Belize has been a go-to destination for scuba diving for generations. With the longest unbroken barrier reef in the Western hemisphere, warm Caribbean waters, and a world of sea life, Belize is one of the most sought-after destinations in the world. But do you know where to go once you get there? Here’s our take on the five top spots for diving in Belize.
For exceptional diversity of sea life, Half Moon Caye Wall is our top pick for more experienced divers. Off to the southwest of the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, the waters off the Caye are exceptionally clear, which is unusual in the area around a wall. (A wall is a vertical façade of earth’s landmass which juts downward and usually comes with a wealth of sea life to explore.)
The area here is an IUCN marine protected area, which has given the local coral and fish the opportunity to thrive. A gentle slope leads to a drop-off which is surrounded by coral reef. As you continue to descend, more sea life can be seen. Generally, divers are prohibited from going deeper than 60 feet, but there is plenty to see at that depth.
While trolling alongside the wall, you’ll likely see reef sharks, angel fish, stoplight parrotfish, and tiny purple, pink, and sunburst fairy basslets (royal gramma). Check out the lionfish with manes of dorsal spines meandering around the reef, and don’t be startled by the garden eels poking their heads out of the sand.
Aptly named, the Long Caye Aquarium is often swarming with marine life even at the shallowest levels. And while you won’t find any big fish here, from the moment you drop in, schools of flat, silver Bermuda chubs, black-striped sergeant majors, and bright pink Creole wrasse come around for a look. Even the odd trumpet fish occasionally makes an appearance. What the Aquarium lacks in big aquatic life, it makes up for in sheer numbers.
The reef at the Aquarium is a table-top formation, a flat expanse covered with brain coral clusters, fans, and sea plumes. Little coral forests and cleaning stations (where fish congregate to get cleaned by smaller marine creatures) are easily accessible here. There is also a wall toward one end of the dive site, which descends to about 60 feet before it gets dark. While this is certainly a nice feature of the site, it’s not necessary to descend the wall to catch a glimpse of Nemo and friends. And if there’s a dive site that’s Insta-perfect, it’s this one.
Speaking of big fish, farther south off Placencia is Gladden Spit Marine Reserve, an area where divers can reliably interact with, wait for it … whale sharks. Yes, we said sharks. Despite their massive size (averaging 20-30 feet), and intimidating silhouette, whale sharks are slow-moving filter-feeders that pose no threat to humans. Thanks to the ornate patterns on their bodies (think Persian rugs) they are part of the order of “carpet shark,” and spend their days looking for mollusks and crustaceans among the coral branches. To be sure, while whale sharks will protect themselves if they perceive danger, they are mostly happy to have you watch as they float by.
Whale sharks can be seen from March through July, though the best times are April and May, and mostly during the three or four days on either side of the full moon. This is when snapper fish tend to spawn, attracting the gentle giants looking for caviar treats.
At the southern tip of Ambergris Caye, just a few miles off San Pedro, lies Belize’s oldest IUCN marine protected area, a reserve that covers about three square-miles. It includes areas of coral reef, a mangrove area, and seagrass beds. The reserve’s centerpiece is a natural channel (75 feet wide, 30 feet deep) which, thanks to its relatively strong currents and considerable nutrients, attracts a wealth of marine life. You will get more of your share of tropical fish, eagle rays, blacktip sharks (generally timid and skittish around humans), dolphins, and sea turtles.
Sea turtles love seagrass (Source: Shutterstock / eskystudio)
Are we forgetting anything? Ah yes, the alley part. Shark Ray Alley as its name would suggest, is a congregating area for nurse sharks and southern stingrays. Though both species are generally harmless to humans, most people don’t realize this. Get that underwater photo of toothy marine life and impress your friends back home.
5: Blue Hole
Of course, we couldn’t talk diving in Belize without mentioning Blue Hole. A geological oddity of sorts (it’s actually a hole in the reef), Blue Hole is the signature diving experience in Belize. While there isn’t much sea life to see (though there is some), it’s an extremely challenging dive in itself and is suitable for highly-advanced divers only. For that reason, it’s one of those “do it because it’s there,” bucket-list-sort of experiences.
Visible from space, the Blue Hole stretches 1,000 feet across in diameter and runs 400 feet deep. Coral is visible only at the top rim, due to the lack of light father down. About 100 feet down, there is a shelf on each side of the tunnel. Massive stalactites, some 25 feet long, hang from the ceilings of the shelves like icicles. Reef and bull sharks cavort throughout, and due to its depth, intense darkness, and dorsal-finned locals, Blue Hole should be approached with caution and with the guidance of local experts.
Most would agree that the diving in Belize is amazing whatever the time of year, though some months make for a better diving experience than others. April through June is arguably the best time to go, though this is considered high season, so prepare for crowds at Blue Hole.
August through November is Belize’s rainy season, but it typically only rains for a few hours per day. That means there are still many hours of sun remaining for good diving. Surface waters can be choppy at times, but rarely impact the visibility of offshore dive sites. Always check the weather and consult with local experts before heading out.
Finally, do not attempt a dive for which you are not equipped and experienced. Hiring a licensed and experienced dive outfit is required for any of the dives discussed here. For more information on diving in Belize, go here.