Diving in Belize

A generation ago, this tiny country just south of the Yucatan Peninsula was best known, if known at all, as a colonial backwater. British Honduras, as it was then called, gained its independence, and a new name, in 1981. It also gained a reputation among tourists for its considerable natural and archaeological treasures — a vast swath of rain forest, scores of Mayan ruins, and, as divers soon learned, a barrier reef second in size only to Australia's. Wrapped neatly in a country just slightly larger than New Jersey, Belize was soon being marketed as a virtual paradise for divers and other eco-tourists, the kind of tropical getaway where you can swim with sea turtles on a reef bursting with marine life, then stroll through a tropical jungle before your hair dries.
 
The barrier reef runs the entire 185-mile length of the country, starting about 10 miles offshore in the north and angling away from the coast in the south. Dive sites are found on the barrier reef itself, around islands or smaller reefs inshore of the barrier, or on offshore atolls. Most tourists base themselves at Ambergris Caye (pronounced key), the largest of the inshore islands, about 35 miles northeast of Belize City.

Named for a waxy secretion that forms in the bowels of sperm whales, Ambergris was once a fishing village, but over the past two decades its residents have fully embraced tourism. Visitors hop a short flight from Belize City to Ambergris's tiny San Pedro airport. Small hotels crowded along the city's sand streets front the water, each with a pier stretching across the narrow beach and into the lagoon toward the barrier reef. Frigate birds — large, forked-tail seabirds usually seen flying solo far out at sea — gather in force over the Ambergris shoreline, and bird-watchers can spot flamingos, egrets, herons, and pelicans feeding in the backwaters.

The Other Great Barrier Reef

Mooring buoys on most Ambergris sites prevent anchor damage to the fragile corals. The current makes drift diving the best method of seeing the reef, so operators use the buoys mostly as drop-off points. Just over the crest — a kind of underwater hilltop — the reef slopes down to 50 feet. You start your dive here and swim offshore along huge coral spur formations. At the seaward edge, many of the spurs end in pinnacles that tower as much as 100 feet off the sandy bottom. Between each spur, and connected by tunnels large enough for divers to swim through, are steep canyons decorated with colorful sponges and soft corals. Large schools of fish, including horse-eye jacks, spadefish, yellowtail snappers, and blue-bar jacks, congregate to feed high in the water column off the reef. In late winter and early spring, the amount of plankton increases off Ambergris Caye, which in turn increases the chance of seeing large filter-feeders like manta rays and whale sharks.
 
Hol Chan Marine Preserve, the most popular diving and snorkeling spot on the island, has the most prolific fish life of any dive near Ambergris Caye, as well as the premier novice-diver sites. Hol Chan (little channel in Mayan) is adjacent to a small cut in the reef that gives it its name. Currents wash the five-square-mile site at each change of the tide. Water pouring across the barrier reef carries food to the hundreds of big fish that flourish within the protected area.
 
Schools of rarely seen, three-foot-long permit, the bright tropical sun flashing off their silvery sides, tack back and forth across the narrow cut looking for baitfish. Hordes of reef fish loiter behind big coral heads, protected by the massive formations — and the park rangers. Edible species especially seem to have benefited from sanctuary status; large grouper and hogfish are common only at Hol Chan among the Ambergris reef sites. Moorings bob in 10 feet of water just behind the reef. Schools of fat snapper mob divers and snorkelers here, while very large grouper often laze directly beneath the dive boats. And night dives are wonderfully eerie at Hol Chan.
 
Continued In: Diving in Belize - Part 2

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