A Few Days in The Belizean Cayes

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Just east of both Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulkner is the famous Belizean Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world, after Australia’s Barrier Reef. Its coral surface rises above the water like a long, snaking ridge. Outside, the reef gently slopes down, unveiling many shallow-water corals and an abundance of gorgonians. The sloping shelf is dramatically cut with deep cracks and crevices winding to the reef’s outer edge, where a great wall drops into the depths of the sea.

Jacques Cousteau came to Belize during the late 1980s to explore Belize’s offshore atolls and its celebrated Blue Hole. These three immense rings of coral and the acclaimed Blue Hole lie east of the mainland outside the reef. The uniqueness of the Blue Hole and the massive size of the atolls have attracted many divers over the years. The waters surrounding these reefs hosts healthy coral and an abundance of exotic marine life.

The most popular of all cayes in Belize is Ambergris Caye. Offshore and Northeast of Belize City, the long, slender caye is dotted with resorts of all shapes and sizes. The caye is a prime destination for dive travelers and watersports enthusiasts. Dive operators can be found up and down the caye and day-trips and overnight excursions to the Blue Hole, Lighthouse Reef and Turneffe Islands depart from Ambergriss Caye on a regular basis.

The main town on Ambergris caye is San Pedro Town. It is a mile or so long and encompasses only a few street blocks. Most of the houses are wooden with tin-roofed houses. San Pedro town is the heart of Ambergris Caye and offers a wide range of restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and banks. Everything in Ambergris Caye is only a hop, skip & a jump away including the “airport” which is really only a small building with an airstrip.

The main means of transportation are golf carts. Bicycles, scooters, and some cars and vans are also available. The streets are sandy and unpaved so be sure to leave your fancy clothes and high heel shoes at home. There are no traffic lights, no freeways or highways, and no high rise buildings on Ambergris and the atmosphere is very low key and relaxing.

Dive Center

I dove with Amigos del Mar, a well-known dive center in San Pedro. Their shop and dive boats are located on their own pier near the Mayan Princess Hotel in the center of town. They are easily spotted by the logo on the roof.

First thing you notice when you step on their premises is their professionalism. The shop is large, clean and airy, the boats looks shiny and fast and the service is swift and friendly. They are clearly a well organized dive operation.

We were all psyched to go to the Blue Hole immediately but when we checked in at the counter it turned out we had to sign up for a day of “check-out” dives, meaning local dives around Ambergris Caye first before being allowed to make the trek to the famous Blue Hole. The Blue Hole is a deep dive and not recommended for novice divers. Amigos del Mar wants to determine your dive level before they take the risk and rightfully so.

Dive Sites

We returned to the dive shop the next morning at 9 am to see what “local diving” around Ambergris Cay was all about. After a five minute boat ride (all the boats of Amigos del Mar are super fast!) we jumped in the water and were immediately greeted by nurse sharks! I wasn’t quite sure how to react as I’d never been so close to so many of them. They were obviously expecting us and seemed pretty harmless, just waiting to be fed. It seemed like a well rehearsed routine. You nudge the divemaster and he gives you food. They followed him around like a puppy dog and he would push their heads away which seemed to only increase the frenzy. Quite a sight. After a while they lost interest and we continued the dive.

We spent the majority of the dives between 70 – 100ft exploring the spur & groove finger canyons of ” Victoria Tunnels.” The tunnels were certainly interesting with beautiful boulder corals and caverns (swim through’s, not caves) that go on forever. The divemaster told us there are 30 types of coral to be found and they looked extremely healthy to me. We were back by noon after two relaxing dives and spent the rest of the day exploring San Pedro.

The second day we got up early for the Lighthouse reef trip. This is a three-tank dive that takes up the whole day. About 22 divers showed up all groggy at 5:30 am in the morning. Coffee, scones and fresh fruit were waiting for us and the crew had prepared everything ready for take off. This was really was of the most smoothly run operations I’ve come across. Especially for day trips. You usually see this only on liveaboards.The “Miss Mel” is a large and fast Pro 48 dive boat. It took 2.5 hrs to get to the first dive site. Even though the trip gets a little rough on open water crossing, the “Miss Mel” is so comfortable I slept all the way over on the comfortable cushioned and shaded benches.

Our first stop was at the long awaited Blue Hole. First dive of the day. The Blue Hole is the largest ocean sinkhole in the world, created by a collapsed underground cavern, hence giving the appearance of a dark blue circle amidst the turquoise sea. It reminded me of the far lesser known blue Hole in the Red Sea. But there is more to see in this one. The Blue Hole became famous in 1972 when Jacques Cousteau anchored his ship Calypso to its ridge to film inside.

After a thorough briefing we were divided in two groups and down we went. The Blue Hole is over 1000ft (30 m) in diameter and 450ft (135m) deep. You have to swim to the shallow lip and then down to 40 meters where you’ll find a cavern filled with huge stalactites and stalagmites. Diving the Blue Hole is usually reserved to experienced divers only as it is easy to go too deep. A limited variety of fish species can be found here but I believe you dive down more for the experience of being in the Blue Hole and seeing the stalactites than trying to encounter sea life. It was quite an exhilarating experience. When I looked away from the beautiful formations and up, I saw a group of Lemon and Black-tip Sharks and huge Horse-eye Jacks. It is quite a short dive but spectacular nonetheless.
During our safety stop underneath Miss Mel, the crew fed the sharks from the boat and it was wonderful to see so many of them right around us. Once all safely back on board, the crew started the last show of chumming the sharks with bloody fish which resulted in a real shark frenzy.

After this fine first dive we went on to Half Moon Caye Wall for some wall dives. The marine life was very good. Numerous varieties of sponge and sea fans competed for space amongst a profusion of coral species that include Mountain Star, Giant Brain, Stag horn and Lettuce coral. We also saw Turtles and beautiful Spotted Eagle Rays.

During the surface interval between the second and third dive we got off the boat at Half Moon Caye for lunch and an excursion of the island. Half Moon Caye is a beautiful little palm fringed island and also a sanctuary for endangered Red-footed Booby and Frigate birds. There are no inhabitants except for the people running the sanctuary. One of the girls who had been diving with us that day was returning to Half Moon Caye to finish her research project of counting all the boobies. That seemed to be a lot of work considering threre are so many. We walked around the island following a designated trail and learned a lot about the flora and fauna of this enchanting island. We climbed up on the observation tower to see the boobies and their fluffy young in their nests. I have never seen so many nests in my life!

Lunch consisted of a hearty chicken stew, rice and beans and potato salad, which I discovered, is the standard fare of the local people on the cayes. Dessert was a filling coconut custard pie and lots of fresh fruit.

After digesting and relaxing on the palm-fringed beach, we were all ready for our third dive to the “Aquarium” for its tremendous variety of fish found at this site. The Aquarium is located right off the northwestern side of Long Caye. Clear, long coral ridges and sandy canyons run perpendicular to the reef. The coral ridges here have many holes and grottos, providing a sanctuary for a variety of marine life.

It was a nice drift dive with a good current. At around 50ft off the wall we saw beautiful deep-water lace coral and black coral and lots of different fish. Then it was time to go back to San Pedro which we reached at around 5 pm.

The third day we had to be at the dive shop at 5:30 am again for the Turneffe Islands South dive trip which is well known for its deep walls and lots of fish. Same routine again but on a different, slightly smaller boat with less divers. The engines were just as fast though and we were speeding towards our destination. On the way there were beautiful vistas of atolls and mangrove passages.

The first dive blew us away. It was a pleasant drift dive along a wall with a swift current and spectacular marine life, just as promised. The Elbow is Tuneffe island’s most popular dive site. The coral colors are remarkable here and the variety of marine life is outstanding. The site is called the “dive show piece” of the atoll complex. The location is on the southern bend. The Corral, very nearby to the elbow, is an excellent drift dive as well. The Zoo, named so because the shear volumes of marine life found here is an excellent dive site for photography and videography. Other sites include Three Amigos, Myrtle’s Turtles, Lefty’s Ledge, Joyce’s Jump and Gorgonian Bluff with large deep water gorgonians and blacktip sharks. There is also Billy Bob’s Shallows, Black Beauty, Majestic Point, Birthday Reef with a shearing vertical wall, Cockroach Slope, N.E. Point, and Rendezvous Wall to name a few.

We spent our first surface interval at a nice little settlement with an over the water bathroom and huge sun deck. We chatted with the friendly fisherman (who use this place as their base when on a fishing trip and not able to go home for the night) and patted their puppies who were happy to see us once they were allowed out of the dog house. We watched them clean fish and generally lazed around the place for a few hours.

The second dive turned out to be great as well with a couple of beautiful Eagle Rays and Turtles to top it off.

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