Diving in Belize - Part 2

Adventure among the Atolls

South of Ambergris, Belize's barrier reef begins to veer away from the mainland. Outside the main reef lie several of the unique coral formations called atolls. Common in the tropical Pacific and Indian oceans, atolls are rare in the Caribbean. These roughly circular rings of coral rise from deep water to enclose a central lagoon. Belize has three of the four atolls in the Western Hemisphere, and each is a coral necklace bejeweled with mangrove-green islands set in bright gold beaches and laid against the velvety blue Caribbean Sea.

Turneffe Atoll, largest of the bunch, sports three dive resorts in its 205 square miles of blue water and green islands. The atoll is six miles offshore of the barrier reef and separated from it by a 1,000-foot-deep channel. Mayans used some of the 35 islands of this atoll as fishing camps, and later pirates made them a home base between raids on Spanish shipping. In modern times, the atoll has become well known for its excellent bonefishing and scientific research stations — and the diving. Turneffe's most noted dive is the drop-off called the Elbow, where swirling currents make for an electric mix of big pelagic fish like horse-eye jacks and permit.

Glover's Reef is the southernmost and most remote atoll, 70 miles south of Belize City, and receives less diver traffic along its 50-some miles of reefs. During the 1970s, a team of international scientists determined that Glover's was the most biologically rich of the Caribbean atolls. Wall diving at Glover's begins on the reef crest at 30 feet, and then the black-coral-encrusted walls drop through the blue to more than 2,000 feet.
 
All the atolls have incredibly diverse habitats both on land and underwater. Eagle rays, hammerheads, and sea turtles cruise above colorful worlds of fish and sponges that adorn the reef below. As testament to the quality of diving among the atolls, live-aboard boats in Belize spend almost all of their time along the fringing reefs.
 
Belize's easternmost dive outpost and the third of the country's atolls, Lighthouse Reef, specializes in clear water and spectacular walls. The six small, mangrove-lined islands in this atoll 50 miles east of Belize City could pass for the tropical Pacific. The Audubon Society counted 98 species of birds on Half Moon Caye alone, including ospreys, mangrove warblers, and red-footed boobies. In the spring, you can walk among the nesting boobies on Half Moon Caye National Monument, Belize's first nature park created to protect this, the second largest breeding colony in the world. Crocodiles also breed among Lighthouse's mangrove-covered isles. The crocs are best spotted at night on guided tours of the estuaries.
 
Pound for pound, acre for protected acre, Belize provides more adventure for the traveling diver and eco-tourist than almost anywhere else in the world. Belize truly is a paradise located on the Caribbean shores of Central America, and the only mainland nation where the language and culture is English. The only problem when you arrive in Belize is deciding what to see and do first.
 
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