Diving in Belize
May 2004

Cedric Beust

General information

We landed in Belize City and took a small charter plane from there to Ambergris Caye (pronounced “key”), an island off the coast of the main land where most of the scuba diving in Belize takes place. The charter we took contained about fifteen people and is a great way to get an overview of the area (and of the plane’s dashboard as well).

Two airlines connect Belize City (main land) to San Pedro:  Mayan Island Airlines and Tropic.  We used Mayan Island and they forgot to load one of my bags on the way back, which was quite unfortunate.  The airstrip is pretty small so if you get a chance, make sure that all your bags get loaded on the plane to avoid this kind of problem...

Ambergris Caye is a small island whose main city, San Pedro, features streets that are covered by sand. The main transportation is golf carts and bicycles. It is quite underdeveloped although the modernity of some shops contrast starkly with the overall poor shape of the city. There are two Internet cafés there, which was quite a pleasant surprise (I recommend the Caribbean Connection, which is run by a couple of very nice Bulgarians. And they serve good coffee too).

The currency in Belize is the Belizean dollar, which equals to half a US dollar. In Ambergris Caye, both dollars are accepted at that rate but you will usually get your change in Belizean dollars unless you ask otherwise. English is the prevalent language but natives typically speak between themselves in Creole (although Spanish also seems fairly popular). The cuisine is a mix of Mexican, American and Caribbean and the restaurants offer prices ranging from $10 to $25 per person. You can also find a few holes in a wall that will serve you delicious tostadas for $2 or just buy grilled chicken from barbeques on the street for about that much.

One note of warning: it is not recommended to drink tap water in Belize. I am just repeating what I was told and it’s probably exaggerated a bit, but why take the risk of ruining your entire trip when you can stay on the safe side for a few extra dollars per day… Besides, this is an excellent excuse for cranking up your margarita consumption.

The main city in Ambergris Caye is San Pedro and even though the distances are pretty small, I recommend making sure your hotel is within a ten-minute walk from downtown. It gets really hot during the day and you will only want to beat the scorching streets for so long to get where the action is.

The first hotel we stayed at, Sunbreeze, is at the Southern part of the downtown area and at a walking distance from the airport (note that the airport is so tiny that noise from planes was never an issue).

We went through three different hotels during our stay (Sunbreeze, Aquamarina and Bayan Bay, which is further South from downtown), all of them quite adequate.

Despites its pronounced American influence, Belize borrows more from the European/Mexican lifestyle than the American one, so shops typically close during lunch, on Sundays and at 8pm. Even our hotel lobbies were closed at night with no phone number we could call after hours, so make sure you keep your key with you when you walk out at night.

We were disappointed to find out that there is pretty much no beach front in San Pedro at all. It’s a short sandy area bordered by hotel limits and piers. You will find a couple of volleyball courts, though, but don’t expect to set up a football game. The shallow water doesn’t lend itself to aquatic games either since its bottom is mostly covered by weeds right from the beach.

In spite of its isolated status, Ambergris Caye is very well supplied with all kinds of groceries and facilities, so you shouldn’t worry about finding basic items should you forget to have packed any. One glaring exception to this is underwater cameras: you will not find a disposable underwater camera capable of going under 55 feet on the island. Luckily, we had brought a 95-foot underwater camera with us, but if I had known, I would have bought a second one.

Once we settled in the hotel, we quickly registered with the dive shop to get an idea of what expects us. There are several packages you can get there, and the one we picked included ten dives (you are free to use them at your own pace; we typically dove twice a day to free our afternoon).

Some additional diving activities I recommend include:

I’ll address those in turn.

Diving

Ambergris Caye features a reef on its East Coast that is the second longest in the world (160 miles), right behind the Australian Great Barrier Reef. The reef can be seen from the shore thanks to the white crest of waves hitting it constantly (and the distinct change in color the sea takes beyond it). The boat ride to local dive sites is typically anywhere between ten and twenty-five minutes and operators will pick you up on the pier in front of your hotel, with all the gear that you rented and your tanks set up and ready to go.

You will pretty much be doing drift dives exclusively, although the current is softer than Cozumel. The dive profiles are fairly similar: the maximum depth is usually in the 90-100 feet range and features amazing corrals and swim throughs. The aquatic population is what you would expect in the Caribbean: nurse sharks, moray eels, turtles, various rays (which you can sometimes see directly from the pier, swimming lazily in two feet of water), etc…

The local dives I liked most are Cypress Gardens and Victoria Tunnel. Some of the others that we dove are: Tres Cocos, Esmeralda, Tuffy Canyon, Cypress Tunnel, etc…

The Blue Hole

There are two atolls southeast of Ambergris Caye: Turneffe Island and Lighthouse Reef , where the Blue Hole is located. It is a collapsed volcano situated sixty miles southeast of San Pedro and it was explored and made popular by Jacques-Yves Cousteau in the seventies.

The boat will pick you up at around 5:30am and it takes a couple of hours to get there, via Cayes Caulker, another small and uninteresting island south of Ambergris Caye.

The Blue Hole is about 1000 feet wide and 420 feet deep. The dive will take you to the maximum allowed depth for recreational diving: 130 feet. It is an advanced dive and not to be undertaken lightly.

The profile is as follows: you drop at thirty feet on a sandy bottom, which then slopes down at 45 degrees to the edge of the volcano. Then you drop along the wall and swim under until you reach 130 feet. The maximum bottom time for this dive is eight minutes, and the total dive time is about twenty-five minutes, including a five-minute safety stop (you will have two more dives to do on this excursion, hence the conservative figures).

The biggest problem on this dive is equalizing. Not only are you diving deep, but you are getting there fast, so if you tend to have equalizing problem, make sure you notify your divemaster early and he will take special care of you. However, if he fails to take you to the bottom with the rest of the group in time, you will be asked to surface and wait there. There is no unaccompanied diving in the Blue Hole.

If you make it down, you will be treated to the sight of impressive stalactites and stalagmites, which have accreted there for thousands of years before the crater collapsed. It’s the closest you can come to cave-diving without being cave-certified. Sea life is not absent, and you will see entire schools of Caribbean Reef sharks and also Bull sharks, which are quite different from the Nurse sharks we have seen so far.

Another note of caution: be aware of nitrogen narcosis. As in all dives below 100 feet, there is a distinct possibility of you suffering from this, and as a matter of fact, it happened to me during that dive. I was at 130 feet and I started feeling a bit “loopy”. I immediately ascended a few feet while trying hard to do so at a safe pace, but I can’t say I was very successful at that. The narcosis eventually subsided at 120 feet, which I made my new depth for the rest of the dive. Remember: nitrogen narcosis is not dangerous in itself, but it impairs your judgment and you might make a bad decision under its effect, the worst one being ascending too fast.

If you are not very experienced, I strongly recommend diving the blue hole in the strictest buddy terms: hold hands with your buddy and don’t let go. Make sure they are aware of the symptoms of nitrogen narcosis and that they won’t let you ascend too fast if you become intoxicated. If you respect these simple guidelines, you will enjoy your experience greatly and there is no doubt that these eight minutes inside the volcano will stay etched in your memory for a very long time.

After this dive, the boat will take you to two more locations in Half-Moon Caye for two beautiful wall dives towering above a 3000-foot deep abyss. Lunch will take place in an isolated island where a bird observatory has been set up, but where I actually enjoyed more looking at giant hermit crabs and iguanas…

You will be back in Ambergris Caye at around 5pm, ready to relax before celebrating your extreme diving with a few margaritas.

The Blue Hole excursion is not cheap but I definitely recommend it, not just for the first dive, but for the overall feeling of breaking away from Ambergris Caye, going on the open ocean for a few hours, diving walls (the second location was the best dive of the entire stay for me) and exploring islands lost in the middle of the ocean.

Night dive

Night diving takes places in Hol Chan Cut, which is one of the openings in the reef, south of San Pedro. It’s a shallow dive (no more than forty feet) and a great opportunity to see some unusual sea life. Even if you’ve never dived at night, be assured that it’s a fairly easy experience, and even though you won’t help feeling nervous in the first few minutes, all worries will soon dissipate once you have submerged and you resume your familiar patterns underwater.

You will find a lot of Eagle rays sleeping on the bottom, giving you a great opportunity to lie down on the sand and get a very close look at these amazing animals. I was also lucky to be treated to a Spotted Eel, which suddenly unfurled its colorful outstretched body right in front of me. It disappeared so fast that I blamed myself for not reacting quick enough, but luckily for me, it trapped itself in a corner of the reef, forcing itself to make its way back to me.

I was able to take a couple of pictures as it quickly snapped by, still giving me a pretty good view of its impressive row of teeth. Later, I also spotted a puffer fish (quite a funny fish to observe) and a small octopus, nested deep in a crack of the reef.

Ray Shark Alley

Fishermen used to dump their unused catches at this location, which quickly became a popular feeding ground for all kinds of sea life and in particular, Eagle rays and Nurse sharks. It is a snorkeling location mostly made of a sandy bottom, ideal to spend some surface time in-between dives. The rays are very friendly and you can safely touch them as long as you limit your contact to soft brushes (no wrestling or grabbing).

Hol Chan

Hol Chan is another snorkeling spot, not far from Ray Shark Alley, but its profile is a bit different: it’s a canyon that goes down to thirty feet featuring corals and reef similar to those you see scuba diving. The shallow depth will only allow you to see a fraction of what you see at sixty feet and deeper, but it’s a good way to give snorkelers a glimpse of what awaits them in the depths.

Lamanai

Lamanai is a Mayan site that was populated by natives between 2500 BC and 1800 AD. It is the longest pre-classic site recorded and its longevity can be attributed to its privileged location (by a river), which allowed it to outlast the many other sites that Belize has to offer, and which eventually declined because of malnutrition, droughts, etc…

Since Lamanai is on the main land, the trip to get there from Ambergris Caye is a long one, so the best way to enjoy this day-long excursion is to enjoy the journey as much as the visit of the ruins. The boat picks you up at 7am and it takes about one hour to reach the main land. You enter a river bordered by lush mangroves and the guide will most likely slow down to give you a chance to spot birds, bats and maybe crocodiles if you are lucky and if the waters are not too warm for them yet (which unfortunately is the case in May, so plan to go to Belize a few months earlier if you want to see crocodiles).

You travel on the river for about six miles and reach a remote village that doesn’t have running water nor electricity (they do have gift shops, of course). A bus is waiting for you there and it’s another hour on the unpaved roads of the Belizean back country until you reach another boat, which will cover the final leg of your trip to the ruins (approximately ninety minutes).

Lamanai features the tallest temple of all pre-classic sites: 100 feet (which, added to the 150 feet above the water the site is already at, gives you a breathtaking view of your surroundings if you can make it to the top). The climb is pretty steep, but it’s worth the work out.

Be aware that the temperature in the jungle will be a few degrees higher than what you experience in Ambergris Caye, and the moisture is guaranteed to make you sweat profusely during the tour. Make sure you stay hydrated and be ready for murderous onslaughts of mosquitoes, which will eat you alive unless you have come prepared.

Also, keep your camera ready at all time since the live jungle is a good stage for unexpected appearances of various animals. We spotted a family of hollering monkeys during the tour (which are pretty easy to lure with leaves). Tarantulas are also very common in the jungle and if your guide is experimented, he will easily nudge one out of its hiding for a quick snapshot (this is not for the faint of heart since your average tarantula spans six to eight inches, but they are absolutely harmless to humans and quite gorgeous animals).

Prices

Here are the prices we found at the time of this writing (May 2004), in US dollars:

These prices seem pretty much fixed for the entire city, and even some haggling didn’t bring them down, although it never hurts to try (it was more effective in Cozumel).


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