THE BEST OF BELIZE | Scuba Diving
Home to the second-longest barrier reef in the world, the startling Blue Hole and some of the only coral atolls in the Caribbean, it’s no surprise that Belize offers some great diving. What’s more unusual is that so many divers have yet to discover it. The barrier reef has 320km (190 miles) of coral to be explored – and there is a further 280km (160 miles) of diveable reef in the three atolls: Lighthouse Reef Atoll, Glover's Atoll and Turneffe Atoll – so you’re a million miles from the diving crowds at other Caribbean destinations.
Underwater, it’s possible to have some heart-stopping encounters with whale sharks, eagle rays or nurse sharks, but there’s plenty of pleasure to be had checking out the critters among the corals and sponges. The reefs themselves are not the most colourful in the world – this isn’t the Indian Ocean – but there’s plenty here to be seen from endemic toadfish to tiny shrimps.
There’s plenty of flexibility for diving in Belize. You can choose from all-inclusive resorts to more backpacker-styled simple accommodation, and from diving off day-boats to liveaboards that tour the whole area searching for the best diving.
The barrier reef is closest to shore at Ambergris Caye, a good base for divers. On the inner side of the barrier reef are sheltered coral gardens, while the outer side descends sharply in a series of plateaus to depths of hundreds of metres. There are many dive sites along the 25 miles of barrier reef, which lies just a mile from Ambergris Caye. The topography is generally spur-and-groove reefs, featuring canyons, swim-throughs and reef cuts. Reef fish aren’t the main attraction here – they don’t appear in such great numbers as elsewhere. Instead, pelagics including sharks, rays, porpoise and turtles are seen much more often than is usual. The installation of mooring points protects the reefs from anchor damage. One of the most popular areas here for both divers and snorkelers is Hol Chan marine reserve and within it the site Shark Ray Alley, known for large numbers of nurse sharks and southern stingrays.
The closest to the mainland of Belize’s three atolls, Turneffe is the easiest to reach and has spectacular diving for divers of all abilities and experience. Unlike Lighthouse Reef and Glovers Atolls, Turneffe has more than 200 cayes within it, created by and covered in mangroves. At 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, it’s the largest of Belize’s atolls. The northwestern side has shallow reefs, suitable for all divers, whereas the dive sites in the south are more challenging with steep reef walls, a few wrecks and occasionally strong currents. The mangrove cayes are nurseries for many species of fish, including the endemic white-spotted toadfish, while pelagic species including eagle rays, dolphins, turtles, morays, nurse and reef sharks, grouper, snapper and jacks are seen on the outer reefs.
LIGHTHOUSE REEF ATOLL
The home of the Blue Hole, which sits slap-bang in the middle of the atoll, Lighthouse Reef is the furthest off-shore of Belize’s three atolls. It’s visited by liveaboards as well as dive boats from San Pedro (Ambergris Caye), and there are dive resorts on some of the Cayes here too. The entire circumference of the atoll is a coral reef, which is so shallow it breaks the surface. The prevailing winds are from the northeast, so the western side is calmer and more often dived. In addition to the thrill of diving the Blue Hole, there are some great reef dives in the area, and Half Moon Caye – a national nature reserve – is well worth a visit too, either underwater or topside to see the unusual birds, including red-footed booby birds, which make it their home.
An oval-shaped reef, 15 miles long and 4 miles wide, Glover’s Atoll was named after 18th-century pirates and remains largely unexplored to this day. A marine reserve and UNESCO world heritage site, the atoll lies about 30 miles offshore from Placencia. There are five privately owned islands on the eastern side of the atoll where most of the diving is done. You can stay here, or get day trips to the dive sites.