Belize: Diving the Great Maya Reef

For such a small country — 180 miles (288 km) north to south and 68 miles (109 km) wide, roughly the area of Massachusetts — Belize enjoys a sizeable reputation among scuba divers and knowledgeable travelers. It is best known among divers for its own Great Barrier Reef — second in size only to that in Australia and the largest in the Western hemisphere.

In addition to spectacular and varied diving, Belize also greets travelers with diverse topside attractions — ancient Maya temples, tropical rain forests, eco-resorts, exotic wildlife and active outdoor adventures.

Geography

Except for extensive coastal mangroves and the sandy, palm-fringed cayes, much of Belize is covered in lush jungle. The northern half of the mainland is comprised of a series of limestone ridges — the spines of ancient coral reefs. In the south the Maya Mountains and the Cockscomb Range rise to 3,680-foot- (1,115-m-) tall Victoria Peak.

Once a major source of logwood (for dye) and mahogany, today one-third of Belize’s 8,867 square miles (23,052 sq km) is designated a national park or protected area.

The coastal plain extends 15-24 miles (24-38 km) into the Caribbean, dropping off into dramatic walls at the outer edge of the barrier reef. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, the barrier reef extends along a fault line from southern Mexico, running south the entire length of the Belize coastline and on into Honduran waters. Outside the reef lie three of only four true atolls (i.e., the result of volcanic activity) in the Western hemisphere.

Human History

Archaeologists tell us that 13 centuries ago the Mayans flourished in the region. To date, evidence of more than 600 Mayan temples have been found within the borders of Belize, once supporting as many as 2 million people. By A.D. 1000, however, the great Mayan civilization had collapsed, the remnants of its population migrating north to the Yucatan.

As with much of the Caribbean, Christopher Columbus was the first known European to “discover” Belize. He didn’t even land there, however; he simply mentioned the lands bordering the Bay of Honduras in the journal of his 1502 voyage.

Although Belize was technically part of the famous “Spanish Main,” the Spaniards considered its hundreds of cayes (keys), offshore reefs and mangrove coastline dangerous for navigation and inhospitable for settlement. The area was largely unexplored until the 17th century.

In contrast, William Wallace, the notorious British pirate who preyed upon Spanish treasure ships, found Belize much to his liking. The cayes and reefs provided perfect cover for surprise attacks and safe getaways.

The first permanent settlement in Belize, the Honduras Bay Colony, was founded in 1638 by former pirates, shipwrecked British sailors and furloughed military personnel. Largely ignored by Britain, the colonists developed a democratic, town meeting-style of self-government.

Despite multiple treaties between Spain and Britain, throughout the 18th century Guatemala continued to claim sovereignty over Belize lands. It wasn’t until 1798 that the Battle of St. George’s Caye ended the Spanish claim.
Belize became a British Crown Colony in 1862 and was administratively separated from Jamaica in 1884. In 1970, after a hurricane devastated Belize City, the capital was moved to Belmopan in the center of the country. Despite its democratic heritage, the colony’s quest for independence progressed slowly. The nation’s name was changed to Belize in 1973 and full independence was finally granted in 1981.

Diving Belize

As opposed to a fringing reef, which hugs the shoreline, Belize’s barrier reef — and therefore its world-class diving — lies several miles off the mainland coast. The reef crest and the relatively shallow lagoon waters behind it are dotted with hundreds of cayes. These coral islands range from tiny islets to 25-mile- (40-km-) long Ambergris Caye, which dominates the northern section of the Belize barrier reef.

Ambergris Caye is just south of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, its seaward coast less than one mile (1.6 km) inside the barrier reef; San Pedro, at the south end of the caye, is only 36 miles (58 km) from Belize City. San Pedro’s proximity to the reef and easy accessibility by domestic airlines has helped it develop into the primary resort and diving destination in the country.

Off Ambergris the reef takes a classic spur and groove formation. Although there are great diving and snorkeling sites minutes by boat from shore, the feature attraction is Hol Chan Marine Reserve off the southern tip of Ambergris.

Designated in 1987, the reserve encompasses less than five square miles (13 sq km). Here you find Hol Chan (little channel), a narrow cut in the reef that promises thrilling encounters with nurse sharks and stingrays at Shark Ray Alley. Divers are required to pay a modest entry fee to the park.

A few miles south of Ambergris lies Caye Caulker. With access to the same dive sites, its small hotels contrast the tourist excitement of San Pedro with a laidback Caribbean ambience. Day trips from both northern cayes regularly visit the dive sites of the outer atolls.

The middle and southern sections of the barrier reef are primarily accessed from coastal towns such as Dangriga and Placencia, which require a continued journey by air or road from Belize City. Because of this, these sections of the barrier reef attract fewer visits from divers.

Land-based dive operations and the occasional live-aboard visit Glovers Reef and several small marine reserves such as Sapodilla Cayes. The entire range of Belize diving is represented there: spur and groove formations, buttress walls and shallow reef flats. Dive depths range from less than 40 feet (12 m) to beyond the recreational diving maximum.

Glovers Reef is a treat for divers on the southern itinerary of live-aboard dive boats that ply the waters of Belize. Only six tiny cayes break the surface of this southernmost of the three atolls. Moorings have not been installed here, as a mild to swift current is common. Live-boat drift dives are the norm. On the northwest side of Glovers a sandy patch reef slopes quickly from near the surface to the wall at 60 feet (18 m).

Highlights of any dive trip to Belize are the northern atolls — Turneffe Islands and Lighthouse Reef. Turneffe and Glovers top one undersea ridge and Lighthouse sits atop a more easterly ridge.

Turneffe, only 19 miles (30 km) from the mainland, extends 30 miles (48 km) north to south, forming a ring of more than 200 islets. Since the ever-present trade winds blow from the northeast, most of the dive sites are along the western reef slope. Moorings range from 40- to 65-foot (12- to 20-m) depths with walls cresting at 60-75 feet (18-23 m).

The most well-known Belize dive sites are at Lighthouse Reef, including the famous Blue Hole. Surrounded by a circle of coral, the underwater sinkhole plunges to more than 400 feet (121 m). Below 120 feet (36 m) the hole opens up into an undercut cavern, complete with massive stalactites hanging from the ceiling.

To fully appreciate the spectacle the guided dive is conducted to 140 feet (42 m). Since this is beyond the recreational diving limit, excellent scuba skills and an orientation are necessary and consequently not all dive operators visit the site.

Lighthouse Reef dive sites are known for their spectacular walls that start between 40 and 50 feet (12 and 15 m) in high profile, overhanging buttresses riddled with convoluted swim-throughs. On top of the walls patch reefs and grass beds slope gradually to 20 feet (6 m) or less, allowing divers to continue exploring while completing safety stops.

Year-round water temperatures in Belize vary between the high 70s and mid-80s Fahrenheit (mid- to high 20s Celsius). Visibility is rarely less than 60 feet (18 m) and can reach more than 100 feet (30 m).

Moorings have been placed at dozens of the most popular dive sites to prevent anchor damage.

In addition to reefs with a healthy variety of hard coral, gorgonians and sponges, divers come to Belize for the nonsessile marine life — and it doesn’t disappoint. Common sightings: Queen, French and gray angels, reef sharks, endless streams of creole wrasse, clouds of blue chromis, silvery tarpon, queen triggerfish and all manner of bottom dwellers, parrotfish and macro critters.

Hawksbill turtles chew sponges without fear of divers and schools of crevalle and horse-eye jacks swirl beneath the dive boats under the watchful eyes of patrolling barracudas and massive Nassau and black groupers. Dozens of live conch populate the grass beds and night dives bring out eels, octopus, squid and crabs.

Land-based Activities

A trip to Belize would not be complete without sampling some of the diverse above-water attractions.

Dive trips to Lighthouse Reef often offer guests the opportunity to go on shore to the Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, with its picturesque lighthouse. A jungle path leads to a viewing platform at treetop level for close encounters with nesting red-footed boobies and frigate birds. A U.S. $10 park fee is charged.

Belize City is a central jumping-off point for mainland tours to several partially excavated and restored Mayan temples, such as Lamanai, Altun Ha and Xunantunich (zoo-NAN-toon-itch). There are caves for exploring, rivers for rafting, mountains for hiking and spas for relaxing. Freshwater and ocean fishing are popular vacation activities.

For animal lovers, in the south is the 5,000-acre (2,000-hectare) Cockscomb Basin Wildlife preserve, noted for a variety of rare animals in addition to the endangered jaguar. The Baboon sanctuary actually supports a significant population of howler monkeys. With more than 500 species of native and migratory birds, the country, especially the wetlands of the north, is a birder’s dream.

Story and photos by Linda Lee Walden and Lynn Laymon