diving in belize
Nassau Grouper by Chris Watt

When it comes to picturesque locations for diving, Belize is right up there. It’s the second least populated nation in Central America, found between Mexico and Guatemala. This little place has everything for the diver and for anyone who’s looking for more than just adventure under the water.

Full of exploration, adventure and relaxation, with its fair amount of romance above and below the water, Belize has a place in the top dive sites and destinations worldwide.

Belize is made up of over 400 islands and unbeknownst to some has the longest ‘unbroken’ barrier reef in the western hemisphere, with a coastline that is over 180 miles long of pristine white sandy beaches, you have plenty of options of where to relax after a long dive.

Belize itself was home to the Mayans, and there are many historical Mayan ruins to explore along with treks through the rainforests themselves and cave tubing to boot. So for divers and families, this is a bucket-list destination.

Top 7 Dive Sites on your Belize Bucket List

The Barrier Reef

belize turtleAs I mentioned above Belize is home to that enormous ‘unbroken’ barrier reef stretching the entire length of the countries coastline, giving divers a plethora of reef to explore.

Choose a tour company that can provide you with diving opportunities in the deep coral canyons. These consists of Brain, Staghorn and Elkhorn corals, simply stunning viewing.

It’s common to start from shallow water and descent to around 30 meters. The area is full of White Spotted Toadfish, widespread in these waters, also reef sharks, turtles and a plethora of tropical fish.

The Blue Hole

blue hole belizeFor divers around the world, this is the signature dive. And should already be on the bucket list. The hole itself spans over 300 meters in diameter and is around 140 meters deep of an almost perfectly round hole.

The journey out is not long from many of the cayes. Be prepared for a deep dive though, and follow your instructor or guide. Usually descending to 40 meters at the start, you’ll get to see and explore the stalactites on the cavern ceiling. Usually dive time is around eight minutes before you start to ascent up the wall into the transition of freshwater and salt water. This is where you’ll have company in the shape of reef and bull sharks enhancing the experience. Apart from the dive itself, helicopter rides are common and used by many tourists to get a bird’s eye view, quite breathtaking as you can see in the image.

Ambergris Caye

With numerous dive locations throughout the country, Ambergris Caye is all about location. With it being the largest of the cayes on the coast, it’s just a short plane ride from Belize City and is closest to the Belize Barrier reef that you’ll get to.

From the dock it’s a short journey out to the Caye where you will dive into the deep coral formations which help to shelter the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

Hol Chan Marine Reserve

In the Mayan language, Hol Chan means ‘little channel’ referring to the crack in the reef, off of Ambergris Caye.

It is an ideal access point for the dive sites outside of the reef and in the reserve. The authorities do a good job in patrolling and protecting the marine park, and it flourishes due to this, with prevention of anchoring and fishing the numbers of marine life are plentiful.

You will be captivated by the Elkhorn Corals, this may only be small 10-meter deep crack, but it’s worth the visit. Something noteworthy is the strong currents lead to schools of grouper, also plentiful are barracuda, snapper and jacks in the area.

Shark Ray Alley

If you are in a group or with family that are non-divers, this is an ideal location to ditch the diving equipment and put on the fins and the snorkel.

The Alley is a sand plateau, pretty shallow, known where the fisherman generally clean their catch before taking it to market, so there’s plenty of guts and chum in the water which naturally attracts many species of fish and sharks to the area to feed. Stingrays and nurse sharks are plentiful and offer great photo opportunities.

The Atolls

Once you leave the reef you’ll hit Turneffe, Glover’s and Lighthouse, three of these being three out of four of the western hemisphere’s true coral atolls.

There a few dive lodges around on small pockets of dry land. If you’re looking for nothing but diving and no-one around then, these are the spots for you.
The drop-offs are stunning some as deep as 1000 meters into the abyss. There is everything on offer from shallow coral scenery to towering pinnacles all in the midst of canyons and vertical walls.

Turneffe is the largest and closest out of the Atolls to the mainland, journey time being less than an hour. On the southern tip of the Turneffe Atoll is one of Belize’s best dive sites, called the Elbow, due to the prominent twist in the coral, another Belize must-see.

The Lighthouse reef is further out than the others, encircling a 30-mile long lagoon which is inclusive of the above mentioned Blue Hole.

Glover’s is by far the most remote of the Atolls and subsequently is the least visited, which for some people may be the attraction as at least 40-50 miles of the fringe of the reef is untouched, so expect vivid coloured coral and plentiful marine life.

Whale Sharks

No, Whales Sharks are not the name of a dive location. However, you should try to add a whale shark experience to your itinerary while in Belize.

Getting to swim alongside the largest fish in the sea is a big thrill and attraction on the island. The best time to guarantee an encounter with these gentle giants is between April to June when they are plentiful in the area.

At this time of year around 25 other species of fish are in their spawning cycle and although we associate whale sharks as pure plankton feeders the eggs of the Cubera snapper are a tasty meal they can’t get enough of, providing them with an abundant food source. Gladden Spit is the location to get up and close to them, also great for a family experience as they are curious and often approach boats and divers alike.

Don’t Miss Diving Belize

In this tiny island in a remote part of the world await an all-around experience only matched by a handful of places on earth. For a diver, it is a must on your bucket-list and for those who never considered it you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the wonder and beauty that awaits you in Belize. Enjoy.


Pat MoresbyPat Moresby is a veteran blogger with a life-long love of global travel and adventure, and he has been Diving Whitsundays with Whitsundayssailingadventures and loves to share his experiences.

We love maps and photos that show different perspectives on the location of our island, Long Caye. This satellite photo, taken in May 2001, shows Glover’s Reef (indicated by the red arrow, which specifically points to the location of Long Caye on the outside edge of the atoll) outside the main barrier reef off the coastline of Belize (indicated by the thin yellow line).

National Geographic Magazine’s October issue highlights the beauty of Belize’s Great Barrier Reef which, along with Glover’s Reef Atoll, is part of the same reef system – the Mesoamerican Reef.

The Mesoamerican Reef, described in the article as “half the length of its famous Australian counterpart but in many ways more remarkable,” contains Belize’s Great Barrier Reef, one of the country’s most remarkable – and most fragile, geological assets. This fragility and the interplay between coral, mangrove and marine life is beautifully described in words and images, he said.

Past editions of National Geographic have highlighted parts of Belize’s sacred Maya cave system and the region’s Maya culture. Mr Fleming said that along with Jacques Cousteau, National Geographic was instrumental in bringing attention to Belize’s Blue Hole, which has become one of the world’s most valued dive spots and now enjoys a higher level of environmental protection.

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/business/prweb/article/Belize-s-Beauty-Again-Featured-in-National-3900559.php#ixzz29UwSym3W

Actor Ted Danson, (Cheers, Becker, Curb Your Enthusiasm) posted an informative article on the Huffington Post today detailing the struggle in Belize to save the Belize Barrier Reef (and offshore atolls like Glover’s Reef) from the potential dangers imposed by offshore drilling. Danson writes:

In Belize, thousands of citizens are in an uproar about the government’s determination to drill for offshore oil. The government, represented by Prime Minister Dean Barrow, was just narrowly re-elected – but despite a clear message from the people, it continues to ignore the significant outcry against offshore drilling.

A petition calling for a national referendum on the question collected 20,000 signatures, a full 10% of the voting population and a larger sampling than the law requires in order to trigger a vote. But the government disqualified 8,000 of the signatures and has continued to refuse to budge from its pro-offshore drilling stance. Danson concludes his piece by calling upon citizens everywhere to become involved:

The love and concern for Belize’s reef reaches far beyond the country lines. There are countless people from all over the world who have developed a special connection to this breathtaking country after swimming in its lovely waters or diving in its reef – all thanks to its pristine natural resources. We all hope the government, which loves Belize’s barrier reef like we do, will hear the concerns of the people in Belize and around the world and ban offshore oil drilling in Belize’s waters to help protect its barrier reef and its natural heritage.

Melanie Mcfield is the Director of the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative and wrote this stellar article for Destination Belize Magazine, which begins by talking about Glover’s Reef. In the photo below, the three atolls of Belize, clockwise from left, are Turneffe Islands, Lighthouse Reef, Glover’s Reef. Our private island, Long Caye, is located at Glover’s Reef.

The three atolls of Belize

Charles Darwin didn’t actually visit Belize’s reef, but after talking to other naturalists who had, he described it as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies” in his 1842 book, Coral Reefs of the World. Among his many accomplishments, Darwin is credited with unlocking many of the mysteries of coral reef development, evolution and atoll formation. Atolls in the Pacific Ocean are believed to have formed when volcanic islands sank into the sea, leaving just a rim of growing coral near the surface. Atolls in the Western Caribbean are thought to have a different history. Many scientists believe these circular rims of coral are actually growing to keep pace with rising seas. Belize’s atolls are living, breathing coral reefecosystems—each with a unique history and a unique character.

Glovers Reef, Lighthouse Reef and Turneffe Reef are three of the four such coral structures in the Northwest Caribbean; the fourth is located near Banco Chinchorro in Mexico. The atolls rise deep from the seabed, beyond the more familiar continental shelf demarcated by the barrier reef. They are each constructed on foundations of Pleistocene limestone ridges that lie on submerged tectonic faults running in a Northeast direction.

Glovers Reef is the oldest (~7,500 yrs) with the best circular shape, a well developed coral rim and the deepest inner lagoon (18m deep) containing over eight hundred patch reefs scattered throughout. A few sandy cayes make up a land surface of only 0.2% of its total size of approximately one hundred and sixty square miles. Although it is ‘oceanic’ in character with clean clear waters, Glovers is occasionally affected by large river runoff events from the large Honduran rivers to the south. The entire atoll is a marine reserve and is one of the crown jewels comprising Belize’s World Heritage Site. The islands are all privately owned but Middle Caye was donated to the Wildlife Conservation Society and now serves as the headquarters of the reserve and an active marine research station. Glovers Reef has the largest remaining Nassau grouper spawning aggregation site… (read the full article here).

To learn more about the formation of Glover’s Reef Atoll, visit our website.

I left Moab at 6:30 am this morning and drove to Grand Junction, Colorado. “Junction” is the big city to us. Moabites go there to see doctors and buy stuff. Today I finalized our color Belize brochure for printing. (It is already available to download from our home page.) When I return from Belize a week from today, I get to pick up a few boxes of them on my way home. We won’t do the big mailing until September, when everyone really starts thinking about their winter vacation.

I’ve never been to Belize in July. Years ago I went in August. This was when Cully and I flew down to look at Northeast Caye at Glover’s Reef to see if we wanted to rent it. It was something like 1992; I was around 36, which would make him 41 at the time. We stayed with the Lomonts at their resort on Long Caye (the island we now own) and they took us over to NE Caye to look at it. It was abandoned… it had just four semi-run-down buildings which we later fixed up. We took one look at it and said ‘we’ll take it.’ It was a huge change, from camping for free on islands on the southern Barrier Reef (Laughing Bird Caye, Silk Cayes, Pumpkin Caye and Ranguana Caye) to paying $5000/month. But it was our OWN ISLAND. What an amazing thing… we never regretted it.

I remember sitting on the porch of what is now our #11, watching a humongous thunderstorm over Honduras. The mountains there are very high, and my memory is we could see their silhouette in the lightning flashes. I wonder if we really could? I’ll have to ask Cully if he remembers that too.

So I am curious to see Belize in July. The forecast is Scattered T-Storms, Scattered T-Storms, Scattered T-Storms. Maybe I’d better go shop some more and find a good travel umbrella.

The reason I am going at this peculiar time of year is to take a travel agent tour. The Belize Tourist Board is hosting a ‘Fam’ tour for ‘Priority Wholesalers’, and oddly enough, they targeted me as one. In 5 days 12 of us are going to tour 28 hotels! We will stay each night in a different part of Belize: San Ignacio, then Mountain Pine Ridge, Placencia, Hopkins, and finally Ambergris Caye. Along the way we will supposedly also have time to also tour Cahal Pech Mayan ruin and go snorkeling at Shark Ray Alley off Ambergris. I hope we survive it.

I am really looking forward to meeting the other travel professionals on the tour. When you live in Moab but run a business in Belize, you don’t get to talk shop with anyone, ever.

I’ve learned one thing already and I am not even to Belize yet. When you have been avoiding getting a smart phone and you finally decide to make that leap, from simple texting and talking and saving contacts to typing on a virtual pad and accidentally putting your phone in airplane mode and downloading apps and syncing your email… DON’T do it the day before you leave for a big trip when you are dependent on the phone. The learning curve is astronomical! I have been stopping at every Verizon store I see to corner unsuspecting clerks. Once I get to Belize there’s no Verizon store, so I guess I’ll have to break down and open the book that comes with it.

A coral reef in the sea is like an oasis in the desert. Tropical seas are poor in nutrients and devoid of shelter, but the reef teems with life. Food for sea life is found there in the form of algae and small fish and crustaceans for larger fish to eat. Protection for sea life is also provided in the form of elaborate architecture that provides shelter from both wave action and from predators. The result of this oasis is the world’s oldest ecosystem and what may be the most complex animal and plant community on earth, rivaled only by the tropical rainforest. The coral ecosystem encourages the evolution of organisms that have become highly specialized. Coral reefs probably support a larger number of animal and plant species than any other ecosystem in the world.

Coral PolypWhat accounts for the abundance of food and shelter in the midst of an ocean deficient in food? How can food and shelter be manufactured out of what appears to be nothing? The answer is primarily the coral polyp. The coral polyp is a small, simple animal that produces a stony skeleton and forms colonies with adjoining polyps. Together the linked skeletons can result in a colony weighing many tons and occupying dozens of cubic feet of space. Neighboring colonies form reefs that may extend for hundreds of miles. Coral is a living invertebrate and flourishes in warm, tropical waters. By drawing calcium carbonate from seawater, they build skeletal structures in an infinite variety of shapes and sizes. Because hard corals form the foundation for all of the tropical reefs of the world, they are considered to be the most significant invertebrates in warm, shallow seas.

But the polyp cannot by itself create and supply with food the inhabitants of the tropical reef. Left alone a coral polyp grows too slowly to build, and after a hurricane to rebuild, a large reef. Since a polyp is an animal it consumes food but does not create it except for the few fish that eat coral.

The key to the ability of polyps to be productive, shallow water reef builders and food suppliers lies within the fact that the coral polyps live in a close symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with a plant, an algae called zooxanthellae (zoh-zan-THELL-ee), that lives within the tissues of the polyps. Using photosynthesis, the zooxanthellae take the polyp’s wastes and convert them into nutrients and oxygen for the polyps. Also, since polyps are animals they do not require light and do not need to live near the surface of the ocean. Reefs built by polyps alone would be smaller than those we see at Glover’s Reef, and they might well exist at great depths where we would never see them (some corals have been found at depths of 18,000 feet.) Because the zooxanthellae are plants, they require sunlight for photosynthesis. As a result, reef-building corals flourish only in shallow tropical waters. Zooxanthellae also promote calcification. A coral skeleton will grow 14 times faster in sunlight than in darkness. The reef wall of Glover’s Reef is at least a million years old.

The presence of the zooxanthellae within the tissue of the coral polyp was not discovered until after WWII. The discovery solved a great mystery. All food chains are build on a foundation of plants which produce energy and food for animals. However, plant life was thought to be lacking in tropical reef communities. Without the availability of plentiful food for organisms on the lower end of the food chain, scientists were unable to explain how coral reef ecosystems supported themselves. The discovery of enormous quantities of microscopic zooxanthellae enabled scientists to understand how coral reef ecosystems are able to flourish. Zooxanthellae are so numerous that in some instances the biomass of zooxanthellae comprise as much as 80 percent of the total weight of the coral polyps.

Coral reefs are composed of numerous individual coral polyps, which form immense colonies. As larvae, polyps initially swim freely; this is how they spread out to form new colonies. In order to begin formation of a coral head, the coral has to attach to an existing rock beneath the surface of the water. The polyp is pushed up as it builds and its’ calcium carbonate secretions harden. It then remains on the surface of the skeleton it has created. When an old polyp dies, the living polyps remain attach to its skeleton, continually growing. The living part of the polyp is composed of small tentacles that move continually, collecting minute plankton to provide the coral animal with food. Most corals feed at night but a few, like pillar coral, feed during the day. If they are feeding and you look closely, you can see each individual tentacle waving gently in the current. A coral reef is build by billions upon billions of individual coral polyps.

Although each polyp is an individual animal that can survive by itself, the usual mode of life is communal. Colonies of polyps are interconnected by a horizontal sheet of tissue that connects their body walls. Through this connective tissue they can share food. Digested nutrients can be passed throughout the community.

Corals reproduce and spread in three ways: (1)asexually (2)sexually, and (3)regeneration.
1. Asexual reproduction: Corals grow by budding polyps that are arranged in patterns according to their species. Buds form from the oral disks, the area around their mouths, which gradually lengthen out and divide to make two individuals. In brain corals,, the two individuals never completely separate, their rows of polyps all arise from a single, shared dish that becomes a convoluted trench, hence its’ brain-like appearance.
2. Sexual reproduction: Eggs and sperm develop in the stomach walls of the polyps. Waterborne sperm, released through the polyp mouth, are drawn inside other polyps. Eggs are fertilized internally, develop briefly, and then leave the parent as a free-swimming larvae. The timing of this spawning is seasonally rather than constantly. Each larvae carries with it some of its’ parents zooxanthellae and a built-in preference for the proper substrate. The larvae that survive settle after a few days or weeks, attach to an appropriate hard surface, forming a new coral colony.
3. Regeneration: Pieces of coral that break off in a storm drift about and, if they land properly and the piece is big enough, continue growing to form a new colony.

The reef does not always build up, however. Hurricanes destroy reefs, and animals like parrotfish transform hard corals into sand as they feed. However, competition between the different species for space is fierce and destroyed reef is not likely to go unoccupied for long.

Common star coral is one of the Atlantic’s principle reef builders. It grows in massive boulder-shaped heads. A young one, 2 feet square, will already be the basis of an infant patch reef, harboring a few small fishes and invertebrates. Growing at an average rate of 10 millimeters in diameter a year, a single colony may attain a diameter of 15 feet wide and 9 feet high. Such a coral head would be 4-500 years old. A 1973 census of a medium size patch reef 7.5 feet in diameter located off the Bimini Islands yielded 563 fishes of 39 species.

Over 70 species of coral occur in the Caribbean. Corals are divided into 2 categories: Hard, or Reef-Building, and Soft, or Non-Reef-Building. The hard corals are responsible for laying down the structural foundation of the reef, which provides fish habitat and is therefore the basis for the success of the ecosystem. Soft corals provide fish habitat also, but do not build the reef for future generations. The important reef-building corals are Staghorn, Elkhorn and Star Corals. ther hard corals that don’t contribute quite as much toward the long-standing physical structure of the reef are Brain, Pitted, Finger and Pillar Corals, to name a few.

Nowhere else in the Western Hemisphere is there a coral reef ecosystem comparable to the one in Belize for its size, unique array of reef types and luxuriance of corals thriving in such a pristine condition.

What do we do, as visitors, to help preserve the reef at Glover’s Atoll? Belize is one of the few places left where there is a chance to avoid ravaging resources and instead to engender a hallmark of responsible stewardship of this unique barrier reef ecosystem. Glover’s is the richest and least spoiled reef eco-system in the Western Hemisphere, and the Belize government recognized this by designating it a National Marine Reserve. Every visitor has to help to keep it pristine.

Just because coral colonies appear rugged does not mean that they are not delicate. Severe damage does not require a direct hit with a boat anchor. All it takes is a kick from a fin to harm generation of living polyps. Many species of hard corals secrete a layer of mucus that helps to protect the coral. This layer is removed when you touch it, exposing the coral to a wide variety of environmental threats.

Human-induced disturbances introduce artificial stresses into the environment by altering the ecological conditions to which corals have adapted. The principal methods by which corals have been degraded or destroyed are: Direct breakage, asphyxiation by excessive sedimentation (sediment gets stuck in the mucus layer and the coral cannot breathe), chemical contamination of polyps and unnaturally elevated water temperatures. These processes are accelerated by various kinds of development such as urban, industrial, agricultural, shipping and fishing; but tourism also plays a role in exacerbating destructive forces to the corals.

What we can individually do to minimize our impact on the coral reef? Do not touch any coral in any way, including standing on them, or bumping into them. Do not wear gloves. Gloves encourage people to touch the coral. Touching a coral injures its tissues, thus subjecting the corals to invasion and infection. When in a shallow area, try not to kick near the ocean floor. Any stirred up sand can land on the coral and suffocate the individual polyps. Even exhalation bubbles from a snorkel can harm the coral! Tie anchors to dead coral only. Never collect any live corals. Kindly correct others you see who may not be as knowledgeable as you are.