cavernous cathedral decorated with immense stalactites. Swarms of marine life crowding over reefs and, among dive sites, a vast expanse of crystal sea interrupted occasionally by leaping dolphins or a splashing Manta Ray. This is a glimpse of the U/W majesty of Belize.
For a comparatively little, some would say tiny, country (about the size of the State of Massachusetts), Belize presents an unlimited dive environment. There are 170 miles of barrier reef, three huge and distinctive coral atolls and hundreds of offshore isles. As a result, few Caribbean dive destinations are as mysterious to probe or ponder as is Belize's offshore world. Well understood by some and misunderstood by many, it is the subject of varied descriptions. The difficulty with knowing U/W Belize comes from the simple fact there is so much of it. Talk to divers who have visited only a particular section of the barrier reef and there is one version. Compare with other divers who have been to an offshore atoll and there is another version. Stay aboard a dive live-aboard and you will get still another view. The good news is that, with a little knowledge and planning, you can find the dive vacation that is perfect for you! This year, the Belize special section will identify the five areas of Belize that, each by itself, is an individual destination with its own unique charm and appeal. They are: Ambergris Caye, the Belize Barrier Reef, the Atolls, Southern Belize and the Belize Interior.
The Big Picture
To visualize offshore Belize, imagine a vast, panoramic sea that extends to several unique environmental niches far to the east of the country's lengthy coastline. From just offshore to a distance of more than 30 miles, the sea is punctuated by many islands, some tiny, others large, some frothy with mangroves, others crowded with palm trees. From 15 to 35 miles offshore, running more or less parallel to the coast for 170 miles, is the dense and massive Belize Barrier Reef. The constancy of the Belize Barrier Reef is owing to its position on a fault zone, which provides a continuous platform with depths from just a few feet to 100 and more;perfect for coral growth. Continuing offshore another 15 to 20 miles from here is another fault zone. This fault presents a pedestal for two of the three Belize atolls, rising from depths of more than 200 feet to just below the surface. A final fault lies another 15 miles to the east, forming a pedestal for the third and final atoll. Add a few hundred more islets associated with the barrier reef and the atolls and consider that each of the atolls is larger than many other Caribbean dive islands and you get an idea of the vastness and complexity of diving Belize. Its offshore geography is impressive, actually many dive destinations within one country. While you might not be able to see it all (no one has seen every Belize dive site), there is a lifetime of adventure and discovery to seek out. And, as you read further, you will find there are combination experiences available from a single destination that will provide an excellent overview.
Ambergris Caye is a destination within a destination. Belize's largest offshore island, it is the most popular general and dive destination in the country. Here, parallel to the long, thin island, is a 20 plus mile section of the Belize Barrier Reef. Here, too, are a little more than 20 dive operations, about as many as in all of the rest of Belize. Access to more than 40 dive sites is on the inside and outside of the barrier reef, reached in boat runs of a few minutes to seldom more than 20 minutes from numerous resort docks.
Most people vacationing on Ambergris Caye will be in or close to the town of San Pedro, site of the island's airport. The flight from Belize City takes about 15 minutes (flights run about every half hour from either the International or Municipal Airports). Downtown San Pedro is a major attraction, where sandy streets provide access to those on foot, bicycle or golfcart to numerous resorts, bars, restaurants, discos and giftshops. San Pedro will provide you with more traditional things to do, above water, than any other offshore destination in Belize. Ambergris will also provide you with the greatest selection of island/ beach/dive resorts.
One of the island's most popular and charming dive resorts is Ramon's Village, an upscale but casual grouping of thatched roof bungalows nestled on the sandy beach. A complete dedicated dive operation and a pro photo/video shop are right at the dock.
The Belize Yacht Club is an example of an elegant resort and marina with tropical suites, dive shop and full service marina facing the sea.
The classic 'Caribbean hideaway' can be found in the Holiday Hotel, an island resort complete with a full service dive center on the dock. It is on the beach just off the main street in San Pedro.
There are also independent dive operators in town and along the beach that service some resorts on a contractual basis and cater to walk-in customers. One of the very best is Amigos del Mar, run by a local family dockside in the heart of San Pedro.
There are a handful of resorts that take great pride in being out of town. Most of these are a few miles north of San Pedro and are reached via twice daily ferry. One of the very best of this barefoot paradise category is the Journey's End, a beautiful, relaxed beach resort that features a strong ecotouristic and escapist approach. A dedicated dive operation is beachside/dockside.
Don't miss dive sites: The most fun you can have in eight feet of water is at Shark-Ray Alley. A fairly new Ambergris site discovered/developed just two years ago, it is a marine life attraction without peer. The focus is schools of Nurse Sharks and Southern Stingrays that hover, glide, swarm and dance around a group of divers. The site is shared by snorkelers and divers; dive operators stagger trips to avoid crowds. Video shoots of this unique show have become popular souvenirs.
Hol Chan Marine Park, the main dive attraction easily reached from Ambergris Caye, is an established marine park that features a perpendicular, nearly vertical slit through the barrier reef. It is an attractive coral garden and a parade of marine life. Day and night diving is popular.
Hint: Ambergris Caye dive sites are fine for snorkelers, beginners or divers who are attracted to island towns and nightlife. Experienced divers should opt for a day or overnight trip to the atolls from Ambergris. Trips that combine diving at Turneffe and Lighthouse Reef Atolls, including the Great Blue Hole, are popular and highly recommended.
The Barrier Reef
The most striking feature of offshore Belize in terms of magnitude is the barrier reef, which stretches from Ambergris Caye in the north to the Sapodilla Cayes and the Bay of Honduras in the south.
One hundred seventy miles of barrier reef form the outer edge of the coastal shelf block, with hundreds of cayes strewn along this block as well as just inside and outside the main reefline. Most cayes are uninhabited; the only major settlements are on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. Only about 20 of the 400 plus cayes have been developed at all for even the most casual tourism; a few of these cater to divers. Sections of the barrier reef can be explored from a few resorts on these cayes or by dayboats, overnight boats or week-long live-aboards operating from Ambergris Caye, Belize City (north) or Placencia (south).
Leaving on a dive trip from the coast can be misleading as the nearshore waters are muddy and marshy. However, 40 minutes from Belize City you can reach a paradise of crystal water and tropical isles. Visibility along and around the barrier reef is seldom less than 50 feet and may be as great as 100 to 200. Two kinds of cayes (mangrove or sand and coral) and three categories of dive sites (coral garden, sloping or vertical wall, reef pinnacle) are associated with the Belize Barrier Reef.
As Belize City is the country's transportation hub, you are likely to pass through it coming and going, regardless of your final destination. You may spend time here during an overnight stay, waiting for your offshore vessel to depart or intentionally use Belize City as a base for dive day trips or sorties into the interesting and accessible Belize interior. Belize City is a rustic Caribbean port town. It is not crime ridden; however, you should take the same precautions against petty theft as you would in any big city.
There are two very good luxury hotels in Belize City. Both are on the coast and popular with many offshore resorts, dive boats and live-aboards that use their docks as points of departure and return. The Radisson Fort George is a modern hotel, recently benefitting from a $3 million renovation that includes luxury accommodations, pool, full service marina and much more. The Ramada Royal Reef is also on the waterfront with handsome guestrooms, pool, marina, etc. There is a travel desk in both hotels that can help you with bookings or add-on sojourns. Launched from these hotels are three excellent dive live-aboards that offer Saturday to Saturday excursions to the very best sites, mostly in the offshore atolls. The Belize Aggressor III (Aggressor Fleet) and the Rembrandt Van Rijn motor/sail schooner (Oceanwide Excursions) operate out of the Radisson. The Wave Dancer (Peter Hughes Diving) docks at the Ramada.
There are several excellent dive operators in Belize City that I can recommend. Hugh Parkey's Belize Dive Connection is based at the Fort Street Guest House, just around the corner from the Radisson. Hugh is one of the most knowledgeable instructor/guides in all of Belize. John Searle's Sea Sports Belize (Belize Sub-Aqua Club) operates out of the Ramada Royal Reef Marina. John is an expert diver and Belizean tourism pioneer.
Another popular way to reach the offshore cayes and atolls is via ferry boat. Right next to the ferry boat station on the river is the Belize Maritime Museum, with excellent environmental/geographical displays. Also worth a visit is the Bliss Institute, on the waterfront with interesting sculptures from the Maya site of Caracol. Grocery store and handicraft shopping is also most accessible in Belize City.
Along the offshore cayes on or near the barrier reef are a few excellent dive resorts. One I can highly recommend is the Blue Marlin Lodge on South Water Caye, about 30 miles southeast of Belize City. This resort is reached from Dangriga, a coastal town about a 30 minute flight from Belize City. Blue Marlin features cozy cottages, island ambiance and a complete dive operation.
Don't miss dive sites: Almost directly east of Belize City is English Caye Banks. Here a series of mid-depth reef pinnacles often harbors dozens of sizable groupers. On the southern barrier reef is a site called Black Beauty, a classic drop-off with bushes of Black Coral protruding from the wall.
Hint: Make sure to bring insect repellent. Any offshore location can be subject to insect pests associated with the sand and coral cayes, namely sand flies or no-see-ums. If it is dry and windy, you may not even notice them; if it is still and/or after a rain shower, you will need repellent.
The very best diving in Belize is at the three atolls. It is important to note that, in addition to a handful of dive resorts on the cayes of the atolls, these sites are the haven of the live-aboards. The atolls are also visited regularly from numerous caye based day boats (or overnighters) operating from resorts along the barrier reef and from coastal Belize.
The atolls are the epitome of the Belize dive experience for several good reasons. They are farther from shore and are basically a wilderness existing in pristine conditions. They are huge; each by itself is about the size of Cozumel, Grand Cayman or Bonaire. Being farther from land, they are bathed in the clearest water on a consistent basis. Visibility runs from about 80 feet to the legendary 200 foot mark.
The atolls are enormous rings of coral traced by mostly small cayes just inside the reef platform. The Belize formations are nearly identical to Pacific atolls, the major difference being the depth of the inner lagoon;shallow in the Caribbean; deeper in the Pacific. The lagoon waters of the Belize atolls are occasionally awash and seldom more than 30 feet deep. There are hundreds of shallow patch reefs in the lagoons with calm, protected waters perfect for snorkeling.
The primary dive environment on the atolls, where hundreds of exciting dive sites are found, is just seaward of the ring of coral, usually close to a wall that plummets to great depths. Here color and visibility are maximum. Here, too, is a potential mixture of pelagic and rich reeflife.
Each atoll is distinctive. Turneffe Islands Atoll is the largest and closest to shore. There are many mostly mangrove islands, so many the inner lagoon is divided into three sections. This forest of mangroves is an important player in the food chain. As a result, the legacy of Turneffe Atoll is as a marine life spectacle. There are more than 70 sites named and known around the atoll, some where only indigenous species, such as the Lined Toadfish, can be found.
There are three excellent dive resorts in the Turneffe Islands. Turneffe Island Lodge, on a tiny caye at the southern tip of the atoll, is a charming island-style resort with a dedicated dive operation. Turneffe Flats is a fishing/diving resort with handsome dive boats on a beach midway along the atoll on the eastern side. Also on a beach on the eastern coast is Blackbird Caye Resort, a charming island getaway dedicated to diving and snorkeling. These resorts provide van transfers to the dock and boat transfers to the resort. They also feature weekly day trips to Lighthouse Reef Atoll, weather permitting, including a beach picnic, a dive in the Great Blue Hole and wall dives along the outer reef.
Don't miss dive sites: With the right timing and conditions, The Elbow is a contender for the best dive in Belize. At the southern end of Turneffe Atoll is a mid depth reef. Here, currents mix and mesh and trade winds thrash the surface. The result is high biological productivity producing an explosion of fish life. There are usually schools of snappers, grunts, Spadefish and jacks milling about. Even without schools it is possible to encounter hundreds of groupers and, on occasion, a Jewfish.
The Terrace features several dive sites close to the main entrance cut to the west side of Turneffe Atoll that are quite spectacular. This area is a blessing as it remains calm and clear during heavy east winds. The bottom configuration is varied, with huge coral buttresses in shallow water providing a labyrinth that leads to the drop-off. Sponges of every shape and color intertwined with Black Coral dominate the scenery.
Hint: Don't miss snorkeling Turneffe Lagoon. Visibility is usually good and the mangrove community is a lively ecological niche. If you are snorkeling from a boat, keep a land camera aboard. The mangrove cayes are an important shore/seabird habitat.
Keep mask and fins ready between scuba dives; Manatees and dolphins often frequent the lagoon and reef waters around Turneffe Atoll.
Lighthouse Reef Atoll is Belize's dive Shangri-La. The word pristine seems to have been coined especially for this magical realm where sky, golden reef, crystal water, palm-crowded sand slivers and the occasional flock of seabirds are nearly the total visual inventory.
The outermost of the three atolls (45 to 50 miles east of Belize City), Lighthouse Reef is only slightly smaller (28 by 2 to 6 miles) than Turneffe Atoll (30 by 8 to 10 miles) and is a universe of diving in itself. The atoll's southern end forms a crescent five miles in diameter. Set at the eastern end of this near-perfect semi-circle is famous Half Moon Caye, an island paradise. Two other equally scenic tropical isles, Sandbore and Northern Cayes, are clustered at the northern end. Long Caye borders the western side of the atoll. There are more than 40 dive sites surrounding Lighthouse Reef, most are above average and several are contenders for the 'best in Belize' title. The primary sites are wall dives displaying an exaggerated spur and groove system handsomely decorated with sponges and deep water fans.
The country's most famous and certainly most unusual dive site is in the center of the atoll. The Great Blue Hole is the largest ocean sinkhole in the world. Made famous by Cousteau/Calypso investigation in the 1970s, it is the only blue hole that can be plainly seen from outer space. An inner space descent is a spooky sojourn into an emerald world nearly devoid of marine life. The focus here is an underslung cathedral that cuts back beneath the lip of the blue hole. Hanging from the ceiling are rows of craggy stalactites, some more than 30 feet long. The depth (120 to 130 feet maximum) allows for only a short visit which, to some, is a nearly religious experience.
There is one dive resort on Northern Caye. Lighthouse Reef, an excellent island-style resort and quality dive operation, also has its own private airstrip. The usual Saturday to Saturday flight to/from Belize City takes about one-half hour.
Don't miss dive sites: Nearly as famous as the Great Blue Hole, but for entirely different reasons, is Half Moon Bay Wall, actually a series of incredible wall dives. The general scenery is a panorama of huge coral pinnacles lining a shallow drop-off. Among the corals are meandering white sand trails creating enticing swim-throughs.
Long Reef Wall is nearly as spectacular, with vertical, underslung drop-offs decorated with huge Elephant Ear Sponges.
Hint: When you are in Belize, don't miss the classic Lighthouse Reef picnic day;usually a combination of diving the Great Blue Hole and several walls. The picnic on Half Moon Caye includes a visit to the Booby Bird/Frigate Bird Sanctuary. Bring your topside camera.
Glover's Reef is not the farthest atoll from shore but it is the farthest (70 miles) from Belize City, making this the least visited of the three. I have visited Glover's several times; I have yet to see another dive boat. This is the smallest atoll (17 by 5 miles) but still an immense area of wilderness diving. Named for the English pirate, John Glover, the atoll is unique in that there are only a few small islets, mostly strung along the southern end and a comparatively deeper lagoon bed that supports more than 700 patch reefs. However, reports of the atoll being uninhabited overlook the one excellent dive resort at the southern tip. Manta Resort is a charming islet-based caba–as-on-the-beach resort with a complete dive operation.
The scenery, above and below the sea, is simply spectacular. Above water, only a few coconut-crowded islets interrupt ocean and sky. Below the panoramic sea are more reefs than a diver could see in a lifetime, many that are world-class. There are more than 30 dive sites already established. Drift boat diving is done exclusively at Glover's as, with very little traffic, there are no permanent site moorings.
Don't miss dive sites: My personal favorite is an extensive site known as Hole in the Wall, actually a series of giant coral heads with cavernous fissures and ledges lining a talus slope leading to a vertical drop-off. Nurse Sharks, turtles and very large Barracuda are often seen.
Elkhorn Crossing is a breathtaking patch reef displaying huge coral pinnacles capped by stands of Elkhorn Coral in 30 to 40 feet of water.
Hint: On the way to and from your dive site, keep an eye open for Eagle Rays and Manta Rays that often glide over shallow patch reefs at the entrances to the lagoon.
Along the southern coast, particularly on the peninsula of Placencia, are a number of cozy, comfortable dive resorts. Approximately 100 miles south of Belize City (about a 35 minute flight), the narrow, 16 mile long Placencia Peninsula extends south from the mainland. Fringed by a white sandy beach, one of the prettiest in all of Belize, Placencia is beginning to challenge Ambergris Caye as a major tourist destination; resorts are springing up all along the beach from Placencia Village (Creole population) to just north of Seine Bight Village (Garifuna population).
Tourism on Placencia actually goes back nearly 20 years but the ambiance and mood is still very casual, laidback and natural. This is not a touristy place. The main attributes are sun, sea and sand; resorts cater mostly to divers or 'beach and hammock' visitors. The natural flavor is complemented by the two little villages that fringe the resort area.
Divers from Placencia will say they have the best diving in the country or at least the most diversified, as they have access to barrier reef, caye fringing reef with adjacent patch reefs and atoll (Glover's Reef) diving. The flip side is that, from the coast, the boat runs are longer, although a few of the resorts have fast boats that can reach excellent dive sites in about 45 minutes. The diversity of the southern Belize dive experience is truly remarkable, with magnificent shallow coral gardens, fringing and patch reefs decorated in Blue/Purple Tunicates and breathtaking drop-offs loaded with marine life.
Rum Point Inn is a charming, established resort with an excellent dedicated dive operation. Kitty's Place is a small, comfortable, well-established resort. Turtle Inn is a village of thatch bungalows with dive services. Nautical Inn is a grouping of air-conditioned villas on the beach.
All the above have beautiful beach and palm settings.
Don't miss dive sites: Maybe it was just our good luck but we experienced more marine life (Eagle Rays, turtles, schools of bait and reef fish, Jewfish, etc.) at North Spot than on any other wall dive in Belize.
Laughing Bird Caye is a bird and marine sanctuary surrounding a sliver of an offshore islet. In the shallows are beautiful Elkhorn Corals crowded with fish life.
Hint: Placencia is a good place to launch exciting and interesting day trips into the interior. Opportunities include mangrove tours, Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Reserve, Lubaantun Maya site and visits to Creole, Garifuna and Maya villages for handicrafts.
The Belize Interior
Eighty percent of Belize's verdant land is tropical forest, with 30 percent already set aside as parks and reserves. Five hundred species of birds have been identified. Many interesting group tours and individual treks can easily be taken from Belize City, Ambergris Caye, San Ignacio or Placencia.
If you have a day to spare, from Belize City you can easily visit the Belize Zoo, Lamanai/New River (Maya site and lagoon), the Baboon Sanctuary (howler monkeys), Altun-ha (Maya site), Mountain Pine Ridge (forest, mountains), Caracol or Xunantunich (Maya sites). From Ambergris Caye there is a wonderful day trip across the lagoon and upriver to Altun-ha. Also from Ambergris Caye you can fly directly to many sites throughout the country. From San Ignacio, in the western Cayo district, you can easily launch excursions and spend more time in Mountain Pine Ridge and at Caracol. From Placencia, you can visit several Maya sites, modern Kekchi/Mopan Maya villages and the only jaguar reserve in the world. If you have more time and yearn for more adventure, you might consider river rafting, cavern tubing, forest trekking and cave exploration;Belize has some of the most extensive and decorated limestone caves in the world. Birdwatching, canoeing and horseback riding are other popular naturalistic and easily found activities. There are also many cultural experiences available by visiting the small villages sprinkled throughout the country.
The jungle lodge concept is well developed in the interior. Staying in or near the forests, villages and special sites will provide an even closer look at Belize's interior majesty.