A fishing guide at Turneffe Flats Lodge in Belize released a permit fish. Most guests at the resort come for the angling, so the dive boats that zip off to fish-filled reefs are never crowded.
Snorkeling in Belize can bring glimpses of sea turtles and fantastical fish.



A Hawksbill Turtle, an engagered species, glides through the waters off Turneffe Flats in Belize.


A Queen Triggerfish in the waters off Turneffe Keys in Belize.

Fly fishermen have flocked to Turneffe Flats Lodge (nicknamed T-Flats by repeat guests) for more than two decades in search of the "grand slam," a dream trio of catches that includes bonefish, permit and tarpon, which all swim in the mangroves and shallows around Turneffe Atoll off the coast of Belize.

T-Flats quietly added scuba diving and snorkeling in 1994. Today, it offers dive instruction, equipment and three trips onto the water daily with its 48-foot dive boat, the Ms. Ellie.

It might sound counterintuitive to spend your diving or snorkeling vacation looking for marine life alongside people with fishing poles, but think about it: the fishermen are there to catch (and usually release) fish, which means the marine environment is rich. And because most of the people at the resort are there to fish, you're more likely to be part of small groups of divers and snorkelers at a fishing destination than at a dive resort.

This is certainly the case at Turneffe Flats Lodge on Turneffe Atoll, the largest of only four coral atolls in the Western Hemisphere and a spot where the second largest reef in the world passes within a stone's throw of the shoreline (which means excellent snorkeling is literally within walking distance of your bungalow). Unlike the handful of dive resorts that operate on Turneffe Atoll, roughly 90 percent of your fellow guests at T-Flats will be fishermen, and the Ms. Ellie routinely carries between two and six divers.

Smaller groups of divers and snorkelers mean fewer disturbances to the marine life and a greater likelihood of sightings, more attention from dive masters and snorkel guides and more room and comfort on the dive boat.

Smaller groups also allow divers and snorkelers to tailor their days. If the group agrees to focus on shallow dive sites with great corals or drift dives with sharks, the T-Flats dive masters and snorkel guides are happy to accommodate.

During a recent trip to T-Flats I heard more than one guest credit snorkel guide Abel Coe's personal attention, ability to make them feel at home in the water, and uncanny knack for finding the area's most mesmerizing coral formations and marine life as highlights of their vacations.

And then there are the dive sites. During my time on Turneffe Atoll I explored a dozen of the roughly 60 sites around the atoll and spent almost 11 hours underwater in a group of just four divers. With visibility up to 100 feet in waters teeming with life, we were able to see spotted eagle rays slowly flapping by like underwater birds, loggerhead turtles, colorful and diverse coral formations, huge schools of fish flashing by in a blur of color, tiny snapping shrimp (which really do snap loud enough to hear underwater), spotted toadfish, peppermint shrimp, dancing crabs and much more.

The world famous Great Blue Hole, part of the Belize Barrier Reef System UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most dramatic deep wall dives on the planet, is also accessible from Turneffe Flats Lodge. During the hourlong boat journey to the Blue Hole from Turneffe Atoll, the Ms. Ellie was escorted part of the way by a pod of spinner dolphins, a bucket list-worthy treat even before we reached the site.

Once anchored over the Blue Hole, our group of four quietly and quickly giant-stepped off the Ms. Ellie and began peacefully descending past the site's coral-covered walls, circling sharks and massive underwater stalactites that lie at more than 100 feet below the surface before the other boats at the site had managed to gear up the divers on their packed boats.

In our small group, one of our dive masters was even able to stay at the side of a relatively new diver who was nervously making her first deep dive. It was hard not to gloat.

Karen Catchpole and Eric Mohl are in the midst of a multi-year trip through North, Central and South America. Follow along at www.trans-americas.com.

Star-Tribune