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Scuba diving enthusiast Helen Huthnance takes us on a tour of the oceanic bounty the Central American nation has to offer.
Text By: Helen Huthnance
Photos By: Anthony Pezzola and Simon Villanueva
Country: Belize

y husband and I are avid scuba divers and are constantly looking for fun, new places to go diving. This past July we discovered Belize, a fabulous place to dive, full of great sea life and amazing people.

Multiple daily flights from around the world make getting to Belize easy. And because the official language is English, it is also quite easy to get around and to get along with the locals. For a diving adventure, your best options are to stay on one of the islands and do day trips or book a liveaboard.

In diving lingo, a liveaboard is when you stay on a boat for multiple nights and enjoy various dives throughout the day. Usually the cost includes all the dives, your dive tanks, as well as room and board. The advantage of a liveaboard, as opposed to shore diving, is that you get to spend a lot more time in the water. Because you’re on a boat the whole time, you can get to sites that are farther out than you would reach on a day trip.

Our liveaboard allowed us to dive up to five times a day, which included one night dive. At the end of the week, those divers who had done all possible dives received a medal of achievement. My husband was one of four divers who accomplished this. Between dives you can lounge on the sundeck, look through books of photos to try to identify that fish you had never seen before, or swap stories with other divers over a snack.

Our diving buddies

We arrived at Belize City on a beautiful, sunny afternoon and headed straight to the boat, where we were greeted with a cocktail reception and had a chance to mingle with the other guests. There were 20 passengers in all on our boat, all experienced divers.

People come from all over to dive in Belize. Among the nationalities represented were North Americans, Ecuadoreans, Danish, Austrian, English and even someone from as far afield as Shanghai.

Jimmy Mao, originally from England, has been teaching math in China for 10 years. Whenever he has a vacation, he takes off on a dive adventure to a new place. Belize quickly became one of his new favorite spots. I wound up having to abort a couple of dives due to an earache, and because you should always dive with a buddy, my husband teamed up with Jimmy a few times.

Ricky and Gerry, both in their 70s, have been diving together for over 40 years and they keep coming back to Belize. “We love this place,” says Gerry. “There is always something new to discover under water, and the food on the boat is incredible.”

Underwater adventures

But what makes Belize so special? One of the first things you notice when you arrive is the people. They always seem to be smiling; they are very friendly and incredibly helpful. The wonderful sunny weather doesn’t hurt either. But it’s really the amazing undersea fauna that keeps people coming back for more.

On our dives we came across many fabulous creatures such as majestic spotted eagle rays floating by, octopuses changing color for camouflage, and lobsters in attack mode warning us to stay away. At the end of one dive, my husband came across a hawksbill turtle chomping away on a large sponge just below our dive boat. The turtle did not seem to notice the divers all around it, but it did seem rather annoyed at the angelfish that agitated around its head trying to get at its crumbs.

During night dives little worms flock to the light produced by your flashlight. One evening while we were watching an octopus move from rock to rock, many of these worms surrounded my husband’s flashlight and the octopus took notice. It approached the flashlight, and with one tentacle gripping a rock and another the flashlight, it started feeding on the worms. As quickly as it arrived it darted off into the black of night when a sudden movement startled it. My husband still claims that he had to arm-wrestle the octopus to get his flashlight back!

At one dive spot we were warned that moray eels liked to swim out in the open, whereas in most areas they usually stay hidden behind rocks and corals. We did encounter some out in the open, but rather than merely swimming by, they were swimming right at us. Even when we tried to shoo them away with our fins, they would back off for a bit and then come at us again. It’s quite unnerving to have a creature about 2 meters long approach you with snapping jaws. But they finally got the picture and let us be. We later discovered the probable cause of their unusual behavior.

A lionfish problem

The lionfish, native to the Indian Ocean, has found its way to the Caribbean. There is speculation that some were discarded from personal aquariums. (Perhaps someone in Florida flushed one down the toilet?) As it has no natural predators in the Caribbean, its population is thriving. Local fish have not learned to stay away from them, giving this predator an unfair advantage. Where you see lionfish, you see fewer local species.

Some dive masters in the Caribbean hope to restore some balance to the reef ecosystem by trying to teach some of the larger predators to feed on the lionfish. Their method entailed spearing a fish, clipping off its poisonous spines, and feeding it to morays, groupers, and sharks — all while we were in the water diving with them. As might be expected, the only thing this truly seems to accomplish is teaching these predators to expect handouts from humans.

At another site, Long Caye Wall, we had four sharks circling us, bumping into divers. At one point a large shark even went straight for a diver, swiping his camera with its jaws. Presumably it thought the camera was being held out for it to eat. Needless to say, at the end of that dive we were all quite upset. Ricky, who was probably the most experienced diver on the trip, said he had never witnessed such aggressive behavior from sharks while under water.

Usually, sharks just swim by and, if curious, might swim by a second time, but they don’t tend to circle divers. Once on the boat we had a conversation with the captain, who agreed they would no longer kill the lionfish and feed them to local predators. But the damage had been done.

Two days later at a different site, we came across one of the same sharks, and it kept swimming by us expecting a handout. Sharks are smart creatures and apparently have good memories. What worries me is that we were just one boat out of many. How many other dive boats might be engaging in the same behavior? And this is going on not just in Belize but throughout the Caribbean.

Jacques Cousteau and The Great Blue Hole

One of the reasons many people go to Belize is to dive the Great Blue Hole. This is a large submarine sinkhole near the center of Lighthouse Reef. It is over 300 meters across and 124 meters deep. It is basically a huge submerged cave where you can observe giant stalactites, and if you’re lucky, you might spot a Caribbean reef shark.

The site was made famous by Jacques Cousteau, who declared it one of the top 10 scuba diving sites in the world. He visited the site in 1971 with his crew and his research ship, the Calypso, to chart its depths. However, the visit was not without controversy as there are rumors that they dynamited the fringe wall around the Blue Hole to allow the Calypso to enter.

It was interesting to see the giant underwater stalactites at the Blue Hole, but since you go quite deep you can’t linger there for long and there is really not much sea life. We saw far more sea life in the shallows near the hole. Overall we would not consider it a great dive. The rest of the Belize Barrier Reef, however, is a different story, and hopefully we will soon have a chance to return and explore some more.

Belize Info Box
· The Belize Barrier Reef is one of the largest coral reef systems in the world.
· It has one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.
· Ninety percent of the reef has yet to be researched.
· Only 10% of the species living in the reef have been discovered.
· There are over 100 types of soft and hard corals.
· There are over 500 species of fish living in the reef.
· Reef species include: French angelfish, queen triggerfish, spotted drum fish, cowfish, parrotfish, Christmas tree worms.



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Taking a Dive in Belize

My husband and I love to dive. This past July we discovered Belize, a fabulous place to dive, full of great sea life and amazing people. We did a liveaboard, which is when you stay on a boat for multiple nights and enjoy various dives throughout the day.

On our liveaboard we could dive up to five times a day, including night dives. When you are not diving you can sit on the sundeck, look through photo books to identify the fishes you see underwater, or swap stories with other divers.

Belize is a very special place. It is full of friendly people that are always smiling and are very helpful. It also has wonderful sunny weather. But what makes it really special is the fabulous undersea fauna. On our dives we saw many beautiful creatures such as spotted eagle rays, octopuses, lobsters, and turtles.

Among the different dive sites we visited, we went to the Great Blue Hole. This is a large submarine sinkhole near the center of Lighthouse Reef. It was made famous by Jacques Cousteau, who declared it one of the top 10 scuba diving sites in the world. Belize was a beautiful place to dive and hopefully we will be back soon to explore some more.

 

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Taking a Dive in Belize

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Taking a Dive in Belize

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