The Great Blue Hole and Other Adventures in Belize

There is a vast hole in the ocean, and we came to dive it.

It was the last full day of our dive trip in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the group had gathered around the dinner table to talk about plans for the next year. It had become somewhat of a tradition on these annual dive trips taken with our good friends Steve and AJ that we would start planning the next trip before the current one was fully done.

The diving was over for the week, so we drank more than we should have and stayed up late discussing the merits of this country or that one. I don’t recall who among us first suggested diving the Great Blue Hole of Belize, but, once it was mentioned, we all rushed to concur, and planning for the next year began that night in earnest.

There are six major areas to dive in Belize: South Water Caye Marine Reserve, Placencia Caye, Glover’s Reef, Ambergris Caye, Turneffe Atoll, and Lighthouse Reef. Since we were staying in a villa just outside of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, the northernmost sites would be most accessible to us, meaning we would be focusing on the local dives off Ambergris and taking all-day boat trips out to Turneffe Atoll and Lighthouse Reef.

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The red arrow in the inset marks the location of our villa, across the bay from San Pedro

Our villa was blissfully isolated from the world, situated across the bay from San Pedro, with only two other unoccupied villas sharing our secluded beach. The brackish pond behind it boasted a variety of waterfowl as well as plentiful pufferfish and two resident crocodiles that consistently evaded our attempts to capture them on film.

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Our villa is on the left, extending into the crocodile-infested pond

In order to venture into the town of San Pedro, or to meet up with our contracted dive shop, we had to request a water taxi since there were no roads connecting us to the mainland. But the water taxi service was included in our villa rental, and we took full advantage of it, making the 20-minute trek often throughout the week.

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The long dock leading to our water taxi pickup

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A beautiful water taxi ride at dawn

Since the point of this trip was to make the journey out to the Great Blue Hole, we had to pick a dive company that could accommodate that necessity. While there were several dive shops claiming that they could make the trip, we only found one during our week in Belize that could essentially guarantee it.

As always, dive trips are largely dependent upon weather and sea conditions. but the larger boats can usually compensate for longer trips and bigger waves. We ultimately decided to go with Amigos del Mar for this vacation. They were a locally-owned outfit who boasted a father-son divemaster tandem, and they assured us that they would be going to the Great Blue Hole later in the week. So we reserved spots for that excursion and resigned ourselves to diving off the local reef and Turneffe Atoll in the meantime.

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George Jr., the son of the father-son dive team for Amigos del Mar

While Turneffe Atoll was overrated in our collective opinion, we all thoroughly enjoyed the dives on the local reef, just a 10-minute boat ride out from San Pedro. With plentiful reef fish, nurse sharks, turtles, and rays, those local dives left us satisfied even though there was nothing truly spectacular to note.

Until the last dive found us sharing the water with wild dolphins.

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Steve and the playful dolphin stare each other down

Steve had the unique experience of coming face-to-face with a dolphin, and I was able to grab this shot before they darted off into the blue. Steve still counts this as one of his best dives ever. And I still wish I had been the first in the water.

Other close encounters on this trip involved a rather aggressive and territorial green moray. While I thoroughly enjoy swimming with sharks, moray eels scare me. And, somehow, I think they know this.

The moray we saw on Turneffe Atoll wanted to eat my camera. And, failing that, decided he wanted to take a bite out of me instead.

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It was rather dicey for a while, but I escaped unscathed, thanks to the efforts of our dive guide, George Jr. When the moray left me for a moment, he started harassing George Jr. To my amazement, instead of running away from the angry eel, George simply extended his hand, palm out, and let the eel know who was boss. After which, the eel swam into a hole and left all of us alone.

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Back on the boat after the dive, we all couldn’t wait to ask George Jr. about his encounter. We started calling him “The Eel Whisperer” and asked how he had managed to calm the moray down.

George Jr. cracked a smile and said, “I don’t know. That’s the first time I’ve ever done that.”

After a day of relaxation, restaurants, and lounging by the pool, we received the call from Amigos del Mar. They were predicting perfect weather the next morning, so we should be at the shop early and ready for a run out to Lighthouse Reef and The Great Blue Hole.

The boat trip from San Pedro to Lighthouse Reef is no joke. Even with relatively-calm seas, the boat churned and bounced its way over six-foot waves for nearly two hours. I tried to keep a positive attitude and hoped I wasn’t turning green with nausea, despite my week-long regimen of Dramamine.

Lighthouse Reef lies beyond a couple of deep channels, making it inaccessible to casual tourists. And, therefore, pristine in terms of diving.

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The Great Blue Hole

Ideally, you make your deepest dive the first one of the day, so we pulled up to the edge of the Great Blue Hole just before 11 o’clock. On this site, we would be diving to 130 feet, which is the limit of recreational diving and just deep enough to explore the giant stalactites of another age.

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To provide as much bottom time as possible, the decent to 130 feet happens quickly. Slipping over the coral-ringed rim at 40 feet, we nosed downward, following the dive masters into the deepening blue like bombs dropped out of a bay door.

I’ve experienced plenty of wall dives where the bottom was never visible, and you float just off the coral shelf, weightless as a hummingbird. While those dives certainly give the illusion of flight, this decent into the Great Blue Hole was something else entirely. The sensation of free fall while skydiving is perhaps most accurately comparative, with the virtual infinity of the place enhanced by the slow curve of the hole disappearing into the ever increasing darkness before you and behind.

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At just under 100 feet, we broke through the thermocline, the visibility increased, and magnificent ancient stalactites appeared before us in full relief. Forty-foot-long teeth of a gigantic sea monster. And we swam among them, weaving our way through the mouth of a cave system formed during the last Ice Age.

There is little to see in terms of marine life. No brightly-colored fish. No coral. Occasionally big sharks will swim in from the blue to check out the sudden flurry of motion, but we saw none on this trip. Even so, it was spectacular and surreal. A dive like none I have experienced before or since.

Back on board, the group was unusually quiet and reflective, like we had just attended a church service in an ancient cathedral. We rode in silence as the boat shifted positions on Lighthouse Reef, arriving at Half Moon Caye for our surface interval. We disembarked and enjoyed an excellent lunch of jerk chicken, rice and beans, and fresh fruit, prepared fresh and included in the price of the dive excursion.

We spent an hour eating, talking, and exploring the coconut forest and mangroves along the beach, finding hermit crabs the size of lobsters and several species of lizards living in the dense underbrush.

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Half Moon Caye also boasts an Audubon Society Natural Monument created to protect the habitat of the Red-footed Booby. On the west end of the island, nesting boobies can be seen throughout the canopy, with scores of Magnificent Frigatebirds riding the thermals above.

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Frigatebirds above, Boobies below. Can you find the dozens of them in this photo?

After the silence and austerity of the dive in the Great Blue Hole, the cacophony of the birds fussing at us and each other was jarring but pleasant. And it certainly prepared us for the two adrenaline-filled dives to come.

It was a short ride to our next dive site, Half Moon Wall. The visibility was excellent, and  the site’s proximity to a 6000-foot drop meant we had a good chance of seeing some bigger pelagics. And, sure enough, we spotted several friendly turtles, some massive bumphead parrotfish, and two very large Caribbean reef sharks who swam curiously close to us and tagged along for the entire dive.

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At the last site, known as The Aquarium (every place seems to have at least one dive site named The Aquarium), the visibility was nearly infinite and the marine life was truly amazing. More sharks, eels, turtles, and more beautiful varieties of fish than I’ve ever seen in any single dive in the Caribbean.

While I’ve had better individual dives and better dive weeks, I don’t know that I’ve ever had a better dive day. Three times beneath the water. And three experiences that still stand out in my memory.

We came to Belize to dive the Great Blue Hole and found that it was only one incredible adventure among many.