Ambergris Caye, Belize

Ambergris Caye, Belize

4There is a great variety of reef types and diving & snorkeling 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 (1.6 km) 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. 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.
Ambergris Caye is justly the most popular attraction to the tourists who come to Belize. The factor that most contributes to this is the unbelievably superb diving & snorkeling conditions. Accessibility to the dive sites, such as Lighthouse Reef, Turneffe Islands, as well as many excellent sites right off Ambergris Caye, combined with excellent weather conditions, clear warm water, the variety of dive sites and in the unlikely chance that a diving accident should occur, the hyperbaric chamber is minutes away from any of the dive sites.

San Pedro Town is the site of major development which evolved from a laid back fishing village to an important tourist attraction. The pace is slow, the people are very 5friendly, the streets are still dirt and sand and the resorts are small and intimate.
Conservation and protection of the natural resources is very important for the government and people of Belize. Proof of this is the designation of one of the most popular dive sites off Ambergris Caye, Hol Chan, a marine reserve. Strict supervision is in place and no fishing or removal of coral is permitted. Mooring buoys have been installed so that anchors may not destroy the coral.

Skin Diver magazine describes a typical dive area off San Pedro as an area outside the reef where “the corals gradually slope 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.”

Snorkeling

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.
3The 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. Boat trips to either of these destinations cost around US$45 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$10.00 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. However, see the list of recommended dive shops at the top and bottom of this page.
Note that boats cannot always go out, due to wind and weather conditions. When there’s a strong wind or during “Northers” in the winter, snorkeling is unpleasant at best and could be dangerous.
Night snorkeling trips also are available, at around US$65 per person. Night snorkelers may see lobster, eels, octopus and other creatures.
The Hol Chan Marine Reserve, about 4 miles south of San Pedro, 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 1good, at 50 to 60 feet or more, with late spring having the best water viz.
Several snorkel boats may congregate at one time. In fact, it’s a good idea to make a mental note of the name or identifying colors of your boat, so you don’t swim back to the wrong boat. Do not touch the coral with your hands or fins, and do not feed or touch the fish.
Caution! Tidal currents here can be quite strong. Weak swimmers or younger children may tire quickly swimming against the current. Ask your guide about the strength of the current at the time you are there, and let the guide know if you are not a good swimmer or have any disability. Don’t be shy about accepting a life jacket.
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 viz is about the same as at Hol Chan, 50 feet or more.
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$225 to US$275 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$300 per person. Note that sometimes dive trips are canceled if not enough divers sign up for a specific trip.

The Turneffe Islands are about 20 miles east of Belize City. This is the largest atoll and the closest to the mainland. It differs somewhat from the other two atolls in that most of the islands here are densely covered in mangroves, especially on the west side. Black Beauty, Myrtle’s Turtle and Mauger Caye (north of the atoll, with a lighthouse) are among the popular dive sites here. Mauger is known for its sharks.
Lighthouse Reef is about 60 miles east of Belize City. Lighthouse is home to Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, comprising about 15 square miles of atoll plus another 15 square miles of surrounding waters. Protected as a marine reserve since 1981, Lighthouse teems with birds, including a nesting colony of rare red-footed boobies. Under 2water life is also rich here, with dolphins and other creatures.

At Lighthouse also is the Blue Hole, a limestone sinkhole several hundred feet across and more than 400 feet deep, made famous by Jacques Cousteau. Divers usually report that while the Blue Hole is worth doing once, it is more spectacular when seen from the air then from underwater.

Glover’s Reef is about 30 miles east of Dangriga. The perimeter of the atoll has elk horn coral forests. Here and in a deeper sandy area is a great variety of fish and sea life, including many sharks. Shark Point, northeast of North Caye with its lighthouse, is well-known for hammerhead and tiger sharks.

San Pedro has the country’s only hyperbaric chamber. It’s located near the airstrip. Most dive shops ask for a small donation with each tank fill which goes toward funding the chamber.1
Note: The offshore reef and its protecting of the inland sea around the island makes for extremely clear and calm water for diving & snorkeling. Most of the area inside the reef is 6-8 feet deep, and you can see more here with just a mask and/or snorkle than you can see most places while diving. In that mere 6-10 feet deep of water, there is an amazing diversity of marine life. Dolphins (very friendly), nurse sharks, rays, zillions of multi-colored fish of many varieties highlight a quick dip in the water around Ambergris Caye. Any novice can come here and be amazed, and then go to the dive shops and become an expert!

Categories: Belize, World