What a dive

Deep and meaningful ... the Blue Hole is a wonder of nature, formed
when subterranean caverns collapsed thousands of years ago.

Steve Meacham takes the plunge into Belize's majestic Blue Hole, one
of the world's great underwater spots.

There are some phrases designed to put you at ease when you're 50
kilometres offshore and about to dive deeper than you've ever been
before. "Don't worry about the sharks" is not one of them.

Alex, our dive master, a softly smiling Belizean, quickly explained.
The sharks swimming alongside us would be of the harmless Caribbean
reef variety. They might look intimidating, but they were just being
inquisitive. No, really. They were so laid back you'd think they
were listening to Bob Marley.

Alex was briefing us before we set out to explore one of the world's
great dive sites, the Blue Hole, off the coast of Belize.

Don't feel too guilty if you don't know where Belize is. Most people
don't. It's one of the world's smallest democracies, only 10 times
the size of the ACT, with a population of 200,000, sandwiched
between Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. Many people still know it
better by its former colonial name, British Honduras. Which makes it
an oddity in the region: the only country in Central America where
the official language is English, not Spanish. For most of its
history, it has been content to be a backwater, not quite sure
whether it was Central American or Caribbean.

But recently it has been put on the tourist map, for two reasons:
regular flights from American cities such as Los Angeles and Miami,
and the fact that the world's second largest barrier reef (after
Australia's) lies in its territorial waters. Even further out to sea
are three coral atolls, the Turneffe Islands, Lighthouse Reef and
Glover Reef, which, in turn, means that Belize has some of the best
deep-sea fishing and scuba diving on the planet.

It was the diving which had lured us and, in particular, the Blue
Hole. To reach it, we had set off at 5.30 am from Ambergris Caye,
the palm-frocked island which doubles as the country's main tourist
centre, in a threateningly small twin-engine speedboat.

For two hours, the nine divers in our group had been buffeted as
Alex negotiated a route through the relatively sheltered waters of
the mangrove-fringed Turneffe Islands before hitting the rolling
waves of an open ocean. Yet any discomfort was quickly put aside as
Alex moored our boat on one of the permanent anchoring chains and we
were able to see the Blue Hole for the first time.

From the surface, it looks mightily impressive: a dark blue doughnut
the size of a football pitch, surrounded by the lighter turquoise
waters of the Caribbean. The real majesty, however, is only apparent
when you plunge many metres below.

For the Blue Hole is a wonder of nature, formed 15,000 years ago
when an ice age exposed the limestone beneath the reef and formed
huge subterranean caverns. After the ice age, the rising water level
forced the roof of the cave to collapse, forming a sink hole which
plunges down 140 metres. Jacques Cousteau first popularised this
dive in 1970, and what has drawn his disciples here ever since are
the unusual features which cling to an overhanging remnant of the
old cave: massive submarine stalactites, great columns of rock
formed before the ocean encroached.

Alex's briefing was firm. To see the stalactites, we had to get
below the overhang - and that was 40 metres deep. For safety's sake,
we would have to descend very quickly. The group could not afford
any stragglers since that would use up valuable air and bottom time.
If you couldn't make it down to the 40 metres within the allotted
three minutes, Alex's colleague would escort you back to the surface
to snorkel while the rest of the party carried on. No ifs, no buts.
So, with some nervousness, we rolled off the boat. Alex had warned
that the initial 18 metres would be quite murky, but it cleared as
soon as we reached the top edge of the wall, and we were suddenly
confronted with a seemingly bottomless void of the most beautiful

Better still, all nine of us were there to enjoy it. In unison, we
sank ever deeper into the void. Long before the three minutes were
up, our gauges were reading 40 metres, yet the temptation - as Alex
had foretold - was to drop even deeper. Fortunately, the mysteries
of the overhang were now revealed, and we took turns swimming
through the maze of stalactite sculptures.

On cue, we were joined by four or five Caribbean reef sharks, each
one about 2.5 metres long. It's not easy to know whether people are
smiling when they are wearing diving masks and their lips are
fish-mouthed around regulators, but I swear all nine of us were.
Certainly, by the time we were back on the boat, having slowly
ascended through our safety stops, we were all stumbling over our
words about what a magical experience it had been.

Not that our exploring was over for the day. Our next two dives took
us to the other highlight of Lighthouse Reef, Half Moon Caye. Apart
from being one of the most celebrated wall dives in the Caribbean,
Half Moon Caye has some of the most unusual bird life. While our
divemasters cooked lunch on the island - the Belizean favourite,
chicken, rice and beans - we set off on foot to a little wooden
observatory tower where we were able to watch the large colony of
red-footed boobies, which are as exotic-looking as they sound.
Most tourists to Belize are drawn by the diving, snorkelling,
fishing and other water sports to be found on the cayes which lie
off the mainland. The word, pronounced "key", comes from the Spanish
"cayo", meaning low-lying island, and there are 175 altogether, many
of them little more than sandbars with just mangrove trees and birds.

Essentially, there are two main groups of tourists to Belize:
affluent Americans, who see it as a cheaper, and less spoilt,
version of the Bahamas, or backpackers of every nationality who are
travelling through Central America and see it as a perfect spot for
some R and R. Neither group is disappointed, and neither will you
be, provided you understand it is the simpler pleasures that are on
offer here. Those seeking sophistication should head elsewhere.
That's what the Spanish conquistadors did five centuries ago.
Finding nothing to plunder, they left it largely alone, which turned
out to be a mistake when, in the 17th century, it became a base for
the pirates and buccaneers who made their fortunes plundering the
treasure ships of the Spanish Main. Belize City, with its safe
harbour, became one of the chief ports of iniquity in the Caribbean,
until the whole province was snatched from the Spanish by the
British in 1862, becoming one of the most obscure colonies of the
empire. So it uneventfully remained until 1981, when it became an
independent democracy.

All this makes Belize very different from its neighbours. There have
been none of the coups or revolutions which have bedevilled the
region, and the stable currency, pegged to the US dollar, means that
it is much more expensive than the bargain-basement republics around
it (expect to pay Australian prices). The main difference, of
course, is that English is the official language, although many
Belizeans converse in a singsong patois that is a cross between
English and their native creole.

By and large, visitors either decide to spend their time on the
cayes or on the mainland. We chose the cayes, although the mainland,
a mixture of lush farmland and rampant wilderness, has much to
offer. The Maya Mountains, which run along the border with
Guatemala, are covered in dense rainforest, streams and rivers, and
are so rugged that the area was used as the jungle training ground
of the British SAS. Forests, which used to be plundered by loggers,
are now being cherished as a tourism asset, with the growth of a
number of eco-lodges and wildlife sanctuaries.

Just as exotic as any wildlife are the large number of Mennonites
who fled religious persecution in Europe and now farm much of the
land around the country's new capital, Belmopan. You can see them at
work in their fields, dressed in their dungarees, or sitting in
their horse-drawn carts, looking for all the world like characters
from the Harrison Ford film Witness. And if that's not enough, you
can always visit some of the 600 ancient ruins left by the Mayan
civilisation, the most celebrated being the temple complex at

However, don't reserve too many hours for Belize City itself.
Despite its colourful history, there is little left of any great
moment. Battered over the years by one hurricane after another
(which is why the capital was moved to Belmopan), it has a
down-at-heel atmosphere which falls short of faded charm. Tourist
muggings, once common, have been curtailed by the presence of
special tourist police who patrol the main part of town. But, even
so, Belize City is a place most travellers stay in no longer than
necessary, which is usually the time it takes to travel from the
airport or the bus stations to the quaint terminal from which
ferries speed them to the outlying cayes.

The two main destinations are the two largest cayes, Caulker and
Ambergris. Caulker - motto, "no shirt, no problem" - is the smaller,
and the closer to Belize City, about 40 minutes away by motor boat.
The charm of the island, and the islanders, was apparent as soon as
we began to explore. Not that there is much to explore. The entire
island is barely 7.5 kilometres long, and 1.5 kilometres wide.
There are only three streets - imaginatively called Front Street,
Back Street, and Middle Street - and none of them is any grander
than a simple sand track since the only vehicles on the island are
motorised golf carts, which double as delivery vans and taxis. We
had no trouble finding a room in a beachfront hotel and then relaxed
over a lunch of fish tortillas at a restaurant over the lagoon.
Caulker is an unhurried, take-us-as-you-find-us place. There is not
very much - a few bars, restaurants selling fresh lobster and conch,
an Internet cafe, an American deli and stalls offering snorkel
trips, dives, ferry rides and cycle hire (though why you would want
to hire a cycle when you walk the island in half an hour is
mystifying). The locals seem to typify the best side of the
Caribbean - warm, friendly, welcoming, laid back with a minimum of
the hassle that has taken over other Caribbean cultures. One of them
cheerfully chastised us with the words: "Hey, mon! You're walking
too fast. This is Caulker, slow down!"

We found it so enchanting we were reluctant to move, but after a
couple of days we took the morning speedboat to Ambergris, 25
minutes away. It differs from the other cayes in that it is not
really an island; the northern end was actually attached to Mexico
until the Mayans built a canal to separate it from the mainland. It
is also more developed, a fact that became apparent as our boat
cruised past a ribbon of 30 or 40 hotels which line the main
beachfront leading up to the main town, San Pedro. There are plenty
of visitors who find San Pedro already a little too developed. Yet
it's not Mexico's Cancun; for the time being, the streets are still
made of sand and the main form of transport is still the golf buggy.
We liked it. It is a more obvious place to base yourself, especially
if you're looking for some kind of nightlife, though you can still
walk from one end of the town to the other in less than half an hour
(at Australian pace). It remains essentially an overgrown fishing
village, where the church is still a centre of social life. Still,
there is a greater range of restaurants, a lot more bars, and every
type of accommodation, from simple cabanas to luxury resorts. Again,
we found a beachside hotel with little difficulty (although in the
peak season you should book ahead) and hired a cycle so we could
swim and snorkel at some of the more remote beaches. One of the
attractions of Ambergris is the proximity of the barrier reef, the
Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which lies at the southern tip of the
island and is one of the best places to snorkel and dive close to

It was to Ambergris that we returned after our adventure at the Blue
Hole. That night, as the sun went down, we celebrated with some of
our fellow divers at one of the restaurants on the island. This one
specialised in Caribbean jerk cuisine, and as we tucked into a dish
of spicy conch washed down with a decent glass of white wine, the
man behind the bar began showing a video for some travellers who
were thinking of diving the Blue Hole the next day.
We couldn't help looking at the video. Generally it looked pretty
accurate. Except for one thing. The sharks definitely looked smaller
than the ones we remembered.

WHEN TO GO: For divers, it's a year-round destination, with water
temperatures roughly the same as Bondi in summer. Visibility is
supposed to be better in April and June. We went in November, a
month after the wet season. Peak season is Christmas, when Americans
flock south.
GETTING THERE: The obvious way from Australia is to fly via Los
Angeles. The Star Alliance group of airlines, including United, has
regular connections to Belize City. However, many backpackers will
travel overland, either via Mexico or Guatemala. There are regular
buses connections between Cancun in Mexico and Flores in Guatemala.
We booked via Trailfinders, 8 Spring Street, Sydney; phone 9247
GETTING AROUND: Belize has only two paved highways, one running
north to Mexico, the other heading west to Guatemala. The public bus
system is well organised, with Belize City the hub, and fares are
inexpensive. For the cayes, regular ferries run from Belize City.
The fare to Ambergris costs about $30 one way.
WHERE TO STAY: Ambergris and/or Caulker cayes. It really depends on
your wallet, and whether you are going in peak season or not. We
never booked ahead and were able to choose the hotels we liked. The
best way is to buy a guidebook which suits your style of travel and
use its recommendations. Or check the Ambergris Caye Web site
(, which offers an up-to-date list of accommodation
WHERE TO DIVE: We dived with Blue Hole Dive Centre, of Ambergris.
Check for the latest prices and deals. The
three-dive trip to the Lighthouse Reef, including equipment, cost us
$320 a person. For the Blue Hole dive, you must be PADI-certified or
the equivalent.