Diving the Belize Barrier Reef off Ambergris Caye

I am trying to get on the boat, but it is bucking like a rodeo horse. In my memory at least, the swells are a good 10 feet high. I’ve got shin burns on my legs from the ladder, which is as bouncy as the boat.

Belize Barrier Reef from Tranquility Bay

Diving in Belize is renowned for its massive and healthy coral reefs, the variety of pelagic and reef fish, and the clear, comfortable water (wet-suits are usually optional), but the waves can be choppy on the ocean side of the reef, which runs just a few hundred yards off of Ambergris Caye. The advantage: 10-minute boat rides to some of the most spectacular coral to be seen in the Caribbean.

Belize’s Bacalar Chico National Marine Reserve

The Belize Barrier Reef is just that: a barrier that protects the shoreline from the typically white-capped seas. It is broken at several points by passes through the reef, which allow dive boats access to the rougher water and the deeper canyons and walls of the open side of the reef.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The meso-American Barrier Reef is second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in size and scope.
  • It’s an easy destination for Americans: English speaking, a quick plane ride, and when you’re there, short boat trips to fantastic diving.
  • A day-trip to dive the “Blue Hole,” made famous by Jacques Cousteau, is possible.
  • Good for: lovers of peace and tranquility, divers, beach lovers, and deep sea fishermen.

Diving through the coral canyons is like following a maze underwater. The coral system is healthy and colorful; in addition to reef fish, you’ll see reef sharks, nurse sharks, and sea turtles. The surface water here is typically a bit rough: Whitecaps are common, and swells can exceed 10 feet. But in the coral canyons, the swells are minimal.

The northern part of the reef here is protected by Bacalar Chico National Marine Reserve, founded in 1996, which runs all the way north to the Mexican border. It contains important nesting sites for endangered green and loggerhead sea turtles — I think I saw turtles on every dive I did there —  and features Rocky Point, the only place on the Meso-American Reef where the reef actually touches the shoreline. Tranquility Bay Resort is the only resort located inside the marine reserve’s boundaries, and for divers, it’s a must-do:  It’s comfortable, clean, and quiet, with a low-key restaurant featuring whatever came out of the ocean that day. The resort’s small dive operation (most gear rental available) arranges custom trips for guests, and the reef is a few minutes from the dock. Guests at other resorts can also book a dive if there is room.

Diving at Hol Chan National Marine Reserve off Ambergris Caye

The Hol Chan National Marine Reserve is located just four miles south of San Pedro, on the southern end of Ambergris Caye, and any outfitter can take you there. “Hol Chan” is Mayan for “little channel,” and refers to the narrow, shallow pass, or “quebrada,” through the reef. Originally established to protect the area around the pass, the reserve now interlinks coral reef, seagrass, and mangrove habitats.

The main dive site is on the protected side of the reef, just inside the pass. Fish are pushed through the pass by the currents, then thrive in nutrient-rich waters where they are protected from fishermen. The result is the kind of diving seen in nature documentaries, with teeming schools of more than 160 species of fish, as well as almost 40 species of coral. A visit to Shark-Ray Alley, offers snorkelers the chance to get up close and personal with gentle nurse sharks and swooping rays. Because it’s both shallow (between 20 and 30 feet) and clear, Hol Chan is both a good diving and snorkel site, making it ideal for families where some members stay down and others bob on the surface.  An underwater camera  is a good investment here, especially when you get kids and sharks in the same picture. Imagine the bragging rights when they get home!


San Pedro is the main town on Ambergris Caye. It is accessible by ferry from Belize City or by air on hourly Tropic Air flights that trake you almost right into the very small and laid-back “downtown.” Transport to outlying resorts such as Tranquility Bay is by resort-operated motor boats.





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