Belize gets rave reviews from the worlds tourism opinion-formers, but would the diving live up to its billing MARIE DAVIES went to find out - photography by Marie and Captain JAY MARTIN
HOW FORTUITOUS, I thought, that after choosing Belize as my next dive destination a whirl of media hype should surface around this small but vibrant Central American country.
Just weeks before departure, TripAdvisor named Ambergris Caye its “Top Island in the World”, for its white sandy beaches and pristine reef system, while Lonely Planet made the Great Blue Hole number one on its “2013 Top 10 Dives in the World” list. Pretty big calls, so I was excited to discover whether these accolades were deserved.
The plan was to spend two weeks sampling some local diving around Ambergris Caye (pronounced key, meaning island), a week’s diving aboard the Belize Aggressor III and a few days exploring Belize’s rich Mayan history and jungle terrain.
I have to report that two weeks was not enough!
Aggressor III oozes comfort and luxury, not just because of its smart and well-planned dining and lounge areas or cosy double- and triple-room options, all with en suite and TV/DVD combos; not even because of its spacious sun-deck, self-service free bar and Jacuzzi. Oh no, this boat is ideal for exploring the world’s second-largest barrier reef because of its massively spacious dive-deck.
Equipped with a large photo table and outside toilet, each diver station has its own convenient storage locker, and the dive platform at the back boasts two hot freshwater showers.
Greeted by professional and friendly crew who can’t do enough to help you settle in, before you’ve even left the dockside it’s apparent that your week’s diving will be 5*.
Add to that the lack of time limits, unlimited nitrox and scrumptious food, and you know you’re going to have an unforgettable experience.
Running 180 miles down Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, south through Belize then on to Honduras, the Great Western Barrier Reef is second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
The Belize section includes three main atoll groups: Turneffe, Lighthouse and Glover’s Reefs. These areas are special, with no fewer than seven marine world heritage-listed sites within the reef and offshore cayes.
It’s only a few hours’ sail to Turneffe Reef for your first (and last) day of diving, then a shorter steam onto Lighthouse Reef, where most of the best sites are found, including the famous Blue Hole (along Half Moon and Long Cayes).
The boat conveniently moors right on top of the fringing reefs, offering miles of deep drop-offs to explore.
Allowing for two dives at each site, divers can cruise the walls in both directions as well as the various caverns, swim-throughs, spurs and channels that line the reefs.
Although the walls easily surpass 40m, the best stuff is found at 15-20m, or on top in the shallow gardens.
Visibility varies from 20-30m, which allows for some great snorkelling too, especially as the tops of the reefs are deeper than 10m.
Having dived for 17 years but without doing much Caribbean diving, my biggest surprise was the sheer size and abundance of gigantic red barrel and yellow tube sponges littered along every wall.
Gorgonian fans, red whip corals, neon blue vase sponges and an assortment of soft and hard corals also inhabited the walls, making it an animated and busy reef system and heaven for wide-angle photographers.
IF, HOWEVER, YOU’RE EXPECTING dive sites jam-packed with marine life and primary-coloured corals, you might be a tad disappointed. Belize diving, I soon discovered, is more of a subtle and relaxing experience.
You’re treated to a multitude of soft corals but in pastel and neutral colours. Feather-like plumes are a common sight, some as tall as 1.5m, like giant feather boas wafting in the gentle surge.
The marine life is scattered but sociable; nothing seems to phase fish, ray or turtle, suggesting that Belize’s heritage-listed protection is doing a fine job.
Lack of current cancels out the chance of huge schools of pelagics, although schools of bigeye trevally (jack), tarpon and chub usually congregate under the boat, and you’re almost guaranteed to be pursued by a great barracuda and/or Nassau grouper on every dive.
For shark fans, there’s a healthy abundance of Caribbean reef, blacktip and silky sharks casing the walls.
Macro-lovers will enjoy the abundance of arrow and decorator crabs found on Lighthouse Reef, and add pipefish, pipehorses, yellowhead jawfish, channel clinging crabs, flamingo tongue snails, squat anemone shrimp, wire coral shrimp and fireworms to the list, plus a few of the larger crustaceans such as slipper and spiny lobsters, and you have some photographic subjects to get excited about.
With so many spectacular sites, the boat rarely had to move far during our week of diving. What follows are a few of my favourites…
As we descend onto the wall at Cathedral, we sidestep a gigantic leathery red barrel sponge that on closer inspection is a marine-life mansion.
A couple of arrow crabs hide in its knobbly creases, and inside is a group of spiny lobsters. Rope, branching vase and stovepipe sponges cover the wall in a flurry of colour, along with beautiful bluebell tunicates, the most common invertebrates found in Belize.
A green moray eel pops its head out of a hole as a Nassau grouper darts out from a small spur and joins our group for the rest of the dive. We pass a scorpionfish sitting on a coral cluster and a couple of lionfish hiding under a ledge (these invasive fish are the reefs’ arch-nemesis, threatening the local fish life, and the crew spend many dives trying to eradicate them, encouraging passengers to learn to use spearfishing equipment and correct techniques to aid in the fight.
Exploring some of the shallower swim-throughs, we come across a variety of smaller reef fish, including fairy basslets, long-spine squirrelfish, four-eye butterflyfish and spotlight parrotfish, before investigating the pelagics under the boat. Chub, tarpon and bigeye trevally all hang out there.
The boat moors up over a sandy lagoon for us to dive Half Moon Caye Wall at a depth of 8m.
As we jump in, Jody, our guide, spots a well-known favourite in these parts, the sailfin blenny, hanging next to a Caribbean conch shell.
We’re impatient to get to the main attraction, however– a spectacular wall that begins at 10m and drops far below the 40m zone. As we squeeze through a large cut in the reef, we cruise into the blue and are greeted by a small reef shark and a hawksbill turtle, unruffled by the sudden onslaught of flashguns.
Meandering past large barrel sponges and plate corals, I’m suddenly aware of the largest barracuda I’ve ever seen, and a black grouper, both following us.
I have been warned that this is the only site where the grouper have been known to mistake a hand for a lionfish’s spines, so I keep my pinkies firmly around my camera housing.
Eyeing them cautiously, but taking advantage of their curiosity, I snap away at close quarters. We spot two more
reef sharks and try to avoid the lure of spending too much time at depth for fear of running out of time to explore the many swim-throughs and crevices on the return journey.
Heading back to the boat, we pass a brain-coral cleaning station where pretty blue damsels flit around in circles and French and queen angelfish hang motionless. More fish life joins the scene, including sergeant-majors, Creole wrasse and butterflyfish.
AS WE HIT THE SAND AGAIN, video pro Chris beckons me over to point out two tiny pipehorses and a pipefish in the seagrass. I throw him my “impressed googly eyes” look, and he fins off in search of more macro subjects to include on our trip DVD.
Under the boat, our friend the giant barracuda is back, as is a school of bigeye trevally and large tarpon. Then a pair of inquisitive remora join the “safety stop” party. This was definitely my favourite dive of the trip.
The wall at Dos Cocos is steep, dropping off below 40m and, as with all the sites, it’s covered with impressive red and pink tube and finger sponges, seafans and barrel sponges.
We spot a swollen-knob candelabrum entangled by a delicate spiny sea rod, two spotted juvenile drumfish and green and spotted morays free-swimming along the wall.
As the sun’s rays trickle down to 30m, I glance up at the coral formations that look like castle turrets standing to attention, with a school of small blue tangs silhouetted along its skyline acting as sentries.
Dos Cocos is one of the more active reefs in the area, with a variety of corals and fish life to rival any aquarium.
One morning we wake to the boat gently navigating the small reef opening into the Great Blue Hole, made famous when Jacques Cousteau blasted a way into it on a filming mission in 1971.
From the air there is no doubt that this hole is a geological wonder – a perfect circle more than 300m in diameter and 130m deep, surrounded by turquoise waters.
Even from the top deck, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer blueness of this deep sunken cave system.
BUT IT’S UNDER THE SURFACE that its true glory lies. We descend as one large group and a famous Nietzsche quote comes to mind: “And when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”
I’m feeling quite daunted with anticipation and excitement, knowing that the formations we’re about to see are the world’s largest known underwater stalactites. A small silky shark interrupts us briefly – a rare sight, as not that much lives inside the hole.
At 28m a cloud of icy-cold water envelops us, and a few metres later we glimpse our first stalactite looming out of the blue. It’s not until we reach a huge shelf at 40m that we observe the true scale of the ancient stalactites; the visibility isn’t great, but it’s enough to marvel at these giant imposing structures.
Photography is not easy here because particles make backscatter an issue, while narcosis means camera-setting fiddling that eats into your already far-too-short bottom time.
I have to remind myself to step back and appreciate the formations, because before you know it your guide will be indicating that it’s time to ascend.
Off-gassing on the shallow reef below the boat isn’t much to write home about, except for the remarkably loud pistol shrimps!
Does the Great Blue Hole live up to the hype According to the Aggressor’s Captain Jay there are two schools of thought: Team “Awestruck” or Team “Meh, could have missed it”.
I thought it was well worth it, because of the adrenalin rush that comes with exploring a sunken cave at 40m, and the fact that you get to tick off one of the most talked-about dives in the world!
Sorry, Lonely Planet, it wasn’t my “best dive in the world” but I would include it in my three most unique dives, along with Jellyfish Lake in Palau (technically a snorkel) and cage-diving with great white sharks.
For non-divers or those hesitant to go to the edge of recreational diving limits, it’s possible to snorkel around the rim and still share in the exhilaration of looking into that deep blue abyss.
To help off-gas, there’s a treat in store as Aggressor passengers head to Half Moon Caye National Monument, a protected island and one of only two Caribbean nesting areas for the red-footed booby.
A bird-viewing platform allows you to get up close with some of the 4000 inhabitants, and you’ll spot many species of lizard along the nature trails, and numerous large frigates circling overhead, as you chow down on a tasty barbecue lunch on the beach.
For a completely different diving experience, Ambergris Caye is where you’ll explore underwater canyons that could rival a sunken Cheddar Gorge!
DIVING AT SAN PEDRO CANYON held many surprises, including three friendly resident nurse sharks that trailed our group for a whole dive, and a reef system with rich coral growth. We observed turtles, eagle rays and a variety of fish life, all in clear blue water.
Ramon’s Resort runs a professional and friendly dive centre, offering local boat dives as well as a chance to snorkel with sharks, whale sharks and manatees in season, and to explore the famous Ho Chan Marine Reserve.
The resort is an idyllic hideaway only minutes from the airport, with private beach and dive centre, tasty meals and fantastic service.
Definitely a romantic getaway, it also offers trips to Lamanai and the Altun Ha Mayan ruins and dugong, whale shark and snorkelling tours.
Belize deserves a place on your ever-growing “places to dive” list, and the easiest and most rewarding way to explore it is on a liveaboard.
Pros are the diverse, pretty and unique diving, friendlier-than-usual fish and humongous barrel and tube sponges – good vis, warm water and plenty of macro life too. It’s hard to get lost, as all the dives are on walls, and there are lots of snorkelling opportunities too.
The lack of big currents means this is not for the adrenalin junkie seeking large schools of pelagics and crazy drift dives. Belize is a destination for divers seeking a relaxing holiday with 5* services, awe-inspiring culture and a chance to explore a beautiful and pristine underwater landscape.
Aggressor Fleet works in tandem with the Dancer fleet, and I took a peek at Sundancer II, which follows a similar itinerary to Belize Aggressor. The dive-deck is a little smaller but the rooms are hotel-like, with double beds and windows almost as large as the walls to provide uninterrupted sea views!
The dining area is large and although the boat is bigger than the Aggressor it takes only a few more passengers. Either or, you won’t be disappointed with the service, food or diving. Did I mention the Jacuzzi Ah yes, I think I did.
|GETTING THERE 10.5-hour flight from London or Manchester to Cancun in Mexico, then fly to Belize City with Tropic Air (1hr 45min) and on to Ambergris Caye (15min). Or catch an ADO first-class overnight bus from Cancun to Belize City, an eight-hour ride, www.ado.com.mx|
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Belize Aggressor, www.aggressor.com; Sundancer, www.dancerfleet.co. Ramon’s Resort at Ambergris Caye, www.ramons.com. Du Plooys Jungle Lodge is a retreat from where tours can be arranged to the likes of Mayan ruins and Belize Botanical Gardens, www.duplooys.com
WHEN TO GO Year-round, though winter is best. Water temperature is 24-28°C
CASH A Belizean dollar is equivalent to US 50 cents.
PRICES Return charter flights to Cancun from £380, or from £660 with Virgin, Delta or BA. Tropic Air flights on to Belize City cost £65, and from there to Ambergris Caye £20, both one-way prices. The ADO Cancun-Belize City bus costs £25 one way. A week on Belize Aggressor costs from £1590 and on Sundancer from £1400. Ramon’s Resort costs from £93-273 per room per night, with a two-tank dive £48. Du Plooys Jungle Lodge charges £112-230 per person per night – add £16 to include all food.
FURTHER INFORMATION www.travelbelize.org