There is a great variety of reef types and diving experiences in Belize. The Barrier Reef is 185 meandering miles (298 km) of unspoiled beauty. It varies from 8 to 16 miles (13-26 km) from the mainland to less than one mile offshore from Caye Caulker. 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. Between the mainland and the reef are shallow, sandy waters with numerous mangrove-covered islands (cayes).
While much of the flora and fauna is similar throughout the reef system, there are individual differences to be found everywhere. A particular type of fish may be seen on almost every dive, but during mating season it may congregate in only one or two areas in great numbers. Hard corals, gorgonians, sea fans, tunicates, and shellfish of amazing variety populate Belize coastal waters, but the predominance of one in a particular stretch of reef may give that area its name. Similarly, there are areas where grouper are known to shoal, others where large stingray are prolific or where the diver may encounter a whale shark. The manta ray and spotted eagle ray are fairly common, and the diver can reasonably expect to see one of these magnificent creatures during his visit. Hammerhead shark,Caribbean reef shark and even the oceanic white tip shark are seen occasionally, but these lucky sightings are rare.
Skin Diver magazine describes a typical dive area off the island as an area outside the reef where "the corals gradually siope to about 50 feet along a bottom of scattered heads, seafans, and gorgonians. From about 60 to 90 feet, the corals form immense spur and groove surge channels perpendicular to the shoreline. These high profile channels are adorned by yellow tube and azure vase sponges, large barrel sponges and a respectable amount of marine life.
Rays and schooling jacks are frequently seen, and the most common reef tropicals such as groupers, coneys, angelfish and barracuda are almost sure to be seen. For a more interesting and convoluted bottom featuring caves full of copper sweepers and a resident school of horse-eyed jacks, the dive site Caverns, just outside the Mata Cut, is another local favorite."
Several professionally run dive shops serve the divers with clean air and well kept diving and snorkeling equipment. Dive instructors work out of these dive shops providing full PADI and NAUl certifcation, referrals for divers wishing to complete the open water certification, and "discover diving" for the snorkelers who dare taste the exciting world of scuba diving.
Two very popular areas for snorkeling from boats near Caye Caulker are Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark-Sting Ray Alley. A visit to Hol Chan and Shark-Ray Alley are usually combined into one trip. Boat trips to these destinations cost around US$20 to $25 per adult, which usually includes snorkel mask and fin rental and a guide who will go into the water with you and point out the sights. Kids under about age 12 go for half price. There is an additional US$2.50 per-adult fee for admission to Hol Chan Reserve. The fee, which goes toward preservation of the Belize's parks, is collected at the reserve by rangers in power boats, so be sure to bring your money.
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. A couple of dozen dive and snorkel operators offer snorkel trips. It is difficult to recommend one over another, as the quality of the experience depends on who is your guide on a particular trip and also the weather and sea conditions.
Average Water Temperatures:
The Hol Chan Marine Reserve is a 5-square-mile underwater national park established by the Belize government in 1987. Because fishing is prohibited in the reserve, there is a considerable amount of sea life. At the cut here, you may expect to see large groupers, nurse sharks, sting rays, moray and other eels, spadefish, schoolmasters and other fish. Much of the bottom is sandy, but you also will see bright coral. Depth is fairly shallow at between 5 to 30 feet. Visibility is usually good, at 50 to 60 feet or more, with late spring having the best water viz.
Heavy wave action from Hurricane Mitch did only limited damage to dive sites around the Caye. It destroyed some fragile coral, such as elk horn and seafans, especially near the water surface, and caused temporary loss of pigmentation in hard coral, but it scoured out green algae and cleaned out sand.
One of the good things about the Caye, in the eyes of many, is that it does not cater only to divers. Indeed, the majority of visitors to the island now are not divers, and this means that those who don't dive will not feel they are just extra baggage on a dive machine. Caye Caulker offers a good mix of dive and non-dive activities. Those who wish to do nothing but dive, eat, sleep, and dive may be better off choosing a dive lodge on one of the remote atolls or a live-aboard dive boat.
Two-tank dives typically go for US$45 to $55, averaging US$50. One-tank dives are about US$20 less; three-tank dives about US$20 more. Rates usually include tanks, weights and belts. Other equipment is extra; US$20 is about average for a full set of gear.
Those looking for even better diving likely will consider diving one of Belize's atolls. These are Pacific-style atolls with coral islands surrounding a fairly shallow lagoon. Only four true atolls exist in the Western Hemisphere; three of them are off Belize. Belize's three atolls are the Great Blue Hole, Turneffe Islands, Lighthouse Reef, and Glover's. Turneffe and Lighthouse are closest to Ambergris Caye and are practical day trips.
For the more-serious diver, there is variety enough here to make for many weeks of diving. Visibility is terrific, often 150 feet or more. While many of the sites are best for intermediate and advanced divers, some are suitable for novice divers.
From San Pedro, expect to pay about US$125 to US$185 for a day trip to Lighthouse or Turneffe, depending on the number of dives. Lunch is usually included. A typical trip to Lighthouse takes one and a half hours or a little longer each way, includes three dives, lunch and snacks and costs about US$150 per person. Note that sometimes dive trips are canceled if not enough divers sign up for a specific trip.
For more information on diving in the area, with pictures and further details, click here.
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