Your Dive Dreams Come to Life in This Blue Wonderland
By Rick Frehsee
Looking for a spectacular undersea and above water adventure without having to travel to the other side of the world? Less than three hours from several U.S. gateway cities is naturally beautiful Belize, a Central American country with an extensive Caribbean presence.
Although comparatively tiny (about the size of Rhode Island) and with a relatively smaller population (less than one-quarter million), Belize packs a spectacular and varied geographic punch. The diversity of habitats within the country includes dry scrub forest, tropical rain forest (even a touch of cloud forest), mangroves, grasslands and a reef system that is unequaled in size and diversity in the Western Hemisphere. Even the most ambitious diver;over an entire lifetime;could never come close to seeing it all. Fortunately, the best areas are accessible from the coastline and from operators and boats positioned along the islands.
The Belize eastern-facing Caribbean shoreline stretches for nearly 200 miles. This includes, from 12 to 20 miles offshore, the magnificent and nearly continuous Belize Barrier Reef, the best defined section of the Great Western Caribbean Reef (or Great Maya Barrier Reef) that extends from southeastern Mexico almost to South America. Recognized scientifically as the longest and most species-diversified coral reef in the entire Caribbean (second in the world, after the Australian Great Barrier Reef), this reef alone would place Belize in a very special environmental context but there is more. Seaward of the barrier reef are three huge coral atolls. Although well distributed in the South Pacific, true coral atolls are nearly unknown in the Caribbean. Each is a wilderness area as big as many well known single island dive destinations. Along the barrier reef and surrounding the coral atolls are hundreds of islands, islets and cayes. Some of these cayes are inhabited and offer charming accommodations, complete with dedicated dive and watersport operations.
Getting There: Grupo Taca, a network of Central American Airlines that includes TACA, LACSA, Aviateca, COPA, NICA and TACA of Honduras, provides daily modern jet service to Belize. From the U.S., flights can be initiated from eight gateways, including the coastal cities of Houston, New Orleans and Miami. TACA provides excellent in-flight service, including an open bar, a choice of entrees and complimentary after-meal liqueurs.
Visitors arrive at the Belize International Airport. From there they are transferred via taxi or resort van or continue on to their final destination offcoast or inland via several in-country airlines. There is also a municipal airport in Belize City, which is utilized in the interior air routes.
Belize City is the countrys population center. Within the city there are several world-class leisure hotels and a dozen or more lodges and bed and breakfast inns. Here, too, is the center for offshore travel, where you will find quality live-aboard vessels or travel by dayboat to an offshore resort. Many visitors will fly on to Ambergris Caye, the most popular offshore destination, or travel to Placencia, Lighthouse Reef or one of the offshore islands along the barrier reefline.
Offshore Belize: A single description is impossible for Caribbean Belize. This area is extensive;hundreds of square miles of every type of reef;patch, bank, fringing, barrier and atoll. The most distinguishing characteristic of offshore Belize is the barrier reef lying from 12 to 25 miles offshore. The continuity of this formation is owing to the fact it is formed along a fault zone, a constant geological feature that parallels the entire Belizean coast. This tract begins in the north, just off Ambergris Caye, and continues nearly uninterrupted through a series of sand, palm and mangrove cayes all the way to the southern end of the country.
Dive sites along the170 mile long barrier reef include shallow coral gardens, mid-depth coral spurs and pinnacles and precipitous walls. Along the outer reef are huge mountains of corals separated by a labyrinth of sand channels leading to the ultimate drop-off. Atop the reefs are schools of colorful fishes weaving through a fringe of wire corals, sponges and seafans.
Marine biologists have noted that the variety of marine life along the Belize Barrier Reef is among the best in the Caribbean. This is no doubt owing to the continuous north/south formation that the reef represents and its position facing the easterly trade winds. Here is a conglomeration of marine types that inhabit nearly every niche found in the Caribbean. Reef fish and deep water species are often found on the same site. Spawning, mating, cleaning, predation and most other fish behaviors are continually on display. Divers in Belize often encounter unusual and rare species (such as three species of toadfish) or even occasionally discover a previously unidentified fish or invertebrate. I have photographed mating trunkfish, spawning groupers, swarming Nurse Sharks and smoking sponges;all in Belize waters. Schools of friendly dolphins, schooling Eagle Rays, enormous sea turtles, minnow-filled caverns, Giant Manta Rays, docile Jewfish and even Whale Sharks are all possible undersea encounters in Belize.
The Belize Atolls: To the east of the barrier reef are three ovals of coral, each as big as a sizable island and all bathed in the clear waters of the open seas. Above water this ocean panorama is occasionally interrupted by slivers of islands, most covered by mangroves and palm trees, a haven for nesting seabirds. The mangroves represent the beginnings of a vast food chain that will eventually blossom over the outer reefs. Below the sea around the atolls are 60 species of stony corals, 200 species of fishes and more invertebrates than anyone has ever counted. Along the oceanside of the atolls is another life zone, a nearly continuous drop-off decorated with bouquets of billowy sponges and bushes of Black Corals. Among the atolls are miles of open ocean, a blue water expanse where schools of pelagic fishes are found. Within the atolls is an extensive shallow lagoon;a pedestal for hundreds of individual patch reefs.
The ancient processes contributing to the development of the Belize Atolls may have begun as much as 70 million years ago. They formed atop giant fault blocks;limestone covered ridges that settled in steps, providing platforms and risers for coral growth. After the last ice age with the slow rise of sea level, coral growth continued upward, creating the precipitous outer walls and the shallow inside lagoon that typifies these distinct formations.
Belize City: The countrys rustic, colonial-style capital, Belize City is on the Caribbean coast. Here, among the period architecture, is the famous swing bridge with its anchorage of sailing and fishing boats. Here, too, is a hub of transportation, touring and shopping convenience, and location of the most amenity-conscious hotels in the country. Restaurants and eateries, lounges and bars, gift shops and arts and crafts stores are found throughout the city. The northern and western highways, including the southern-bound Hummingbird Highway, radiate from Belize City like the spokes of a wheel.
All major hotels have tour agencies on their premises that can easily schedule island or offshore visits. Only a 45 minute cruise offshore are the first of a series of scenic sandy or mangrove cayes that are perfect for snorkeling, scuba diving or beach picnics. An hour away are the golden corals of the Belize Barrier Reef.
The Northern Cayes: The most obvious offshore destination in Belize is the Ambergris Caye. The northernmost and the largest of the many cayes, Ambergris is both the countrys offshore population center and the primary tourist center. Actually an extension of the Yucatan Peninsula separated by a narrow canal, Ambergris is a long (25 miles) and narrow (often less than a mile) island, resembling a string of islets connected by a continuous white sand beach.
Near the southern end of the island is San Pedro Town, formerly a small village that has been transformed into a tourist town. Ambergris sandy streets and low profile architecture include a selection of small hotels and resorts, at whose docks are diving and fishing fleets. Restaurants, lounges and shops line the sand streets and walkways.
The immediate dive environment includes more than 20 miles of barrier reef found parallel to the island about one-quarter mile offshore. More than 40 named dive sites can be reached from resort and town docks, including Hol-Chan Marine Park, the countrys first marine sanctuary. Close by is Shark-Ray Alley with its swarm of friendly Nurse Sharks and stingrays. Also not far away is the Amigos Wreck, sunk in 1996 as a dive attraction. Deep sites on the oceanside of the barrier reef include M and M Caverns and Punta Azul Canyons, giant reef formations that provide a maze of caverns and swim-throughs. The shallows of Hol Chan and those at Indian Rocks provide excellent snorkeling grounds. Very popular from Ambergris are day trips and overnight trips to Turneffe Islands Atoll and Lighthouse Reef Atoll, including the Great Blue Hole, Belizes best-known single dive site.
Other Northern Cayes: From Ambergris Caye, a string of northern islets extends southward from the Yucatan Peninsula, following the barrier reef. Some of these are inhabited with small villages; a few have airstrips. Several of these can be reached by small ferry boats regularly running from Belize City. One of these is Caye Caulker, just south of Ambergris Caye. Caye Caulker is an even quieter version of Ambergris, with a small group of homes and quaint hotels. Other northern cayes along the barrier reef include Caye Chapel, Gallows Point Caye, Sergeants Caye, Goffs Caye and English Caye.
The Southern Cayes: While there are more than 200 islets, islands and cayes that follow the barrier reef south, most are uninhabited. Those toward the south are less easily reached from Belize City and appear even more pristine. A few offer a cottage-type resort with a diving/fishing operation. Along the barrier reef are many spectacular wall sites such as Black Beauty and Silversides, easily reached from a dive resort on South Water Caye. Just inside the Tobacco Cayes is Shark Hole, a blue hole formation sometimes harboring reef sharks.
Placencia: Moving southward along the coast from Belize City, the countryside becomes more remote and sparsely populated. Past the Garifuna town of Dangriga is Placencia, a scenic strip of beach and palms, the countrys outpost of laidback tourism. Here is a quiet, secluded tropical paradise;a place of only modest development with a series of small cottage resorts between two tiny villages. Originally founded by European refugees, pirates and adventurers, the existing villages are inhabited today primarily by Black Creoles or Black Caribs. There are several small but well equipped diving and fishing resorts perched along the beach. Placencia may well be the perfect place for the escapist visitor or the diver looking for an off the beaten path experience.
The backdrop for Placencia and southern Belize is the majestic Cockscomb Mountain Range. East is a panorama of sea and sky with a string of low-lying islets barely visible in the distance.
From Placencia, the barrier reef lies slightly farther offshore and boat rides to the first of the offshore islands and reefs takes 45 minutes to an hour or more. However, tremendous diversity is available. Wall diving, mid-reef diving and shallow sea gardens are all available. Excellent shallow sites exist around Laughing Bird Caye, which is also a bird sanctuary. Placencia can be easily reached with daily flights from Belize City.
Getting to the Offshore Atolls: The countrys three exciting atolls;the Turneffe Islands, Lighthouse Reef and Glovers Reef;are 30 to 50 miles offshore. Many experienced divers believe the atolls present the best underwater environment in all of Belize. You can reach them several ways: there are a number of excellent dive resorts on the atolls with weekly packages available, including transportation to/from the Belize International Airport. Air service to the atolls is available only for Lighthouse Reef;the other atoll resorts provide boat transfers. Resorts on Ambergris Caye, along the barrier reef and in Belize City, often feature day dive trips to the atolls. Some atoll resorts also offer excursions to other atolls, weather permitting, as regular outings. An exciting option is a week-long excursion aboard a quality live-aboard vessel. Several of the worlds best known live-aboards visit the barrier reef and the atolls from docks in Belize City.
Turneffe Islands Atoll: This is the largest of the three atolls and the closest of the trio to Belize City. Above water the Turneffe Islands are a ring of mangrove-frothed islands;an indication of the prolific marine life beneath the sea. There are more than 70 known dive sites all around the atoll, most of which are associated with the outer reefs. There are numerous shallow sites for snorkelers on the inside of the atoll, displaying a variety of gorgonians and coral knolls. At the southern end is the wreck of the Sayonara, a small cargo vessel that is perfect for day and night diving. Perhaps Turneffes most spectacular dive site is a spot called The Elbow, at the extreme southern end of the reef. Here are majestic spires of coral that provide a backdrop for numerous reef and schooling fish. Many fish swarm in schools so dense that they form a solid wall. Many sites along the eastern and western coasts feature drop-offs rich with layered corals, sponges and Black Corals. Turtles, dolphins and nurse sharks are often sighted along and inside the drop-off.
Lighthouse Reef Atoll: Lighthouse Reef is the farthest atoll from shore and is blessed with some of the very best visibility in Belize. It is the middle-sized atoll of the trio, almost 20 miles long and 1one and a half to three miles wide. Above water is a panorama of white sand islets often crowded with palms. To the outside of these islets is a ring of pristine reefs with precipitous, often vertical drop-offs at the seaward edge.
Belizes most famous underwater landmark, the Great Blue Hole, is in the middle of Lighthouse Reef Atoll. Almost perfectly round and nearly 1,000 feet in diameter, its ink-blue depths are reported to descend to more than 400 feet. Formed during the last Ice Age, when sea level was hundreds of feet lower, the Blue Hole today is a completely submerged phenomenon. Divers descend along the outer ring where the drop quickly becomes vertical. Over the edge, at a depth of 100 to 120 feet, youll find the largest underwater dripstones in the world. Huge stalactites, some 35 feet long, hang from the cavern ceiling, against the penetrating sunlight. Most divers compare the blue hole experience to a visit to a foreign planet.
Lining the outer reefs at Half Moon Caye and Long Caye is a very different world;a world where biology instead of geology is at center stage. On the oceanside of Half Moon Caye is a series of shallow drop-offs, known collectively as Half Moon Caye Wall.
From the reef crest, in only 25 to 30 feet of water, divers descend through a crystal sea, the coral wall decorated with sponges and corals of every color imaginable. Separating the reef into spurs and pinnacles are rivers of white sand providing channels of exploration. Schools of pelagics, turtles and Eagle Rays are often sighted over this colorful wall. Half Moon Caye is also a popular picnic spot and snorkeling area. The island is a national park, which includes snorkeling trails and a popular frigate and booby bird sanctuary. Divers with an above water camera will be delighted with the lookout tower built over the bird sanctuary.
There are more superb walls just outside Long Caye on the western side of the atoll. One of the most beautiful is Silver Caves, which is the site of a dense fish population and a wall decorated with monstrous orange sponges and bushes of Black Coral.
Glovers Reef Atoll: Glovers Reef Atoll is the southerly most of the three atolls. Seventy miles southeast of Belize City, it is also the farthest, which contributes to its mysterious appeal. Glovers is 15 miles long and 4 miles wide, with an extensive lagoon that contains more than 700 patch reefs. A few highly picturesque coconut-fringed islets are found along the southern end of the atoll; otherwise, Glovers is dominated by a sea horizon. Named after the English pirate John Glover, this atoll has gained a reputation for shipwrecks and sunken treasure.
The real treasure of Glovers Reef is the crystal underwater visibility and the variety of reef structures that will delight visiting divers. Sites such as Elkhorn Crossing display acres of golden coral formations while wall sites such as Pinnacles and Gorgonias Gallery portray the huge coral spires that dominate the deep scenery. One site is especially dramatic;Hole in the Wall, at the southern end of the atoll, is a series of breathtaking canyons and drop-offs.
The Belize Interior: Coastal and inland Belize offer the equivalent of the offshore world in discovery and adventure. This is one of the greatest ecotourism destinations in the Americas and tours run to many interesting sites in the verdant Belize interior. Fortunately the mainland/offshore destinations are so close in time and space there is an excellent opportunity for scuba divers to sample a number of these exciting options. Dive resorts, interior resorts and many tour services can arrange day trips from your offshore destination.
Belizes land experiences can be divided into environmental sites, ancient Maya sites and modern cultural experiences. It is also possible to combine several of these experiences in a single day. Parks, reserves and conservation areas now account for nearly one-third of the countrys total area. Many ancient Maya sites are accessible in north, south and central Belize. Two of the most interesting cultures in the country are the Black Carib or Garifuna people, an African and Caribbean derived culture and the Mopan, Kekchi and Yucatecan Maya people (direct descendants of the ancient Maya) who are scattered throughout Belize. Throughout the interior there are many distinctive eco-resorts and lodges.