When you dive or snorkel in Belize, you find natural wonders unlike anywhere in the world. The marine environment is unspoiled, the experience intimate. Whether you dive from a mainland base, island hotel or a live-aboard boat, scuba dive operators will have their own unique dive location to share in or near the Belize barrier reef.
The dive sites in Belize amaze divers and snorkelers, no matter how many times they have experienced them. Diving or snorkeling is a perfect complement to a tour of mystical Maya temples, a relaxing beach stroll or an intimate hike in a lush rainforest. To help you plan your trip, here are some of the most important dive sites for you to know:
The Belize Barrier Reef
Exceptional diving is plentiful from end-to-end of the 190-mile long Belize Barrier Reef, which extends from the northern tip of Ambergris Caye to the Sapodilla Cayes in Belize’s southernmost regions.
Seven sites in Belize’s barrier reef system are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, so designated because of their outstanding universal value. The Belize Barrier Reef System is also home to two endangered coral reef species; Acropora palmata (Elkhorn coral), and Acropora cervicornis (Staghorn coral). As a diver, you encounter an assortment of riches: countless opportunities for divers and snorkelers to explore patch reefs, spur and grove formations. A variety of dive sites begin at a mere 30 feet and drop to 90 feet or more and contain deep coral canyons.
Nurse and reef sharks, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles as well as elegant angelfishes, parrotfishes and spotted drum fish, grouper, jacks, snapper and white-spotted toadfish – a species only found in Belize – are just a few of the friendly natives you will encounter. And, for something a little out of the ordinary, snorkel or dive near a mangrove colored island – known as “the nursery of the sea” – and you’ll be rewarded by seeing juevenile barracuda, snapper and countless other fish.
The Blue Hole
You won’t want to miss the most famous diving site in Belize the Blue Hole, a national monument. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization named the Blue Hole a World Heritage Site, a location with universal value.
For the best views of underwater life, you’ll find the lip of the crater – 60 to 100 feet underwater – is much more interesting. Some of the largest midnight parrot fish in the world frequent this hole, which also attracts spotted eagle rays, angelfish, butterfly fish and smaller reef fish, which tend to cluster around coral heads and outcroppings. You also can see Caribbean reef sharks, blacktip sharks, barracudas and large Nasau and blackgroupers.
The atolls located beyond the barrier reef and heavier visitor traffic, offer combinations of patch reefs and the sheer walldrop offs teeming with huge schools of different species of fish.
Originally a cave, the Blue Hole was formed about 10,000 years ago when the cave’s roof collapsed. Visible from outer space, the Blue Hole is a nearly perfect circular hole 1,000 feet in diameter and 412 feet deep, with stalactites reaching up to 130 feet. In the early 1970s, Jacques Cousteau and his television crew explored the tunnels, caverns and stalactites that the Blue Hole is now famous for.
This world renowned dive site is located at the center of Lighthouse Reef Atoll, which is about 50 miles east of Belize City. Considered to be a must-do trip for advanced divers, most groups descend to about 130 feet for about 10 minutes and gradually ascend passing various marine life on the way.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Loosely translated in Maya as “Little Channel,” the Hol Chan Marine Reserve refers to the deep cut, or “quebrada,” in the barrier reef off of Ambergris Caye.
The park, which originated in 1987, is approximately four miles (6.4 kilometers) south of San Pedro Ambergris Caye and is the single most popular day trip from San Pedro, perfect for snorkeling or diving. There is no anchoring; only tying off to mooring buoys. Touching fish and coral is prohibited. These rules help maintain unspoiled snorkeling and diving environment. The depth is only about 30 feet. The area current is strong but definitely worth the challenge as schools of grouper, snapper and barracuda are frequently sighted along the walls.
Shark Ray Alley
Shark Ray Alley is located just one mile south of the Hol Chan cut and considered to be a part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Once a place where fishermen would clean their catches naturally attracting sting rays and nurse sharks. Shark Ray Alley is now an attraction that offers you the rare opportunity to snorkel beside incredible marine life. Snorkelers have the ability to get up close and personal with the sting rays and nurse sharks, allowing for an experience – or photo opportunity – of a lifetime.
Three of the four true coral atolls in the Western Hemisphere are found on the edge of the Belize barrier reef – Turneffe, Lighthouse and Glover’s. Here, snorkelers and divers take in a rainbow of magnificent colors found on the atolls’ shallow coral gardens and plunging walls.
The Turneffe Islands Atoll is located 25 miles from Belize City, and contains countless cayes, mangrove forests and a shallow lagoon with a maze of channels. Strong currents pull in schools of grunt, grouper, permit, snapper and jack, while hawksbill and loggerhead turtles, eagle rays and hammerhead sharks await divers at the Elbow, the area’s ultimate wall dive.
Spectacular diving is found at the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, which is known for its famous Blue Hole, plunging 410 feet. Here, southern stingrays and majestic eagle rays tend to travel in fighter-squadron formations, and divers often find themselves face-to-face with manta rays in flight.
Because of enforced fishing restrictions, large grouper and other fish not usually seen are encountered by divers. Glover’s Reef Atoll harbors a shallow lagoon with brilliant coral patches. If you are lucky, you will catch a glimpse of green razorfish hovering, or camouflaged batfish suspended in anticipation of unsuspecting prey. Beyond the atoll, a true underwater playground awaits divers complete with numerous shipwrecks and 50 miles of drop-offs. From the beach, sand gently slopes down and ends hurriedly at a fantastic ridge of coral, pierced by canyons and impressive tunnels.
South Water Caye Marine Reserve
The largest marine reserve in the country, this gorgeous stretch from Hopkins to the Sittee River lures more divers each year, who choose to lodge in the area for quick access to the stunning cayes that dot the shallows.
Idyllic South Water Caye sits perched atop the main reef, and a nearby underwater cave named “Hell Hole” awaits exploration with a mouth 10 to 15 feet wide. The walls and ledges of the wondrous cave display a wealth of stalactites and stalagmites, which eagle rays, moray eels, dolphins, rock snappers and smaller fish call home. The marine life and reef in this area have been extensively studied by the Smithsonian Institute, which has a research facility on Carrie Bow Caye for the past 30 years. Tobacco Caye and Tobacco Range, located a few miles north, host the elusive nocturnal squirrelfish and other exotic marine life.
Due east of Placencia, Gladden Spit is traditionally known for the massive whale sharks that divers encounter in this natural marine spawning ground, located along the southern barrier reef.
Whale shark sightings in this area are virtually guaranteed during the months of March, April and May, but have been reported throughout the fall and winter as well. Laughing Bird Caye National Park, a protected area encompassing more than 10,000 acres of sea, is a popular day trip from Placencia and it is clear as to why. Quaint pristine beaches populated with swaying trees sandy shallow swimming areas with magnificent diving and snorkeling are a few of the elements that create this picturesque destination, making for a true Caribbean escape. Private yachts and kayaks also visit this area frequently to enjoy the natural attraction, as a cut which lies directly through the center of the caye provides a one-of-a-kind diving experience.
Port Honduras Marine Reserve
Seven of Belize’s jungle rivers flow into this reserve which stretches across 160 square miles of costal Caribbean Sea, and includes 135 small mangrove islands. Due in large part to the regulation of fishing in the reserve by TIDE (Toledo Institute for Development and Environment), a local environmental group, the marine population has flourished and the area serves as a habitat for various endangered species, including the West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus), and is also one of the most important fish nurseries in the Caribbean.
Sapodilla Caye Marine Reserve
Approximately 40 miles east of Punta Gorda lies the Sapodilla Caye Marine Reserve, a 48- square-mile preserved area of reef, sand and mangrove cayes. The shallow water reefs around the outside of the reserve make the area great for snorkeling, as it often is not deeper than 15 feet. Schools of jack and spadefish frequent the outer reefs, while close to the bottom divers can find angelfish, parrot fish and snappers. The spectacularly clear waters through the lagoon area, characterized by silt, sand and shallow seagrass beds in the middle of the reserve, make the spot ideal for viewing the pristine reefs of lettuce coral, sponge and algae that grow throughout.
Belize provides only a few wreck dive opportunities because many wrecked ships actually are lodged atop the reef system above water instead of below. Just remember—anything you find of value belongs to the state and cannot be kept.
HMS Advice (Turneffe Atoll): The wreck of a British naval cutter, which sunk to 16 feet on June 1, 1793.
Sayonara (Turneffe Atoll): Former transport boat sits at 45 feet below the surface.