Belize diving is unique among Caribbean dive destinations.
It is the only nation in the entire Tropical Western Atlantic region to contain a true barrier reef and several true atolls. Along with other factors favorable to coral reef diving, this puts Belize in our list of Top Caribbean Dive Destinations.
Belize is the northernmost of the countries of Central America, bordering the Caribbean Sea between Guatemala and Mexico. It is the only country in Central America without a Pacific Ocean coastline.
Most of the mainland is covered by flat coastal swamps that gradually change to low mountains in the south. English is the official language, although Spanish is also widely spoken here.
The combination of the unrivaled variety of major reef types, along with its position near the center of marine biodiversity for the entire Greater Caribbean region makes Belize diving a truly one-of-a-kind experience.
Unfortunately however, there are clear signs of danger in this coral paradise. Pressures on the Belize reefs ecosystem are steadily mounting from a broad range of impacts, including over-exploitation of reef resources by overfishing and tourist development, unchecked coastal development, sedimentation, and pollution.
Together, these factors have already damaged an estimated 40% of the Barrier Reef ecosystem, and in 2009 UNESCO added the Belize Barrier Reef to its list of world heritage sites in danger.
The bottom line is that although Belize diving still ranks among the best of Caribbean coral reef diving destinations, divers need to choose their dive sites carefully these days to avoid those reef areas that have already succumbed to the onslaught.
There are two broad options from which to choose when it comes to selecting a great Belize diving trip: visiting the Belize Barrier Reef, or diving a Belize atoll (or both). Below, we provide suggestions as to where to go – depending on which option you choose – to find the best of Belize diving.
The Belize Barrier Reef System was added by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 1996 as the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, with offshore atolls, several hundred sand cays, mangrove forests, coastal lagoons and estuaries. This 200-mile long structure runs parallel to its coast at distances averaging about 15-25 miles offshore the mainland.
The barrier reef system is exceptionally rich and diverse. More than 65 hard coral species have been identified, which represents about 90% of the total number of hard coral species found in the entire Greater Caribbean region. Likewise, an unparalleled (for the region) diversity of fishes, octocorals, and other marine invertebrate animals has been recorded here.
Predictably, barrier reef diving is best when winds are calm. Because of its exposed position to easterly winds, visibility tends to get poor (20-30 feet) during high wind conditions. Water temperatures are fairly constant all year lying between the mid 70’s to mid 80’s. A lightweight wetsuit is generally suitable for most Belize diving.
Glover’s Reef is widely considered the best developed atoll in the entire Caribbean region, and the most remote island group in Belizean waters. In the opinion of many (including yours truly) it offers the very best of Belize diving.
It is ellipsoidal in shape, extending about miles 15 miles in length and about 6-7 miles in width with a central lagoon area that totals about 80 square miles. The lagoon is relatively shallow, and contains some 700 patch reefs.
Of the three atolls of Belize, Glover’s Reef sees the least amount of human contact and offers the best and most varied Belize diving opportunities to observe coral reefs.
The atoll was designated a National Marine Reserve by the Belize government in 1993 and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.
About 30% of the atoll’s waters are zoned as a “no take zone”, and are actively patrolled by Rangers from the Belize Fisheries Department.
Glover’s Reef has been illegally fished by Guatemalan and Honduran fishermen for many years, and populations of conch and spiny lobster have been depleted in many areas.
Glover’s Reef lies some 45 km from the mainland and approximately 50 miles from Caye Caulker on the barrier reef. Between the barrier reef and Glover’s Reef depths range from 300m to 400m. East of Glover’s Reef the sea floor falls sharply to 1,000-3,000m.
The most popular Belize diving destination by far on the Barrier Reef is Hol Chan Marine Reserve, located some 4 miles southeast of Ambergris Cay, the northernmost point of the barrier reef system within Belize territorial waters.
However, the Reserve receives over 30,000 visitors a year and is showing clear signs of stress from this level of tourism and diving pressure, and the associated infrastructure that supports it. Ambergris Cay, the main gateway to Hol Chan, now has over 100 hotels and a new casino.
In our opinion a better option for exploring the wonders of the Belize Barrier Reef are the small resorts situated along the Middle Cayes, south of Columbus Reef and east of the coastal town of Dangria. The spur and groove systems and spectacular drop offs of the fore reef here provide the best and most unspoiled readily accessible diving to be found along the barrier reef.
A number of very suitable but modest resorts can be found on Tobacco Caye, a small island on the Barrier Reef just east of Dangria. Here, “resort” means a few beach cabanas and a restaurant and (in some cases) a dive shop. There are no spas, shopping, or outside (the resort) restaurants.
For those wishing more upscale experience, the Hamanasi Resort located in Dangria on the mainland offers daily dive trips to the barrier reef, along with the additional amenities of a first-class resort and easy access to other local attractions such as the city of Dangria and nearby rainforests.
Belize is a bit over a 2-hour flight from Miami or Houston. At last report direct flights were also available from Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Toronto, Canada.
Airline tickets are normally cheaper in advance. Great deals on airfare to Belize International Airport (BZE) from major gateway cities are usually available. We recommend making your reservations at least three to four months prior to your trip, especially if you will be travelling during the peak season of January through May.
For those travelling to the Barrier Reef resorts on the Middle Cayes, you can connect to Dangriga from Belize International Airport on Maya Island Air or Tropic Air. The flight is approximately 20 minutes, typically in a 14-passenger plane.
Alternately, you can take a 2-3 hr scenic drive to Dangriga and avoid the weight restrictions imposed by the Maya Island Air and Tropic Air operations, which can result in any of your baggage that exceeds the 40 lbs weight restriction (very typical for scuba divers) arriving on a later flight.
The resorts on Glover’s Reef usually include boat transportation to the atoll directly from the port at Belize City as part of the package price.
The six cays of Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve are privately owned. There are dive ‘resorts” on several of the largest of these. There are an abundance of patch reefs to snorkel or dive within the lagoon, and spectacular 3,000 ft. walls right offshore the local dive resorts.
Keep in mind that by “resort” in the context of this isolated atoll we refer to what might more appropriately be called an “adventure eco-tourism” lodge. These are rustic accommodations as one should expect at locations like this that are cut off from the main power, water, and communication networks of the mainland. Do not expect private flush toilets or showers in each room, air conditioning, TV, etc.
Nonetheless, the quality of the Belize diving here more than compensates for what some might call a bit of “roughing it”. The rooms are generally clean and comfortable, the food is fresh and excellent, and the sense of privacy and natural beauty unmatched.
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