Belize gets rave reviews from the
world’s 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 mynext dive destination a whirl of
media hype should surface around this
small but vibrant Central American
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
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
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
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
Pictured: Exploring Half
Moon Caye wall.
Belize_Layout 1 05/08/2013 11:22 Page 47
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
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
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
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
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
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
With so many spectacular sites, the
boat rarely had to move far during our
week of diving. What follows are a few of
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
Above: Belize Aggressor III.
Inset: The saloon is
spacious and comfortable.
Below: A coney.
Belize_Layout 1 05/08/2013 11:24 Page 48
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. ☛
Pictured: Barrel sponge
at Silver Caves.
Belize_Layout 1 05/08/2013 11:25 Page 49
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
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 13