Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Northern Atolls of Belize

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Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, is a tiny country in Central America due south of Mexico and nestled between Guatemala and the blue Caribbean Sea. It has many fantastic sights, Mayan ruins, rainforests, secluded beaches, reefs and atolls. Caribbean in spirit yet culturally mixed in Island and Indian culture, the official first language of English predominates but Spanish can be heard in the background daily.

Situated a mere 20 miles north of Belize City and 15 miles south of Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker and its bigger sister Ambergris are like two slithers of sanctuary and world’s away from the hustle and bustle of resorts at Cancun, Cozumel and Playa Del Carmen in the Yucatan. Whereas Ambergris is a bit on the higher-end, Caulker is a laid back jewel where the locals all know each other and everyone makes their way down Front Street that runs parallel to the sea at least once daily. There are no cars on Caulker and the locals have to get around on bike and golf carts. The roads are sand encrusted remnants and their coral counterparts that make up the islands foundations. Great beaches don’t really exist at Caulker except for a small strip near the "split" that separates the northern part of the island from its southern half ever since Hurricane Hattie cut the island in two in 1961. Sunning on the many docks that jut out into the grassy, knee-deep water is a favorite pastime here, snorkeling and diving off the beach is unfortunately not since the reefs are far offshore. Accommodation can be as spartan or as upscale as one likes from cabanas on the beach on its southern end ($25 Belize/night) at Ignacio’s and the Anchorage ($100 Belize/night) to higher end hotels nearer the town at the Iguana Reef Inn ($200 Belize/night). No Holiday Inns or Ramada’s here thankfully but mom and pop enterprises that have kept the island wholesome and down to earth. The exchange rate is $1US = $2 Belize and U.S. currency is interchangeable with Belizean monies throughout.

Diving in Belize means two things, the Blue Hole and the Turneffe Atoll. Located within Lighthouse Reef is the Blue Hole, a 1000-foot diameter drop into the abyss that falls to a depth of 700 feet. Pictures from the air make it look like a big pool of dark blue water surrounded by the cobalt colored Caribbean. Diving the Blue Hole has more in common with wreck diving in the Northeast United States than the Caribbean. For one the descent was fast, bottom time at eight minutes short and the visibility was fine but there was not much to see. The grayness of the North Atlantic took over at depths of 130 feet and not to much marine life except for a few Black Tip and Bull sharks that circled way below and some cool stalactites, 30-40′ long and 5-10′ in diameter that hung from the walls of the hole downward.

The dive however was a free fall into a seemingly bottomless cavern of aquafied space into one of the most remarkable sites in the Caribbean. Really for advanced divers but anyone wary of their charts and the limitations and hazards of deep water diving can partake. Manuel and his team of drill sergeants from Aqua Dives out of Ambergris Caye made sure everyone returned safe, sound and without the bends. Due to the coldness of the dive I highly recommend bringing your own ?? inch wet suit. All of the suits offered by the tour operators were 1/8 inch so most of us were shivering by the time we got to the bottom and ready for warmer depths. The Blue Hole is definitely the highlight of the three-tank dive to Lighthouse Reef that also included a brief stay for lunch at Half Moon where you can view from a platform some of the 4000 red-footed Booby birds that nest in the treetops of the island.

The one drawback with doing a three tanker is that the dives seem rushed. Since the sites are almost 2 hours by boat from Caulker and Ambergris we barely had 25 minutes of time in the water on each dive. We also went down under as a group on all dives instead of pairing off by experience level. This made for a decreased bottom time that was ultimately frustrating given the high cost of the trip ($300 Belize).

The Turneffe Atoll is a spectacular array of mangrove islands where pristine corals and schools of fish, eagle rays, barracudas, turtle, sharks, and queen angelfish to name a few, abound. Most dive shops offer this site as a three tanker and include a light lunch. Drift dives around the northern lagoon at Turneffe are the best here since many of the sites at Rendezvous Point were blown away by a hurricane a few years ago that battered the region, according to divemaster Patty from Paradise Divers out of Caulker who was very hospitable and knowledge of the area.

Diving the atolls walls’ we saw rock beauty, queen angelfish, parrotfish, lobster and most Caribbean fare in a kaleidoscope of rain bowed colors, shapes and sizes. After the second dive at Black Coral Mountain a school of wild gray dolphins came upon the boat like curiosity seekers bouncing through the water with chiseled grins on the faces. A few of the faster divers were able to put on their mask and snorkel jump in on the fray and glimpse the happy dozen frolicking dolphins at close range before they bolted. The visibility inside the atolls was about 50 feet. The norm is usually 70 – 80 feet year round when calmer seas prevail (year round excluding March and April). The long ride back to Caulker between the atolls on the open sea was a rough one but skipper Fran??oise took on the task and got us all home safely, albeit a bit drenched and with a sore backside. Consequently, I recommend using a bigger boat for these trips to the Northern Atolls. Great snorkeling and diving is plentiful just off the shores of Caye Caulker at Hol Chan Park and Shark Ray Alley where friendly Nurse Sharks and Southern Stingrays frolic in peaceful harmony. Most dive operators run full day trips for $50 Belize ($25 U.S.).

For a laid back experience where the diving is exquisite the Northern Atolls of Belize prevail. Avoid Caye Caulker on Easter weekend unless your idea of a good time is competing sound systems blasting bad dancehall/reggae rap every 100 feet. At other times the islands’ vibe is a glorious blast of calm breezes, cold Bintangs (Belize’s national beer which is quite good!), no cars, friendly locals and breathtaking diving.

Links:

Paradise Down Dive Shop

Aqua Dives

Iguana Reef Inn

Anchorage Resort

Caulker Caye tourist information

Caulker Caye information

Ambergris Caye information

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