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Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
Dives off Ambergris are usually single tank at depths of 50 feet-80 feet, allowing about 35 minutes of bottom time. Most companies offer two single-tank dives per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Diving trips run BZ$80-BZ$90 for a single-tank dive, BZ$130-BZ$150 for a double-tank dive, BZ$90-BZ$110 for a one-tank night dive, and BZ$400-BZ$500 for day trips with three dives to Turneffe Atoll or Lighthouse Reef. Dive gear rental is extra—a full package of gear including wet suit, buoyancy compensator, regulator, mask, and fins is around BZ$50. Snorkeling by boat around Ambergris generally costs BZ$80-BZ$100 per person for two or three hours or BZ$100-BZ$200 for a day trip, including lunch. If you go to Hol Chan Marine Reserve there's a BZ$20 park fee, but this fee is often included in the quoted rate. A snorkel trip to the Blue Hole is around BZ$370. In most cases, gear rental is additional. In most but not all cases, these prices include 10% tax.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve. The reef's focal point for diving and snorkeling near Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker is the spectacular Hol Chan Marine Reserve (Maya for "little channel"). It's a 20-minute boat ride from San Pedro, and about 30 minutes from Caye Caulker. Hol Chan is a break in the reef about 100 feet wide and 20 to 35 feet deep, through which tremendous volumes of water pass with the tides. Shark-Ray Alley, now a part of Hol Chan, is famous as a place to swim, snorkel, and dive with sharks (nearly all are nurse sharks) and Southern sting rays.
Especially during peak visitor periods to the cayes or when several cruise ships are docked off Belize City, snorkel tour boats can stack up at Hol Chan. Check locally to see when Hol Chan may be less busy, and consider visiting in early morning before most of the tours arrive.
The expanded 21-square-mi (55-square-km) park has a miniature Blue Hole and a 12-foot-deep cave whose entrance often attracts the fairy basslet, an iridescent purple-and-yellow fish frequently seen here. The reserve is also home to a large moray eel population.
Varying in depth from 50 feet to 100 feet, Hol Chan's canyons lie between buttresses of coral running perpendicular to the reef, separated by white, sandy channels. You may find tunnel-like passageways from one canyon to the next. It's exciting to explore because as you come over each hill you don't know what you'll see in the "valley." Because fishing generally is off-limits here, divers and snorkelers can see abundant marine life, including spotted eagle rays and sharks. There are throngs of squirrelfish, butterfly fish, parrotfish, and queen angelfish, as well as Nassau groupers, barracuda, and large shoals of yellowtail snappers. Unfortunately, also here are lionfish, an invasive Indo-Pacific species that is eating its way—destroying small native fish—from Venezuela to the North Carolina coast. Altogether, more than 160 species of fish have been identified in the marine reserve, along with 40 species of coral, and five kinds of sponges. Hawksbill, loggerhead, and green turtles have also been found here, along with spotted and common dolphins, West Indian manatees, sting rays and several species of sharks.
The currents through the reef can be strong here at times, so tell your guide if you're not a strong swimmer and ask for a snorkel vest or float. Also, although the nurse sharks are normally docile and very used to humans, they are wild creatures that on rare occasions have bitten snorkelers or divers who disturbed them. off southern tip of Ambergris Caye, Ambergris Caye. 526/2247 Hol Chan office in San Pedro. www.holchanbelize.org. BZ$20, normally included in snorkel or dive tour charge.
Shark-Ray Alley. Shark-Ray Alley is a sandbar within Hol Chan where you can snorkel alongside nurse sharks and stingrays (which gather here to be fed) and even larger numbers of day-trippers from San Pedro and from cruise ships. Sliding into the water is a small feat of personal bravery—the sight of sharks and rays brushing past is spectacular yet daunting. Although they shouldn't, guides touch and hold sharks and rays, and sometimes encourage visitors to pet these sea creatures (which you shouldn't do, either). A night dive at Shark-Ray Alley is a special treat: bioluminescence causes the water to light up, and many nocturnal animals emerge, such as octopus and spider crab. Because of the strong current you'll need above-average swimming skills, especially at night. Southern tip of Ambergris Caye in Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Ambergris Caye. 226/2247 Hol Chan office. www.holchanbelize.org. BZ$20 marine reserve fee included as a part of Hol Chan fee.
Belize Barrier Reef. The longest barrier reef in either the Western or Northern hemispheres, the Belize Barrier Reef is off the eastern shore of Ambergris Caye. From the island, you see the coral reef as an almost unbroken chain of white surf. Inside the reef, the water is clear and shallow, and the reef itself is a beautiful living wall formed by billions of small coral polyps. Just outside the reef, the seabed drops sharply, and from a distance the water looks dark blue or purple. ½ mi (1 km) east of Ambergris Caye (it's closer to shore the farther north you go on the island)., Ambergris Caye.
Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve. Development on Ambergris continues relentlessly, but most of the far north of the island remains pristine, or close to it. At the top of the caye, butting up against Mexico, Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve spans 41 square mi (105 square km) of land, reef, and sea. Here, on 11 mi (18 km) of trails you may cross paths with whitetail deer, ocelots, saltwater crocodiles, and, according to some reports, pumas and jaguars. There are excellent diving, snorkeling, and fishing opportunities, especially off Rocky Point, and a small visitor center will get you oriented. You'll need a boat and a guide to take you here. An all-day snorkel trip to Bacalar Chico from San Pedro costs around BZ$170-BZ$200. Trips from Sarteneja also are offered for about the same cost. North end of Ambergris Caye, Ambergris Caye. BZ$10 or BZ$30 for weekly pass.
Lessons and Equipment
Amigos del Mar. Amigos del Mar, established in 1991, is perhaps the island's most consistently recommended dive operation. The PADI facility offers a range of local dives as well as trips to Turneffe Atoll and Lighthouse Reef in a fast 48-foot dive boat. Amigos charges BZ$150 per person for a local two-tank dive, not including equipment rental, and BZ$500 for a 12-hour trip to the Blue Hole, including park fee and lunch but not equipment rental. On water off Barrier Reef Dr., near Mayan Princess Hotel, Ambergris Caye. 226/2706. www.amigosdive.com.
Ecologic Divers. Fairly new to the dive scene on the island, this PADI shop has won a good reputation for safety, service, and ecologically sound practices. Local two-tank dives are BZ$150 per person, not including equipment rental or 12.5% tax. Full-day Turneffe trips are BZ$400 including equipment, breakfast and lunch, but not 12.5% tax. Beachfront, on pier at north end of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. 226/4118.
Lil' Alphonse Tours. Offering snorkeling only, Lil' Alphonse himself usually captains the tours, doing a fabulous job making snorkelers feel comfortable in the water. Coconut Dr., across street from Changes in Latitudes B&B, San Pedro. 226/3136. www.ambergriscaye.com/alfonso/.
Patojo's Scuba Center. Operated by Elmer "Patojo" Paz, who has nearly 20 years of diving experience, Patojo's Scuba Center at The Tides Hotel is a small dive shop with a good reputation. At Tides Hotel, at north end of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. 226/2283. www.ambergriscaye.com/tides/dive.html.
White Sands Dive Shop. This operation isn't at White Sands Resort but at Las Terrazas. Never mind, this PADI dive center is run by Elbert Greer, a noted diver and birder who has taught scuba in San Pedro for more than 20 years, getting more than 2,400 divers certified. Las Terrazas, North Ambergris Caye, Ambergris Caye. 226/2405. www.whitesandsdiveshop.com.
Many dive shops and resorts have diving courses. A half-day basic familiarization course or "resort course" costs around BZ$300-BZ$325. A four-day PADI open-water certification course costs BZ$800-BZ$1,000. One popular variant is a referral course, where the academic and pool training is done at home, but not the required dives. The cost for two days is about BZ$600. Prices for dive courses vary a little from island to island, generally being a little less expensive on Caye Caulker. However, even prices on Ambergris Caye, which tends to have higher costs for most activities, are a little lower than on the mainland.
If you're staying on Ambergris Caye, Glover's Reef is out of the question for a day trip by boat. Even with perfect weather—which it often isn't in winter—a trip to Lighthouse Reef takes between two and three hours. Turneffe is more accessible, though it's still a long and costly day trip, and you're unlikely to reach the atoll's southern tip, which has the best diving.
SEArious Adventures. This long-established snorkeling and sailing shop does day snorkel trips to Caye Caulker (BZ$100 plus park fees and equipment rental), along with a variety of other snorkel and sail trips. Beachfront, on dock, between Tarpon and Black Coral St., San Pedro. 226/4202.
SEAduced by Belize. This well-run snorkeling, sailing, and tour company does full-day snorkeling trips to Bacalar Chico and to Mexico Rocks and Robles Point. Trips include a lovely beach barbecue. Vilma Linda Plaza, Tarpon St., San Pedro. 226/2254. www.seaducedbybelize.com.
How to Choose a Dive Master
Most dive masters in Belize are former anglers who began diving on the side and ended up doing it full time. The best have an intimate knowledge of the reef and a superb eye for coral and marine life.
When choosing a dive master or dive shop, first check the Web. Participants on forums and newsgroups such as www.ambergriscaye.com and www.gocayecaulker.com field many questions on diving and dive shops in Belize. On islands where there are multiple dive shops, spend some time talking to dive masters to see which ones make you feel most comfortable. Find out about their backgrounds and experience, as well as the actual crew that would be going out with you. Are they dive masters, instructors, or just crew? Get a sense of how the dive master feels about reef and sea life conservation.
Besides questions about costs and equipment, ask:
How many people, maximum, go out on your dive trips?
Is there a minimum number of divers before you'll make the trip?
What's the ratio of divers to dive staff?
What dive sites are your favorites, and why?
What kind of boat do you have, and how long does it take to get where we're going?
Who is actually in the water with the divers?
What kind of safety and communications equipment is on the boat?
What's the procedure for cancellation in case of bad weather?
How do you decide if you're going out or not?
If you're not comfortable with the answers, or if the dive shop just doesn't pass your sniff test, move on.
If you want to hit the best dive spots in Belize and dive a lot—five or six dives a day—live-aboard dive boats may be your best bet. Live-aboards concentrate on dives around Belize's three atolls—Lighthouse, Turneffe, and Glover's—with most dives at Lighthouse and Turneffe. The boats depart from Belize City.
Expect to pay about BZ$3,000-BZ$5,800 for six days of diving. That price includes all dives, meals, airport transfers, and stateroom accommodations on the dive boat. It usually doesn't include airfare to Belize, overnight stays at a hotel before or after the dive trip, tips, alcoholic beverages, equipment rentals, Nitrox, marine park fees, port charges, and incidentals.
Belize Aggressor III. The itinerary of the Belize Aggressor III has passengers embarking in Belize City, at the Radisson Fort George, on a Saturday and spending time until the following Friday at Turneffe and Lighthouse atolls, with as many as five or six dives each day. This orderly operation is run by a crew of five, mostly Belizeans, along with the captain and dive master. The Aggressor III can accommodate up to 18 passengers. It uses a 110-foot luxury cruiser, refitted in 2009, powered by twin 500-horsepower engines and equipped with ultramodern communication systems. There's a hot tub and sundeck. Staterooms are spacious double-berth cabins brightened with blue fabrics, light wood trim, and multiple windows instead of small portholes. All have private baths, TVs, and DVDs, plus individual climate controls. 2012 rates are US$2,695 to $2,895 per person, plus US$95 for U.S. port fees. 706/993-2531 U.S. office; 800/348-2628 in the U.S.; 223/0748 shore office in Belize. www.aggressor.com.
Dancer Fleet. Dancer Fleet (formerly Peter Hughes Diving) runs trips on the 138-foot Sun Dancer II, which can hold up to 20 passengers in 10 staterooms. It has a white-uniformed crew of nine, mostly from Central America and the Caribbean. The Sun Dancer II departs from the Radisson Fort George Hotel dock in Belize City on Saturday afternoon and moors at either Turneffe or Lighthouse Atoll. For the next 5 1/2 days, divers explore these two atolls, diving as many as five times a day. The ship moves two or three times a day. 2012 rates are US$1,995 to US$2,195, plus US$95 port fees. Rates include stateroom, dives, Belize international airport transfers, and local beers and well-brand alcohol. 15291 NW 60th Ave., Suite 201, Miami Lakes, FL, 33014. 305/669-9391 office in U.S.; 800/932-6237 in the U.S.; 610/5173 agent in Belize. www.dancerfleet.com.
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