Flying south into Belize, you can see the Barrier reef as an unbroken chain of white surf running along the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and continuing south the whole length of the country to the Banguana and Sapodilla Cayes. There is a great variety of reef types and diving experiences in Belize. The Barrier Reef is 185 meandering miles of unspoiled beauty. It varies from 8 to 16 miles from the mainland to less than 300 yards offshore from Ambergris Caye. Much of it is totally unexplored and all of it is easily accessible by boat. The reef is like a gigantic wall running parallel to the coast.
Inside the reef the water is shallow, with a blue tinge; outside the reef the water is deep and from the air shows a dark royal blue. On very clear days the reef appears as a narrow white line of the surf dividing the two shades of blue.
Only near Ambergris Caye does the reef run so close to a well-populated caye. Here it is an almost unbroken solid wall of magnificent coral formation broken only by narrow channels called “quebradas”. Here an observant diver can be kept entertained for hours on end by the unending variety, shapes and colors of the tropical coral.
Ambergris Caye, home of the Seven Seas, will spoil you with 39 named dive and snorkel sites and hundreds with no name. The Barrier reef lies about 200 yards off the windward side of the island. No long boat rides here. When you leave the Seven Seas pier, you can be at several wonderful dives in less than 5 minutes. The average time from Pier to dive is around 30 minutes. To the east of the Reef are three separate atoll reefs.
Belize is also home to the Famous Blue Hole. The Blue Hole is on Lighthouse Reef, 50 miles east of Belize City. This 12,000-year-old circular limestone sinkhole, explored and studied by Jacques Cousteau, is 300 feet across and 412 feet deep.
The entire northern stretch of reef is ideal for macro photography. Vase sponges, tube sponges and coral pinnacles are home for countless minuscule creatures awaiting discovery. Shrimps, brittle stars, nudlibranchs, tube worms and tunicates of every imaginable color are often overlooked by the diver.
A particular favorite is the red-banded coral shrimp. These are present on almost every dive and are usually found along ledges and gullies. Without touching them, they are easily coaxed out into suitable position for a photograph. And don’t forget to join in on the fun and include yourself in the pictures, your friends and family will be green with envy seeing the proof of all the magical scuba diving and snorkeling.
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Ambergris Caye offers superb snorkeling. To enjoy it best you’ll need to take a short boat trip out from shore.
You can snorkel off the beach at your hotel or anywhere on the island, but you don’t usually see as much. Some hotels work hard to keep their piers as appetizing to the fish as possible. It can be quite pleasant to float around and see what you can see off shore.
The three most-popular areas for snorkeling from boats near Ambergris Caye are Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Shark-Sting Ray Alley and Mexico Rocks. A visit to Hol Chan and Shark-Ray Alley to the south of San Pedro are usually combined into one trip, while Mexico Rocks to the north of town is usually a separate trip. These snorkeling trips usually last two to three hours. Typically, snorkel boats go out once in the morning and once in the afternoon, more frequently during busy periods.
Off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye is the HOL CHAN MARINE RESERVE. Hol Chan is Mayan for ‘little channel.” This sanctuary was officially established in 1987, and since then the return of all species of fish has been quite dramatic. The reserve covers approximately three square miles and is divided into three zones. Each one is clearly marked by buoys. The entire reserve focuses on a cut through the reef which is little more than 25 yards wide and 30 feet deep. This is a must stop for the first introductory dive in Belizean waters. About 15 minutes south by boat, Maximum 30 feet deep. Excellent visibility. You can almost always see all species of fish including jacks, groupers, snappers, parrot fish, angel fish, barracuda, eels, spider crabs, lobster, and nurse sharks.
Shark- Ray Alley is a shallow cut to the south of Hol Chan where nurse sharks and sting rays congregate. Guides sometimes chum to attract the sharks, and you can jump in and swim with them. It’s not half as scary as it sounds, and most of the people who come on the snorkel boats do get in the water here.
At Mexico Rocks, off North Ambergris opposite a former coconut plantation, you may not see as many fish as at Hol Chan, but the coral is beautiful. Also, this area is protected from ocean swells and currents, so it makes for easier snorkeling. Depth is only about 6 to 12 feet, so you can see everything up close. Water visibility is about the same as at Hol Chan, 50 feet or more.