Belize borders the second-largest barrier reef in the world, so Shon and I naturally assumed that when we visited last June, we would scuba dive for the first time. It seemed like the perfect place to try it. Not once during our week on the coast, though, did we ever touch a tank—and for a surprisingly great reason…
It turns out, you don’t have to. If you’re heading to Belize and hoping to explore otherworldly coral formations, meet curious, iridescent fish, and feel the adrenaline rush of swimming alongside a sting ray or shark, you need little more than a mask and fins. Belize’s barrier reef is like a Pixar movie come to life and sits (for the most part) just a few feet beneath the Caribbean’s sunny surface. There’s no need to scuba dive into the depths to find Nemo. He’s most likely playing with snorkelers up above.
Of course, Shon and I didn’t know this when we set out on our first snorkel excursion. Indeed, we had every intention of scuba diving when one sultry Caye Caulker evening we spotted a shoulder-high placard advertising a full-day sail and snorkel trip with a company called E-Z Boy Tours. Two friendly women, the proprietors of the sign, explained that the itinerary included snacks, lunch, drinks, and three snorkel stops: Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Shark Ray Alley, and Coral Gardens.
Now pick up any Belize guidebook, and one of the first things you’ll note is that Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley are to Belize what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris or Central Park is to New York: must-see spots for any visitor. The two were at the tip-top of our list of Belize “things to do” and checking off both while spending a leisurely day on a boat with food and drinks sounded pretty perfect, and so we signed up.
The following morning, under a brilliant blue sky, we headed to the E-Z Boy docks, climbed aboard a boat with a half-dozen others, and set out with sails raised. First stop: Hol Chan.
Through the combined efforts of the Belizean government and organizations like the New York Zoological Society and Peace Corps, Hol Chan was designated an underwater marine reserve in 1987. It spans three square miles, and its big attraction is a large natural break in its barrier reef called “the cut.” Marine creatures of all shapes and sizes inhabit this narrow channel (which is approximately 75 feet across) and dart between the reef and the open waters of the Caribbean.
At the cut, we donned masks and fins and jumped in to explore the underwater sights, rears bobbing along the water’s surface. Hol Chan is home to an endless number of fish, coral, sponges, sea turtles, and marine mammals like manatees and dolphins. As we swam along the cut’s colorful reef walls and into the middle of the channel (an area of sea grass and sand), we spotted dancing schools of fish, an eagle ray, barracudas, gently waving sea fans, and beautiful coral formations. A sea turtle swam beneath us, while a moray eel—lured out of its hiding spot—lunged at our guide. The animal had learned to put on a show in turn for free treats.
We explored this fantastic, Technicolor world for 40 minutes and then boarded our boat, soggy and salty, beneath a hot mid-day sun. Lunch was fish with rice and beans, washed down with fresh juice, and savored as we sailed slowly from the Hol Chan reef to an area of shallow sea grass. Here, a small group of boats with snorkelers had gathered at a seemingly random point on the sea.
As we approached, it was clear why this spot was special. Our captain tossed a bit of food over the side of the boat and in minutes slender dorsal fins began to make their way toward us. He tossed in a little more food, and the water alongside us quickly began to churn with rolling sharks and sting rays competing for a snack. We had reached Shark Ray Alley.Years ago, fishermen used to clean their catches and toss the resulting waste into the waters of this area. Groups of nurse sharks and southern sting rays were attracted to the free snacks and started to appear regularly for a handout. Today, the fishermen are gone (Shark Ray Alley is now part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve), but these schools of sharks and sting rays remain, and snorkelers—like us—come to swim beside them.
Of course, this may sound scary, and for those with a shark phobia, it certainly would be. We jumped into the water and were immersed in a crowd of gliding, nonhuman bodies. Our guide grabbed a shark and flipped it upside down (it went into a catatonic state), so we could pet its sandpaper-like belly. He caught a passing stingray, too, which was slippery-smooth to the touch–with the exception of the tip of its tail, against which I accidentally brushed. It felt like hard concrete on my arm, and I could see easily how these animals might inflict pain with a quick whip.
Fortunately, both the sharks and sting rays are docile creatures and purportedly harmless to humans (unless very much threatened). Thousands of folks swim alongside them at Shark Ray Alley each year with nary an incident—though some people may feel uncomfortable with the guides’ feeding of these wild animals and the handling of them, too.
After Shark Ray Alley, we made our way to Coral Gardens, an aptly named reef area known for its yellow tube sponges, purple sea fans, and brown pencil and orange elkhorn coral. Nature’s colorful artistry was impressive, but what I loved most were the mama and baby manatees we saw lying side by side on the ocean floor. We tread water near them and after a few minutes watched as they made their way languidly to the water’s surface for a breath of fresh air before returning to the sea’s sandy bottom. This was an unexpected sighting, and I found it hard to tear myself away from the rare opportunity to observe these incredible creatures in their natural habitat.
When we re-boarded our boat, though, I was glad I had. Freshly made ceviche served with crunchy chips, ice cold rum punches, and a soft, late-afternoon sun awaited us. Refreshments in hand, Shon and I settled into a spot alongside the boat’s hatch and looked out over the Caribbean’s quiet surface, aware that just a few feet beneath us was an entirely different world. It was a world that I couldn’t wait to re-explore, and one that we would re-explore, but again, as snorkelers.
Now, I’m certain there are areas of the Belize barrier reef that are best seen from a deeper perspective. Indeed, I’ve read that Belize’s Blue Hole Natural Monument is on the wish list of many scuba divers. I’m certain, too, that Shon and I will one day try an introductory scuba course. On this Belize trip, though, we found plenty of underwater thrills courtesy of little more than our masks and fins and an easily accessible coral reef. We saw all of the sea life we could have imagined–and so much more.