Friday, July 12, 2024

Belize: The Secret Of Underwater Magic

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A mystery became apparent on my recent trip to Belize.  After 25 years of diving all around the world, I had somehow missed the underwater magic of Belize until now. Most divers, in fact, begin their passion for diving by making the first trip to this beautiful part of the Caribbean very early in their diving days. I was left to wonder why it had taken me so long to get here.

For such a small country it breaks a number of records: Belize is home to the second-longest barrier reef in the world and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Also found here are three of the Western Hemisphere’s four coral atolls and one of the world’s largest underwater sinkholes, the Blue Hole, made famous by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the Calypso in 1972. A diving paradise, Belize has eleven marine-protected areas to explore where it is possible to see sharks, rays, turtles, dolphins, manatees, and an occasional saltwater crocodile.

In addition to all of these underwater wonders, Belize has a myriad of terrestrial offerings.  There are beautiful lush jungles where jaguars hunt, rivers that meander through limestone caves, and crashing waterfalls.  Exotic and colorful birds flitter through the trees – over 300 species have been identified so far.  And there are Mayan ruins to explore.

Belize Aggressor III by the Belize Blue Hole. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures
Belize Aggressor III by the Belize Blue Hole. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures

Belize is rich with bird and animal life, scenic beauty, and archeological wonders.  I spent the first few days of my trip at the Lodge at Chaa Creek nestled in the forest area of the Cayo District.  The landscape had changed dramatically during the two-plus-hour van ride there from Belize City.  The mangrove coastline environment gave way to stands of pines and palmetto trees, then to the dense rainforest.

Bird choruses filled my ears as I stepped out of the van at the Chaa reception area. Melodic and peaceful, this was an environmental paradise.  Chaa Lodge takes great pride and responsibility in promoting its mission of environmental sustainability. Everything about the lodge is geared to care for and nurture the natural surroundings – but also to add some fun for the guests.  A quiet canoe ride on the Macal River or an enjoyable horseback ride into the tropical forest helps guests experience the delicate balance of nature deep in the center of this small nation.

Sleeping with the sounds of geckos chirping and the flow of the river rapids adjacent to the lodge is a fabulous way to relax.  But the chance to learn something new is even more enticing.  The lodge’s knowledgeable guides can describe every forest resident with great accuracy.  Whether it is bird behavior or the natural history of the endemic mammals that scamper across the forest floor, the guides help interested guests come away with a better understanding and appreciation of the Belizean rainforest.

Located 30 miles from Belize City, Altun Ha is a Mayan site that dates back to 200 BC. The name means Water of the Rock. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures
Located 30 miles from Belize City, Altun Ha is a Mayan site that dates back to 200 BC. The name means Water of the Rock. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures

With so many beautiful and mysterious Mayan ruins to explore in Belize, it was impossible not to get caught up in the history and symbolism of this rich culture.  The local guides were well versed in Mayan lore and one, in particular, Fidelio, piqued my curiosity about the Mayan culture. He had much to say about the predictions being made by the outside world based on “misinterpreting” the Mayan calendar.

The more I learned about Belize during my aqua-terra explorations, the more I couldn’t believe that it had taken me 25 years to get here.  My diving friends had repeatedly asked me how I liked Belize, and I always replied, “Well, I’ve never been there.”  My astonished buddies then reminded me that Belize is usually one of the first destinations for new divers.

So after spending years diving in the Pacific Region, I knew it was finally time to visit the waters of the Caribbean.  I boarded the Belize Aggressor III in Belize City. This comfortable, 110-foot-long live-aboard yacht would transport me to the underwater wonders of the world’s second-largest barrier reef.

Belize IV Yacht. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures
Belize IV Yacht. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures

The first evening on board was spent meeting the 16 other guests, getting organized, and hearing a briefing of our week-long itinerary from our Captain. Anticipation ran high as we heard what experiences awaited us.  Eventually, we headed below deck to our cabins to get a good night’s rest. While we snoozed, the boat made an uneventful crossing to Turneffe Atoll to anchor and prepare for an early morning checkout dive.

We made two dives on Sandy Slope, the perfect location to make sure all of our equipment worked properly – including delicate cameras.  This also turned out to be an excellent macro site to watch yellowhead jawfish popping their heads out of their dens as shy hamlets demonstrated their timid namesake behavior.

The next location got us to the “real” barrier reef of Belize.  We explored the vertical wall called Black Beauty. At 80 feet, an impressive forest of black coral covered the structure.  Large schools of blue tang marched over the reef stopping only for a moment to pick some algae off a coral head.

Coral Wall in Belize. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures
Coral Wall in Belize. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures

Following this fun, we made a four-hour passage to the Lighthouse Reef area during the evening to be ready for some signature diving the next day.  Our first dive in the morning was at Julie’s Jungle.  It was a jungle all right, but only in hues of blue instead of green.  So much was alive on this reef.  Parrotfish, angelfish and butterflyfish swam in and out of the brilliantly colored corals and sponges.  A young hawksbill turtle came to pose for the divers – all snapping away with their cameras or getting good video of the turtle gracefully swimming amongst the coral heads. But my attention turned once again to the beauty of the Belizean reef with the gigantic tube sponges in vibrant yellow and purple that graced the cuts and walls.

Our visit to Long Caye on Lighthouse Reef was memorable. A night dive on this reef revealed the smaller creatures such as crab and shrimp, that come out in search of food.  But it was the monster-sized tarpon that seemed so alien-like with its eyes glowing in the dark.  For me, finding the elusive white-spotted toadfish and capturing it in a good image was a major goal.  Although we could hear them croaking all day long, they became even more vocal at night.  Just when I thought I was about to get my shot, after following a particularly loud vocalization, the throaty toadfish went silent and remained quietly out of sight – tucked into the crevice of a coral formation.

At Long Caye Wall, I photographed creole wrasse against a backdrop of colorful sponges.   I loved the bright vermillion rope sponges. At first glance, they appeared maroon to the naked eye but put a light on them and suddenly they flashed like a stop light.  A nighttime dive revealed sleeping parrotfish, crabs, and shrimp. The continuous croaking of a toadfish kept me searching for its beady eyes.

Whitespotted Toadfish in Belize. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures
Whitespotted Toadfish in Belize. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures

Painted Wall was by far my favorite dive on Lighthouse Reef.  As if painted by a wild visual artist, the wall was literally covered with an explosion of colorful sponges and large gorgonian fans. Blue Chromis and yellowfin Chromis darted in and out of the rainbow-hued corals and sponges. The real highlight was the number of chub and sergeant majors that schooled around us.  Maybe they were attracted by the morsels of food stirred up by the divers or simply because of curiosity.  Whatever the reason, the fish followed us around like a dog waiting for a biscuit.

Tuesdays represent a special day on the week-long itinerary of the Belize Aggressor III.  This is the day that guests are able to visit Belize’s famous Blue Hole followed by a picnic at Half Moon Caye Natural Monument.  Our group was the first to arrive at this remarkable hole in the ocean, a competitive feat necessary in order to experience maximum visibility.  Once the other dive groups arrive, the BH can get stirred up causing an immediate drop in visibility.  For those of us diving on Nitrox, we cleared out our tanks and returned to breathing good, old-fashioned 21% air.  We did this because our dive would be deep – far below the safe diving depths of a 32% O2 mix that most of our Nitrox mix contained.

It is an eerie feeling dropping down 140 feet as the sunlight diminishes.  Bizarre formations of stalactites dangled down from the overhang. Unlike the open reef areas where fish swim happily through the sponge and coral, they were noticeably absent from the depths of this blue-hued sinkhole.

Stalactite in Belize. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures
Stalactite in Belize. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures

After our exhilarating dive in the Blue Hole, we took our curiosity to land – for a delightful picnic of hamburgers, hotdogs, beans, and coleslaw.  Our appetites were hearty after a stroll out to the nearby nesting grounds of Half Moon Caye to observe red-footed boobies and frigate birds. We also enjoyed watching the antics of iguanas and crabs as we enjoyed our Cheeseburgers in Paradise.

Next, our adventure took us to Dos Cocos, a great wall dive with prolific gorgonians.  Schooling horse-eye jacks gathered under our boat.  Captain Marc and Juan got out of the underwater scooters and “cruised the wall.”  On our second dive there, we saw three eagle rays, but the humongous loggerhead turtle nicknamed Buba that we so easily spotted at the surface, remained elusive underwater.

When I entered the water at Half Moon Caye Wall, a little swim was required across a sand bank to reach the wall.  There were many sloping grooves with wonderful overhangs where you could peer out to the edge of the wall. But much to my dismay, the wall was coated with sand from the bank. I thought all would be lost for photos until I discovered a colorful clump of coral and sponge at about 90 feet.  This magical spot turned out to be the beauty salon for all the fish in the area.  Grouper, angelfish, and others come here for a little manicure session.  While I patiently watched, a great barracuda glided in for some dental hygiene.  For 20 minutes he stayed, opening his large mouth to expose his deadly teeth, as all of the cleaner wrasses safely came and went picking grit off his teeth.

Orange Sponge in Belize. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures
Orange Sponge in Belize. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures

Quebrada, located near Long Caye on Lighthouse Reef, is one of Captain Marc’s favorite dive sites.  From macro to wide-angle, Quebrada has something for everyone.  The wall was especially colorful – draped in brilliant orange, red and purple sponges. Large gorgonian sea fans waved in the current as large schools of blue and black chromis darted in and out of the coral.  I saw some of the largest grouper in the area as Creole wrasse swam by in large numbers.  Small creatures were equally abundant if you looked closely enough to spot the well-camouflaged arrow crabs, shrimp, and tiny pufferfish.  Dueling lobsters, the Spartans of the reef, provided great entertainment.

Next, we visited the Aquarium, one of Belize’s most written about reefs.  After completing our dive there, we took a poll to measure whether the reef had lived up to its reputation.  Yes, the Aquarium reef is impressive.  The sergeant majors and chub were there to greet us.  The wall was covered with huge barrel sponges and coral fans but missing was the impressive tarpon we had seen at Painted Wall.

We left the Aquarium reef and made the crossing to Turneffe Atoll to do our last night dive on Amberhead Reef.  There we saw an amusing collection of night critters — lobsters, eels, and crabs out for their evening strolls. Other divers in our group discovered a long-nosed batfish.   However, Juan, one of our expert dive guides gave me the best gift of all – the location of a toadfish just waiting for me to take his picture.

Happy Guests on Belize Aggressor. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures
Happy Guests on Belize Aggressor. Photo by Michele Westmorland, Scott Johnson and Aggressor Adventures

The last day of a dive trip is always depressing as you dry your gear and pack everything away. We were in for a mood-lifting surprise, however. The Belize Aggressor III scheduled an adventure-filled afternoon on Friday before we would head home.  Guests could try their skills on a jungle zip line, cave tube down a peaceful river through amazing caves, or learn about the Mayan culture by visiting Altun Ha, one of the impressive ruins located just an hour from Belize City.

What I liked about Belize Aggressor III

This comfortable live-aboard dive yacht offers a very comfortable dive deck for access to and from the water with good ladders that don’t stress the knees.  There are hot showers and hair conditioners after each dive.  The spacious, shaded dive deck is big enough for all dive equipment.  There are big rinse tanks for cameras and large working tables. The Salon is roomy with a good library and flat-screen TV.  The dining area is separate – so this helps keep the salon cleaner.  The food was plentiful and delicious.  The staterooms are standard below deck, each with a private head and shower. The stateroom on the sun deck is nice and roomy with a wonderful hot tub that was a gathering spot.  In the short number of days available for diving, the Belize Aggressor III packs in up to 5 dives per day.

Other Helpful Information

Location

When to go

The best time to visit Belize is really personal preference. December to January is the busiest tourist season because of the good weather and school holidays. If you want to avoid the crowds, you should visit Belize during the shoulder months of February-April or September-November.

Getting there

The easiest way to get to Belize is by flying into Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport, which is located just outside of Belize City. There are direct flights to Belize City from major airports in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Choosing an adventure itinerary

Visit www.aggressor.com

Other information

The travel planners at Aggressor will apprise you of the latest travel requirements/restrictions based on the most current COVID-19 conditions.

This is a sponsored post – for more information please see our disclosure policy.

Aggressor Adventures
Aggressor Adventureshttps://www.aggressor.com/
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