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  • 2000-03 The Endless Reefs of Belize
    By Rick Frehsee
    I am drifting across an underwater landscape
    crowded with primitive shapes and endless color. The coral wall rises in places like a giantís staircase atop which are mounted flamboyantly-colored sponges. Sudden blooms of reef fish cover the scene. An irregular ridge creates ledges and overhangs. Beneath, reaching into the blue abyss, are red and purple rope sponges and Yellow Tube Sponges that look like heraldic trumpets. Shapes and forms imitate the chandeliers, vases, columns and the saint niches of a European church. Groupers gather, Creole Wrasse swarm and, occasionally, Hawksbill and Green Turtles cruise by.

    Down Time on the Atolls

    Directly off the eastern and western sides of Turneffe Island Atoll is a nearly continuous coral reef harboring the painted walls of Belize. At more than 50 named dive sites are variations of drop-offs, some slightly sloping, others absolutely vertical, even undercut, that provide fantasy shapes, rainbow colors and frequent, exciting marine life encounters.

    A little more than an hour eastward of Turneffe by boat is Lighthouse Reef Atoll, another microcosm within the realm of this Caribbean/Central American marine wilderness that promises even better visibility and 50 more pristine dive sites.

    Our home away from home for the next four days is the Blackbird Caye Resort, a gathering of thatched-roof bungalows, a main house and docks that are strewn across a sandy beach on the large island of Turneffe Atoll. The resort island is a haven for mangroves, palmettos, palms, gumbo limbo, iguanas, geckoes, frigates, pelicans, osprey, the occasional crocodile, the resort dog and, of course, the blackbirds formally known as great-tailed grackles. The sprawling beach faces sunrise. In the late afternoon, if the trade winds are low, the beach can get a bit buggy, but you can always escape to your air-conditioned room.

    Diving, except snorkeling off the islandsí back side, is all done by boat. Nearby sites include Majestic Alley and Coral Gardens, which are shallow dives (30-50 feet) with huge and healthy lobular corals that rise from a sand bottom rife with colorful tropicals and schooling fish. Others, like Oasis, Little Calabash, Runway and Grouper City, are all bordered by reef ridges and walls decorated by sponges and black corals.

    Lighthouse Reef, which requires an all-day trip offers Silver Caves and Long Caye Wall, which are sponge covered drop-offs pock-marked by caverns and swim-throughs. At the southeastern end of the Lighthouse is Half Moon Caye Wall, a medium-depth drop-off that tumbles from a white sand slope, and Half Moon Caye itself, a standout picnic spot and bird sanctuary.

    At the center of Lighthouse Reef is the Great Blue Hole, the largest ocean blue hole in the world, initially made famous in the early 1970s by Jacques Cousteau. Nearly 1,000 feet in diameter and more than 400 feet deep, this near perfect circle of deep blue contains the largest underwater stalactites ever seen. But you must dive deep (130-150 feet) to see them. The carefully planned dive is exceedingly spooky, the expectations turned up a notch as reef sharks now patrol the inky blue. Visions of sharks, giant stalactites, divers hanging like puppets on strings transport you to a netherworld of diving.

    For the final three days of our stay, we moved inland to the new Royal Mayan Resort, Blackbird Caye Resortís sister resort deep in the Belize interior. Travelers experienced in the Belize interior will tell you that the Cayo District (Western Belize) is where to be, and the Royal Mayan is right in the middle of it, near the towns of San Ignacio and Benque Viejo, only a few miles from the border of Guatemala. The resort is on a hill (which includes a small Maya mound) and overlooks the El Castillo pyramid from Xunantunich, which pushes through the surrounding jungle canopy to catch the sun. The areaís many Maya sites, caves and pure tropical rain forest create an intriguing ambiance, where a few steps through the jungle can take you across ages of history and time.