The Underwater Beauty of BelizeNov 16, 2022 12:58PM ● By Glenn Ostle
Belize has always been known as a scuba diver’s paradise, and for good reason. With its huge schools of fish and bright healthy corals that stretch along the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere and the second largest in the world, there’s a chance to see things here that simply amaze.
Located on the northeastern coast of Central America, the small country of Belize borders Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west and south, and the Caribbean Sea to the east. Its barrier reef, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, is composed of seven protected marine areas. Best known among divers is the Great Blue Hole, a giant circular marine sinkhole in the center of Lighthouse Reef. Measuring 1,000 feet across and more than 400 feet deep, it contains gigantic stalactites and stalagmites and is so spectacular that underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau once declared it one of the top five scuba diving sites in the world.
Off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye, the largest of some 200 islands that dot the coastline of Belize, and about four miles southeast of the city of San Pedro, is Hol Chan, one of Belize's oldest and smallest marine reserves. Hol Chan is a Mayan term meaning little channel, which is an appropriate name for an area focused entirely around a cut in the reef that separates open ocean from calmer shallow waters, and that is only about 75 feet wide and 30 feet deep. Despite its small size, the reserve is a shining example of what a novel conservation effort can achieve.
The reserve was established in 1987 out of concern over the high level of uncontrolled, often destructive fishing and diving activities in the area that had depleted many of the fish stocks and damaged the corals. Its new status and clear guidelines have allowed the area to recover, and it is now one of the most dived and snorkeled sites in Belize. The area is tightly controlled, and every boat arriving has to stop at a checkpoint to pay an entrance fee.
Our visit began just in front of the cut in the reef. By free diving in the shallow and deeper areas, we were able to swim close to turtles feeding on eel grass, view lush coral heads, and swim through large schools of fish.
While snorkeling, we made a mental note that this would be a great place to scuba dive. Our boat captain agreed and said that many divers just plant themselves in front of the cut and wait to see what swims through from the open ocean, such as large groups of eagle rays that regularly glide in and out.
After our free diving, the captain moved us to an area already crowded with boats. We soon found out why this particular site was so popular.
Known as Shark Ray Alley, it was added to the reserve in 1999 because of the large number of nurse sharks and southern stingrays that tend to congregate there. And congregate they do.
As boats pull up and tie off, they are soon surrounded by clouds of fish and groups of large nurse sharks. Our captain stirred up the action by tossing bits of food overboard, and it wasn’t long before the water boiled with a teeming mass of nurse sharks, fish, and people.
As divers, we were amazed to see so many nurse sharks in one place, and especially to see these normally timid and shy animals swimming over, under, and around one another, competing for food. I was able to swim right into the midst of the group and not one shark paid me any attention, although I was careful to keep my hands tucked into my armpits so that none of the sharks would mistakenly confuse them with bits of food floating in the water.
While we don’t ordinarily like seeing wild animals used for entertainment, we had to admit that the attraction of being able to swim safely with sharks and huge schools of fish is a novel way to generate a steady income, which is used to help monitor and maintain this remarkable place.
Because of its protected status and presence of amazing marine life, what was once a depleted fishing area has now been allowed to regenerate, providing an unparalleled diving/snorkeling experience for visitors, as well as an important refuge for marine life.
Glenn Ostle is a long-time contributor to TOTI publications. He and his partner, Pam Hadfield, reside in Charlotte, North Carolina, when they are not out traveling the world writing about and taking photos of wildlife on land and underwater. See more of their images at featherandfins.smugmug.com.