Listening to the radio in a taxi on the way to Miami airport en-route to Dangriga via Belize City, with American Airlines and Tropical Air, was the first we heard of a tropical storm heading towards Belize.
As a celebration trip for my daughter, Camilla, who had just passed some major exams, we decided to do a two centre trip to Belize, first to Dangriga to try to see whalesharks, the second to Ambergris Cay so we could dive the famous Blue Hole.
Heading for Almond Beach and Jaguar Reserve Hotel in Hopkins, near to Dangriga, we had planned our trip to coincide with the whale sharks aggregations that can be found at Gladden Spit about 5 days after a full moon, in the months of April, May and June. We were to spend 5 days here, before heading up to Ambergris Caye, as small tropical island off the mainland, for another week. Unfortunately, because of the storm, we were completely grounded for the first 3 days. Unfortunately for us a major football competition was monopolising the few TV stations, so the wonderful spa at the hotel got our full attention!
The go-ahead was given to dive on the 4th day. Heading out early, we spent an hour and a half trip in fairly stormy seas to get to Gladden Spit. There we kitted up, on a strongly rocking boat, and gladly jumped into the sea. We descended in the blue, down to 30m, where, with visibility down to 10m, we stuck close to the dive guide. Swimming around in very green, soupy seas, with no reference point except our dive guide, was incredibly disorientating. Eyes we strained on stalks trying to spot a whale shark. We would chase after the dive guide, who would suddenly turn and head in the opposite direction. Shadows appearing on the periphery of our vision, for which we were sure were whale sharks, turned out to be only optical allusions. Alas, no whale sharks!
After an hours surface interval, with sea sickness raging around the boat, we jumped back into the water, and spent another 40 minutes searching the darkness for any sign of a tail or fin.
No luck again! Returning to Hopkins, all the divers on the boat agreed how pleased they were to be back on dry land! A new day, another try? Sadly, the conditions on our final diving day in Hopkins, had not improved, and the dives were cancelled. The whalesharks would have to wait for us to revisit.
Onwards to Ambergris Caye - a 40 minute flight from Dangriga to Belize City, then another 30 minute flight in a tiny plane across the ocean spotted with small round tropical islands. The bustling island life of Ambergris seemed like a different world from the rainforest surrounded tiny village of Hopkins. No more green seas - a beautiful clear turquoise reached out to our divers contentment scale.
Getting around the small caye was easy with the aid of petrol driven golf carts, which were available to hire at a small cost. These seem to be the main transport of the island - even the locals drive them! The town was a 5 minute drive from the hotel we were staying and diving with, Victoria House, and had plenty of restaurants and shops, buzzing with life.
We first did a check dive inside the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef, at Hol Chan. There is a cut in the reef, or channel, where the water rushes in or out, at high or low tide. Boats anchor in a white sand patch at around 5m, divers enter the water and swim towards the reef to a depth of 12m. At slack tide the channel provides a dive site with a huge variety of fish life - horse eye jacks, snappers of many kinds, barracudas, nurse sharks, huge rainbow parrotfish, and goliath and nassau groupers. Because of the tropical storm, the dive was still quite surgy and had a fairly strong current. The visibility was good, at around 15-20m, but improved with the weather, so, by the end of the week it was up to 20-25m.
As we swam around the beautiful dive site,
the bright sunlight and blue skies clearly visible through the surface, it made such a huge comparison to Dangriga. At the end of the dive in the shallows near the boat, sea grass fronds swayed gently in the slackening surge. Baby turtles and nurse sharks shared the playground, each seemingly oblivious to the other whilst snuffling and sniffing out prey in the soft sand. After a lovely surface interval snorkelling we completed a second dive in a more protect area of Hol Chan at Shark Ray Alley. Coming across a very lazy rainbow parrotfish, lying on the sand by some soft coral, it seemed to take great effort for him even to follow me with his eyes as I took several photographs.
At the end of the day, before the dive boats leave, it is customary to feed the nurse sharks. Each boat has a fish head which they hang on a line. The divers get in the water with their masks and snorkels and watch as a maelstrom of nurse sharks, usually known for their sleepy and lazy nature, feed in a frenzy. Horse eye jacks dart in and out, trying to steal titbits. Fingers have to be watched, because they are none too fussy!
Dives outside the barrier reef are generally wall diving, with beautiful topography, largeschools of fish, and hunting predators. Pinnacles dive site, is a beautiful site with large coral pinnacles, resplendent in colour, teeming with fish life. Hol Chan Canyon is another beautiful dive site with large, sandy bottomed canyons hiding stingrays and sleeping nurse sharks. Friendly grouper and snappers follow divers around waiting for the dive masters to catch and kill lionfish, who are unwelcome visitors to the region that kill off endemic species. Dive masters are encouraged to locate and kill these pests, getting a reward from the authorities for the most lionfish killed, in a bid to try to stop them breeding and increasing in the Caribbean.
Three quarters of the way through our trip to Ambergris, we had pre-booked a dive trip out to the Great Blue Hole.
The Great Blue Hole is on the majority of divers ‘most want to dive’ lists. A perfect round circle, this underwater sinkhole at Lighthouse reef is perhaps the most famous dive site in the world. It lies around 45 miles from the mainland.
We were picked up from the Victoria House jetty at 5.30am for the journey out to Lighthouse reef. As the sun rose on a flat calm sea, we could not have asked for a better day. Finally, the storm had abated, and left us with beautiful cornflower blue skies, clear blue ocean, and the most peaceful and relaxing two and a half hour boat ride to the dive site. Because the weather was so good, we were able to spot the Blue Hole from a fair distance away. For the last half hour of the journey, excitement began mounting on the boat as we approached closer and closer to the stunning azure blue circle surrounding by clear turquoise.
Pulling slowly into the small channel which marks the entrance to the hole, we were astounded by the natural phenomenon and the pureness of the circle. Kitting up, we were given a briefing by the dive master. The blue hole is not for the faint hearted. We would drop over the side of the boat onto the top of the wall at 5m, then proceed vertically straight down to 42m, where the opening of a large cave studded with hanging stalactites was. We would be able to weave our way between the stalagmites and stalactites for a total of 8 minutes, before we would make our way to the top of the wall for a long safety stop.
Excitement and apprehension abounded, we dropped into the water and looked into the chasm below us.
As we started our descent, grey, caribbean and blacktip reef sharks came to greet us from the depths. The lack of fish, and sheer sides to the hole added an eeriness to the dive. Finally reaching the cavern, we entered, winding our way through the massive limestone formations, totally absorbed in the wonder of nature. Far to early, our deco reached, we ascended towards the lip of the sinkhole.
Reaching our safety stop which was conveniently placed top of the wall, under the boat, at 5m, we were able to swim around freely, looking into nooks and crannies, eye balling groupers, and watching the reef sharks watching us until our air ran out. Our next dive was at Half Moon Caye, a lovely easy dive down to 20m, with a sandy slope and very nice coral bommies teeming with fish. Several green turtles lazily swam over the reef whilst two eagle rays hovered in the blue.
After a stop actually on the deserted island Half Moon Caye, for a picnic lunch, we did our last dive of the day back on Lighthouse Reef at Aquarium. As the name suggested, fish life galore met us with rays, turtles and reef sharks joining in on the party. Sleepy, sated, and with huge smiles on our faces as the sun set on the long journey back to Ambergris Caye, it had been one of the most memorable and wonderful days diving we had ever experienced.