Diving Guide for the Remarkable Belize Barrier Reef
Located between Mexico and Guatemala, the Belize Barrier Reef runs the entire length of the country and is the second largest barrier reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. This UNESCO World Heritage Site spans from the Sandy Slope dive site just off Ambergris Caye in the North to the Silk Cayes dive sites in the South, and is considered the most remarkable reef in the northern and western hemispheres. Because of the variety of reef types and healthy ecosystems, the waters off Belize are prominent habitats for endangered and threatened marine species, significant numbers of reef fish, large and predatory fish, hard and
soft corals, mollusks, and marine fauna.
It is no wonder this unique underwater environment is home to some of the best diving in the Atlantic-Caribbean region. The amazing diversity leads to more than a hundred diving sites along the barrier reef; therefore, this guide will focus on several of the best diving sites in Belize. Most diving for sailors is rendezvous diving, where any one of the local diving operations will come to your yacht and pick you up for a two tank diving experience. Because of the sand flats and shallow coral gardens surrounding some of the diving locations, it is wise to go with a local dive shop as they are very familiar with navigating the waters and you are able to relax and enjoy the ride. Several of the sites are for more experienced divers and each shop has different requirements, so you might want to check around if you would like to drift dive or submerge deeper down a wall.
Beginning off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. If you are new to scuba diving or are a little rusty, this might be a great first diving trip. The shallow 30 foot dive allows you to stay down for a longer time and enjoy the beautiful coral and abundant marine life. After such a long bottom time, it is nice that the next site is only open to snorkeling but it is a truly amazing experience.
As the dive boat approaches Shark Ray Alley, these magnificent creatures will approach the vessel and as you jump into the sea, they will scatter but will hang around allowing you to swim with these amazing and gentle animals. Both certified scuba divers and non-certified snorkelers alike are able to enjoy this adventure.
Another enjoyable option within the Hol Chan reserve is the Esmeralda Canyons dive site, providing a maze of underwater canyons and large groups of rays, nurse sharks, large grouper and moray eels at about 70 feet deep.
To the southeast of Ambergris Caye off the southern tip of the Turneffe Atoll, is the more remote Elbow dive site. This is a drift dive and begins in about 60 feet of water along a sloped wall teeming with soft corals, sponges, game fish, turtles and eagle rays. You might also run across some dolphin. The Turneffe Elbow site is a collection of various sites all in one area so you can spend the entire day at this location and see very distinctive scenes. Because of the swift currents, this is an advanced dive but is available to experienced open water certified divers as well.
Further out in the Caribbean Sea is Lighthouse Reef, and at the center of this atoll is the famous Blue Hole dive site. One of the largest sink holes ever found, at over 400 feet deep and 1000 feet across, it is ranked by the Discovery Channel as one of “The 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth”. Therefore, while you are in Belize you should definitely take the time to check it out. This is not a vividly colored dive except for the brilliant deep blue water, and as you descend to around 130 feet, it is more about the stillness and silence surrounding you in the vastness. Because of the large stalactite formations, scientists predict this was once a dry cave during the Ice Age and was filled in as sea levels rose. Today, sand constantly sinks into the hole and researchers predict that it will eventually fill-in, an additional reason you should take the time to visit this phenomenon while in Belize.
Another of the more notable dive sites in Belize is also located in the Lighthouse Reef atoll just off Half Moon Caye and is known as the Half Moon Caye Wall. The consistent pristine conditions and presence of diverse pelagic wildlife make this a spectacular scuba diving venue. A gentle sandy slope leads from the amazing shoreline to a sharp drop-off at about 45 feet below the surface where schools of brightly colored reef fish congregate. Typically, you dive off the wall at approximately 60 feet deep but keep an eye on your depth gage because the clear water and amazing sights make it easy to drop deeper. Fortunate divers will be able to locate and swim through one of the coral tunnels filled with hundreds of small fish.
Farther south along the Belize Barrier Reef is Glover’s Reef where The Aquarium, Off the Wall and Long Caye Wall dive sites are found. Just east of Middle Caye, The Aquarium is located in 30 to 100 feet of water and the best time to see the wildlife, including turtles, wrasse, and dolphins, is either in the early morning or late afternoon. At the southern tip of Glover’s Reef is the Off the Wall scuba site. This wall begins about 25 feet underwater and drops off steeply into the deepest trench in the Caribbean at 6000 feet. If you are here during the winter, in addition to the many sea animals that are attracted by the currents, you might run across a giant manta ray. Long Caye Wall is also another magnificent ninety degree wall dive in this atoll.
(Note: To avoid confusion when booking a dive, there are also noteworthy dive sites named The Aquarium and Long Caye Wall in the Lighthouse Reef atoll.)
Heading west toward the mainland is the Gladden Reef, and at the southern end of the reef and 60 feet below the surface, is the Gladden Spit dive site. If you happen to be in Belize during the months of March through June near the full moon as the snappers are spawning, you have the prospect of seeing the colossal whale sharks as they feed. This is an open water dive with no flora, but the rare opportunity to see these docile creatures that can reach 60 feet in length is definitely worth your time.
Just south of the Gladden Reef are the Silk Cayes and the North Wall and Turtle Canyon dive sites. The North Wall site is known for its abundance of reef life including reef sharks, and Turtle Canyon is a nice dive to view a variety of hard and soft corals. While there is absolutely no fishing of any kind permitted while diving in Belize, an exception is made for the aggressive and invasive species, the Lionfish, and dive operators will lend you a trident if you would like to help spear them and minimize the damage of these predatory fish.
The world-class scuba diving found in Belize is vast and varied and there are many dive centers that will take experienced divers to these underwater marvels. Depending on where you are moored or docked, Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker, Placentia, Dangriga, and Hopkins Village all have a variety of options and most dive centers offer introductory and discovery courses for non-certified divers as well, allowing them to check out the majesty below the Belizean waters.
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