There is no doubt about it – Belize has some of the world’s best diving sites. It is home to the Belize Barrier Reef, second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. This 300 kilometre reef which makes up the much larger Mesoamerican Barrier Reed system stretching from the Yucantan Peninsula to Honduras is home to thousands of amazing dive sites. Charles Darwin once said after visiting the region that Belize’s reef system was the most remarkable in the West Indies. It’s a mecca for scuba divers and snorkelers who come from all around the world to swim in the warm waters and coral now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The ecosystem holds a huge number of flora and fauna species. It’s made up of over 500 fish species, 100 coral species and hundreds of invertebrates, as well as some mammals. The biodiversity is through to be much larger than this as one a tiny 10% fraction of the reef has been probably explored and researched. Unfortunately, pressure from pollution, human interference and global warming is causing the decline of the reef, but the Belizean government are doing much to curb this including being the first to completely ban seabed trawling, banning oil drilling near to the site and banning fishing in some parts. Much more can be done, and the hope is the reef and its marine species will survive.
It would simply be impossible to list every species in this article, but there are some highlights which draw scuba divers and snorkelers. Manatees, also called sea cows, are the gentle giants of the sea. They can reach almost 3 metres long and only come to the surface to breathe. Manatees are particularly shy and there are only a few small groups dotted around the cayes of Belize so the chances of seeing them are slim. Dolphins are another highlight. This playful creature follows in the wake of the boat and when in the water, they tend to nudge snorkelers and divers. Spotted eagle rays are one of the most graceful marine creatures. Their 3 metres long wingspan doesn’t stop them gliding around below in search of small fish and crustaceans to eat. There are several species of turtle in Belize, some of which are endangered and protected. These included the green, hawksbill and the huge loggerhead turtles (some of which can be seen at Hol Chan Marine Reserve). Nurse sharks are commonly sighted, but don’t worry, these toothless shark species is completely harmless. Larger sharks like hammerheads, reefs and even bull sharks are seen at the deeper sites like the Great Blue Hole. It is not possible to dive with whale sharks as the bubbles disturb the creatures, however, it is possible to snorkel with them off Placencia between April and May when they come to the calm waters during their migration.
Whale Shark in Belize
Visibility under the water in Belize is usually excellent, though it can differ from day to day. Scuba divers can often see up to 30 metres off the reef and the atolls making wildlife spotting easy. Water temperature is comfortable all year around and ranges between around 26°C and 30°C. Generally speaking, the diving sites in Belize are moderately challenging with some drift, walls and drop offs. At most sites, divers will require some open water diving experience to be safe. On a separate note, it is well worth doing the PADI Digital Underwater Photographer course to make it easy to take photos of the rich marine life.
Costs of diving in Belize can vary immensely. Here are some ballpark figures to use as a basis while planning. Nitrox, dive lights, regulators, masks, fins, snorkels, wet suits are around US $5-US$15 to rent per day. Make sure you check all equipment before you part with your money. These dives include most equipment, guides, crew, meals like breakfast and lunch, snacks, and drinks.
The Great Blue Hole – US $240 + $40 entrance park fee
San Pedro diving - US $128
Spanish Bay – US $129
Caye Caulker Marine Reserve – US $99
4-day Open Water PADI course – US $535
3-day Advanced PADI course – US $475
Short night dives – US $75-100
Private daily training rates – US $350
There are snorkel and dive sites for all experience levels, from the shallow waters and coral reefs around the islands to the deep open water dive sites like the Great Blue Hole. Always remember to take local advice, and take trips with reputable operators with good guides and well-maintained equipment. Here is a list of some of the most famous sites in Belize.
Half Moon Caye is almost always visited on a dive tour to the Great Blue Hole. Arguably, it is more impressive with more species of wildlife to see. The reef drops off a slope to around 30 metres though most divers go to depths of around 18 metres. The high visibility in the waters make seeing wildlife easy, the sunlight reaches down to the bottom. Divers should check their depth frequently. Marine life you are likely to see here includes reef sharks, turtles, juvenile fish species, eels, and eagle rays. The site is moderately challenging and should only be attempted by those with some open water diving experience.
It’s not called an aquarium for nothing. This site has some of the richest marine life in Belize, and is often combined with a visit to the Great Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye. Though the site is deep, guides will not take divers deeper than around 18 metres. The highlight is the vertical coral wall that descends down into the deep and is teeming with trumpet fish, creole wrasse, barracudas, hog fish, grouper, nurse sharks and turtles. The visibility tends to be good here. Like Half Moon Caye, it is moderately challenging and open water dive experience is a must.
Diving in the Blue Hole in Belize. Photo by Terdal
One of the only sites to have natural canyons underwater where rays, reef and nurse sharks, eels and lobsters make their home. Like most sites, guides take divers down to a depth of 18 metres maximum, but it drops down much lower than this. The surface is quite rough with waves swelling to over a metre high. This makes it a little more of a tricky site to dive and should only be taken on by people with plenty of open water diving experience, though the current is less noticeable below the surface. The visibility here is usually fairy good, but not as good as Half Moon Caye.
The major draw for divers around the world, however, the site is arguably not as interesting as other sites in Belize. Only divers with at least 25 open water dives can visit the Great Blue Hole . Guides will take divers down to a maximum of 40 metres, though the depth stretches down to 127 metres. At 40 metres, it’s possible to see the silhouettes of hammerhead, bull and reef sharks. The sinkhole is also famed for its eerie stalagmites which are millions of years old. The site doesn’t have the large schools of colourful fish that other dive sites in Belize have. It’s more about the atmosphere and large marine life. Visibility is good, but does decrease at lower depths.
South of the cayes are the dive sites off Placencia and Hopkins. It’s most famous as the place to see gentle whale sharks who stop in the area during their migration. They stop in the area to feed on the clouds of Snapper eggs spawned during this time. Though it might be scary to dive with an 8-metre shark, these creatues are completely harmless and feed solely on plankton, krill and eggs. It’s at the top of most people’s bucket list for things to do, a for good reason. Visit between the months of March and June for the best time to visit.
Here are some more articles on Belize that will help you plan your vacation:
Cover photo by Bernard Dupont .