Into the Blue Hole: Scuba Dive Belize's Lighthouse Reef Atoll

Blue Hole, Belize
Blue Hole, Belize  (Top Photo Group/Thinkstock)

Tracing its way along Belize's white-sand coast, Lighthouse Reef forms an integral section of the longest coral reef system in the Western Hemisphere. Its crown aquatic jewel, Blue Hole National Monument, lures legions of wetsuit-clad admirers the world over, but the reef is also endowed with plenty other coral formations, aquatic walls, and dive sites to keep even the most wave-weary under the surface of the Caribbean.

Just 50 miles southeast of Belize City, the physical mass of Lighthouse Reef is meager: only 30 miles long and eight miles wide. Yet some of the country's most impressive dives are to be had within this atoll. Most divers first stop at Blue Hole National Monument—and with good reason. The monument was formed from 15,000-year-old caverns that collapsed, creating a 1,000-foot-wide sinkhole. Centered in 75 square feet of shallow water, the hole descends over 400 feet, with a straight, 125-foot vertical descent. The Blue Hole looks most impressive from the air—brilliant shades of blue rapidly shift from the lightest of Caribbean aqua to the deepest navy as you approach the monument's apex, but its true glories aren't merely skin deep: shallow reefs around the perimeter of this aquatic abyss burst with vibrant coral, home to angelfish, butterfly fish, sea urchins, and giant green anemones, while a vast network of underwater valleys and tunnels lie hidden in its deep-blue heart.

But, while Blue Hole may receive the lionfish's share of attention (Jacques Cousteau was an ardent admirer), the Lighthouse Reef's best full-on diving can be found at Half Moon and Long Cayes; Half Moon Caye Natural Monument is easily the best of the 40 or so dive sites on the atoll. Off the eastern coast of Lighthouse, this shallow reef shelf rests in 15 feet of water, giving novice divers and snorkelers the chance to intermingle with the underwater locals, including an impressive population of garden eels. Delving deeper into the Caribbean, a 20-foot reef wall supports a bustling contingent of nurse sharks, gigantic stingrays, featherduster worms, sea anemones, shrimps, crabs, starfish, angelfish, damselfish, butterfly fish, and parrot fish. The reef then plunges another 1,000 feet down Half Moon Wall, where a colorful riot of sponges and coral growth intermingle with sea turtles, sea fans, barracuda, lobsters, morays, jacks, wahoos, groupers, and millions of smaller fish. Long Caye, positioned on the southern outshoot of Lighthouse Reef Atoll and directly west of Half Moon Caye, is a remote outpost of big palms and glassy water that protects the same impressive aquatic life found at Half Moon—but without the crowds, the shoals of fish notwithstanding.

A small airstrip on Big Northern Caye enables daytrippers to drop in from Belize City, and a flotilla of boats is on hand to take visitors out to easily accessible dive and snorkeling sites. However, hook up with a regional outfitter and plan on staying on Lighthouse Atoll for at least four days—you'll only scratch the surface, but that will more than likely be enough to get you to return. Those drawn to Blue Hole should temper all pulls of gravity with the sobering fact that some experience is necessary to plumb the monument's depths—local guides with solid diving reputations are highly recommended.

Published: 7 Jan 2003 | Last Updated: 17 Jul 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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