Words Fiona Mcintosh, pics Fiona McIntosh, iStockphoto
I’d wanted to dive the Blue Hole for more than two decades. Finally the moment had arrived and I was apprehensive. Could it possibly meet the expectations I had built up over years? We dropped onto a shallow reef then swam over fields of bright coral teeming with little fish to the shot line. Not that we paid much attention at the time - we were far too focused on the main event to be distracted by pretty corals. Suddenly the reef came to an end. Small sharks buzzed around us as we teetered on the rim of the abyss. Going over the edge was like skydiving; sinking down the precipitous cliffs, watching other divers plummeting below, was a serous rush. I turned my Go-Pro on myself, capturing the rapidly disappearing horizon. Then everything was calm. There were no features on the vertical cliff by which to orientate ourselves, we were dropping into a seemingly bottomless pit and I shivered as we hit the thermocline. At about 35 metres the DM indicated that we should level out. Below us we could see a large cave system with vast stalactites and dripstone curtains hanging from the ceiling. A metre in diameter and over six metres in height these great limestone formations resembled those you find in the Cango Caves – and, indeed, in the magnificent cave systems found elsewhere in Belize.
The ever-attentive dive guides checked that everyone was okay and we then descended to inspect the fallen stalactites on the cave floor. Bottoming out at around 45 metres, we weaved in and out of the formations. It was an eerie place; the water was pale green and other than the algae covering the dimly lit cavern walls there was zilch in the way of marine life.
Diving here was about atmosphere, the thrill of exploring this extraordinary natural depression in the reef. And it was weird to think that these massive formations once stood high and dry above the surface of the ocean, until sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age and flooded the caves.
After eight minutes, the slow ascent up the wall began. We scanned the blue water in vain for sharks and all too soon we were back in the shallows, swimming over the coral reef once more. But again the wonderous starlet corals, stands of staghorn, colourful anemones and multi-hued reef fish couldn’t compete. We surfaced elated. The dive was surreal, quite unlike anything we’d previously experienced. And there were still two more dives to go.
Expectations often breed disappointment so when I signed up for a trip to the Blue Hole, one of the world’s most iconic dive sites, I fully expected it to be an anticlimax. I’d read all about this bizarre 400m-wide, natural sinkhole in the limestone bedrock of Lighthouse Reef, one of the distant atolls of the Belize barrier reef – but it was even more spectacular than I’d imagined. Despite the 5am start and three hours travel each way, much of it across rough open water, I’d do it again tomorrow.
The dive operation was as slick as it comes; the boat was big and roomy with a well-organised dive deck, an upper sun-deck and an incredibly professional crew who kitted-up all your gear, proffered regular drinks and snacks and went the extra mile to make your day special.
The tone was set in the initial briefing; the dive organized with military-like precision. Diving to 45m on a 100m-plus wall meant there was little room for error so divers were split into small groups with a DM in front and another shepherding from behind. You swam at the agreed depth and speed; any deviation results in an instant finger wagging.
Jacques Cousteau ‘discovered’ the Blue Hole on his 1970 voyage on the Calypso, thereby putting Belize on the divers’ map, and the 300km-long barrier reef, the second longest in the world, has allowed the Central American country to exploit its reputation as a fascinating dive destination. The focal point is Ambergris Caye in the north, where the extensive reef is less than 2km offshore. Not surprisingly the island is full of dive centres offering trips to the nearby submarine canyons, to mangrove-covered sandy islands in the turquoise ocean, and to world-renowned sites like the Blue Hole and The Elbow on Turneffe Atoll.
The Caribbean vibe, proximity to Miami, and diverse attractions ensures Belize’s popularity with American vacationers and entrepreneurs who have invested heavily in real estate. The former British colony has impressive Mayan sites, spectacular caves, jungle treks and cultural tours to add to its array of ocean adventures – and the fact that English is still the official language is a strong selling point.
We arrived at San Pedro, the lively capital of Ambergris Caye, weary from a jungle trip down south in Toledo, on the Guatemalan border. After a week of oppressive humidity being constantly chowed by mozzies, bed bugs and ticks we celebrated our return to civilisation by checking into the chic Las Terrazas resort, a ten-minute boat ride north of San Petro. It was an inspired choice; an oasis of calm, close enough to be able to enjoy the melee of town, yet far enough away to allow us to relax and unwind. A classy condo resort, it has spacious, thoughtfully furnished suites overlooking a sparkling pool, a top class restaurant and all the necessary toys – kayaks, stand up paddle boards and sailing dinghies – to amuse, as well as the on-site White Sands Dive Centre. As a warm-up to the Blue Hole we dived the narrow canyons of the local reefs, a 10-minute boat-ride away, and enjoyed up-close-and-personal encounters with turtles, rays and nurse sharks at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve in the southern part of the island.
If the Blue Hole was spectacular, the second dive, on Half Moon Caye Wall, was mind blowing. Again we started in the shallows but this time dropped over the edge of a wall covered with massive barrel sponges, gorgonian fans and colourful soft corals. There were turtles, massive grouper and shoals of yellowtail snapper, and reef sharks, barracuda and spotted eagle rays cruising past in the blue. The DM pointed out razorfish and little critters on the reef and led us down to the sand flats to check out the garden eels, rays and hermit crabs.
Lunch was served on a palm-fringed beach on Half Moon Caye, then we spent the rest of the surface interval admiring the island’s prize inhabitants, red-footed booby birds, and prehistoric-looking iguanas.
The day ended with a drift dive from Eagle Ray Alley - another spectacular wall adorned with gorgonian fans, black corals and red-cup sponges - to the aptly named Aquarium. Both the eagle rays and the prize specimens of the natural fish tank obliged so we had plenty to toast on the rooftop bar of Las Terrazas that night. The dives had been worth travelling half way around the world for!
Source: The Dive Site