Diving the Turneffe Islands

The Turneffe Islands make up the largest of the three offshore atoll reefs in Belize and also are the most accessible from the mainland. Unlike the other two-Glovers and Lighthouse-there are over 200 cayes within the reef which are covered with mangroves. These have created land, lagoons, creeks and expansive flats. There are a few routes through from one side to the other, but these should only be attempted by those who know the waters well. Click here for photographs of this area.

Closest to Belize City and easily accessible, Turneffe features spectacular diving suitable for every level of diver. Along the western reef line north of the Elbow, novice divers can feel comfortable on shallow reefs, removed from the steep and deep walls so typical elsewhere. A varied terrain, wrecks and an abundance of marine life make the eastern reefs on Turneffe's southern end sensational for seasoned divers. Current and walls make the diving here challenging but great for finding large pelagics.

Turneffe is the largest of the three atolls and the only one with an extensive cover of mangroves. Most established dive sites are limited to the southern end, but there is enough here for several weeks of diving.

The marine life at Turneffe Island makes the scuba diving an adventure like no other dive destination in the Caribbean. The vastness and variety of marine life and coral formations are truly unmatched.

With more than 200 mangrove islands, the atoll is a natural nursery for a wide variety of exotic fish, including the rare Whitespotted Toadfish, which is endemic to Belize. Other types of tropical marine life commonly viewed include eagle rays, playful dolphins, turtles, huge green morays, giant jewfish, nurse sharks, reef sharks, trunkfish, grouper, snapper, permit, and horse-eye jacks.

The Turneffe Atoll area stretches 30 miles long and 10 miles wide. It has often been described as a myriad of different dive destinations all bundled into one.

The depth of the water and distance from the mainland of Belize result in excellent underwater visibility, normally in excess of 100 feet and often ranging up to 150 feet.

The numerous mangrove islands and tidal zones support the Caribbean's most abundant collection of marine life. Large pelagics, rays, turtles, eels, and schools of snapper, jacks and permit are common sights.

Together, the three atolls of Belize have more than 160 miles of walls and reefs suitable for diving - seldom are other divers seen. The secluded, unspoiled environment of the atolls is a far cry from the major dive centers and other popular fish destinations of the Caribbean. It is truly one of the last frontiers for divers and anglers alike.

The entire eastern shoreline of Turneffe is protected by a continuous vertical reef approximately 35 miles (56 km) long. From the crest of this reef, a narrow ledge falls away over a distance of about 100 yards (91 m) until it reaches an average depth of between 55 and 65 feet (17-18 M) where the drop- off begins. Along this ledge are a number of spur and groove formations which are host to a myriad of reef fishes.
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At a depth of approximately 150 feet (45 m) is a horizontal ridge with another at 250 feet (76 m). These ridges extend throughout the length of the reef and are an example of wave erosion when water levels were much lower than today.

There are few navigable entrances through the reef. In the southeast there is North Cut, some 400 yards (121 m) south of Cocoa Tree Caye. A little further south is South Cut just 150 yards (45 m) from Big Caye Bokel. The depth of both channels is only 8 feet (2.4 m) so their use is limited to small craft. They both provide access into the South Lagoon where a dive resort is situated on Caye Bokel.

On the southwest corner of the atoll there are entrances at Pirates Creek just above Big Caye Bokel, and Blue Creek, two miles (3.2 km) further to the north. Both entrances are only 5 feet (1.5 m) deep at the mouth although they do deepen to 8 and 13 feet (2.4 and 4 m) respectively. Any craft entering through these channels must exercise extreme caution. The mangroves create murky water inside the atoll and this obscures underwater obstacles. Click here for larger version

Further north there is Rendezvous Cut on the west coast and Eastern Cut on the opposite side of the atoll. These entrances are much larger and are used by the diving trade from San Pedro. En route to Lighthouse Reef, the dive boats arrive at the Turneffe Islands about mid-morning and usually dive at a site not far from Rendezvous Cut. Afterwards the boats enter through the cut and anchor long enough to allow the passengers a light lunch before proceeding through Eastern Cut and across to Lighthouse Reef.

Ecologically this is a fascinating atoll reef. Unlike west of the barrier reef, the mangroves are completely surrounded by the sea. For this reason the wind, tides and gentle currents all combine to distribute the nutrients propagated in the mangroves around the reef. This is part of a cycle that is continually, if unknowingly, witnessed by the divers who visit the reef.

On the east coast in particular, there are massive concentrations of fishes which come in close to the reef to feed. Here are the largest shoals of fishes I have ever seen. Hovering between 50 and 80 feet (15-24 m) are shoals of horse-eye jack, crevalle jack, black snapper, cubera snapper, mutton snapper and permit.

There are literally thousands of fish in a single shoal with more than one shoal often in sight. Individual fish sizes range from 5 to 30 pounds (2- 4 kg), but the size of all fish in any single shoal is always uniform, as they were spawned together and have grown together. The diver will frequently encounter this in shallow water where the fish will be 2 or 3 inches (5 or 8 cm) long, but as the fish grow they tend to disperse as they need more individual space to feed. Here, the concentration of nutrients and the resultant populations of smaller fish is so great as to sustain shoals of larger fish which feed on them. These, in turn, attract the pelagics, and lemon, Caribbean reef, blacktip and the occasional solitary hammerhead shark can be seen here.

Manta rays also put in an appearance, and green and hawksbill turtles are usually seen. Bottlenose and spotted dolphin often fish these waters. A family of six to eight bottlenose dolphins live in South Lagoon and regularly swim to within a few feet of the shore. A real treat in this area is the abundance of spotted eagle rays. One diver counted no fewer than 31 of these splendid creatures in a single dive.

The drop-off on the eastern side of the reef begins at 80 feet (24 m). Venturing deeper, divers will encounter some truly formidable scenery. Occasionally a large shoal will be silhouetted against the sun above the diver. Apart from the grouper and jewfish always associated with deeper waters, there are other surprises here. Tuna, especially skip jack tuna, and Spanish and king mackerel are common. Wahoo and cero are less common but still regularly sighted. On rare occasions divers have come face to face with an Atlantic blue marlin or a sailfish.

Throughout the remainder of the western coastline there are many creeks and cuts between the mangrove cayes within the atoll. The prevailing easterly winds have the effect of blowing sand and silt westwards and this has a detrimental effect on the reef. Coral that is constantly subjected to silt and other sediment eventually chokes and dies. This is all too obvious when comparisons are made between the different reef structures and their condition on either side of the atoll.

On the west, spur and groove formations dominate the underwater scenery with too many wide grooves of sand and few spurs of coral. There are one or two exceptions, but nobody searches for diving which is good to mediocre when excellent diving is found elsewhere on the atoll. This complete change of underwater terrain is a feature of this atoll reef alone and is largely due to the great number of mangroves which are absent on the other two atolI reefs.

All is not doom and gloom, however. Large spotted eagle rays patrol the coast, and where there is a coral spur it is always surrounded by a plentiful supply of common reef tropicals. Lobster also flourish because the area is not very popular with fishermen.

The northern tip of the atoll is buffeted constantly by the long Caribbean swells and is unsuitable for diving most of the time. The reef crest reappears and north of this the underwater ledge is very wide. Nurse sharks are likely to be encountered during the dive, and for once divers will see them swimming and not resting on a ledge. The best bet for the ,photographer is to keep absolutely still and wait for the shark to swim towards him. This requires a degree of patience and silence by everyone in the group, but is often rewarded.

Those divers who know the Turneffe Islands intimately will swear that the diving is far superior to anywhere else. Certainly the effects of the mangroves on the fish population make this atoll particularly interesting, but as to which is the best diving I really cannot say. The barrier reef and each of the three atolls all have their own unique features.

You don't have to be a fisherman or a diver to enjoy Turneffe Islands. For instance, there's excellent snorkeling along the nearby reefs for the advanced and beginner, for those who wish to experience many of the same thrills as the divers- Petting a nurse shark, exploring a sunken shipwreck, or playing with a school of dolphins. Every snorkeling trip is a new and different adventure!

Quite different from its neighbor Lighthouse Reef, this atoll has few steep walls that seem endless. Turneffe looks as if it sat on huge stairs, each step splendidly decorated with coral. One particularly interesting site is located on the very southern end of the atoll. The Elbow.

Its swift current make the Elbow home to all sorts of predators. The diver can see everything. Huge schools of Jacks and other makrels., gigantic barracudas suspended effortless in mid water, waiting to strike. Often huge groupers and Jewfish are hanging out in bunches, watching the sharks patrolling the reef. This site is truly the spot to see large fish.

The atolls offer a great variety and superb diving conditions. Especially on rough days on our island a daytrip there can brighten your day.

SPECIFIC DIVE SITES

Listed below are a variety of dive sites around the southern end of the atoll reef and two on the western side. The shallower sites are all very good for night diving although some are better than others. Difficulty of access by boat at night does, however, preclude night diving at some very good sites.

Click for larger version of this drawing THE AQUARIUM
This shallow setting is reminiscent of a household aquarium. It is very clean and tidy, with a variety of small corals and a profusion of small reef fishes including almost every variety of grunt. The maximum depth is 12 feet (3.6 m), so it is an ideal site for the last dive of the day. it's a good spot for underwater photography.

Big coral heads and outcrops start at a depth of 35 feet (11 m) and stretch down to 60 feet (18 m). These coral formations are large and wide with mountainous star coral being the most dominant variety. Numerous tunnels, arches, nooks and swim-throughs make this a fascinating dive site.

TRIPLE ANCHORS
Typical Depth Range: 40-60 ft (12-18 meters)
Typical Current Conditions: None to minimal
Typical Visibility: 60 ft (18 meters)
Expertise Required: Novice

Triple Anchors is just south along the western reef line from Blue Creek. Its bottom topography and coral formations are typical of this side of Turneffe Atoll, with coral stacks scattered across a broad, gently sloping reef.

Among the coral are scattered remnants of an early 18th century vessel, including a few artifacts and three anchors, which give the site its name. The three anchors occur along a NW/SE line over a distance of several hundred yards. Two large anchors are cemented into the reef in an upright position and a smaller one lies in the sand among the coral formations. It takes an experienced eye to recognize these relics because they are now heavily encrusted with corals and sponges. One of the two large anchors is easily found because it sits a short distance northwest of the mooring system recently installed at the site. Its flukes are completely buried by coral and sponge growths, but its shaft cannot be mistaken, despite the heavy invertebrate encrustations.

The other two anchors can be found in opposite directions. To the northwest is the smaller anchor, whose symmetric form is preserved by the coral. It and the mid-sized anchor are not the best photographic subjects compared to the large anchor southeast of the mooring. Its flukes and shaft remain distinctive.

This dive also has plenty of other attractions. The fish and invertebrate life are varied and provide good photographic opportunities. Although there are plenty of large sponges and invertebrate groupings, the visibility is better for close-up or macrophotography. Queen angelfish are particularly impressive subjects here. Three and four of these colorful tropicals can be seen chasing one another among the coral formations. Most are good size, some of the largest I've seen anywhere in the Caribbean, with a length close to 1.5 ft.

This site is named for three very large anchors lying at a depth of 45 feet (14 m) dating from the mid- to late I 700's. No wreck has ever been found here, so most likely they were slipped when the anchorage became dangerous during a storm. The site is buoyed.

HOLLYWOOD
Typical Depth Range: 20-50 ft (6-15 meters)
Typical Current Conditions: None
Typical Visibility: 50 ft (15 meters)
Expertise Required: Novice For less experienced or infrequent divers, Hollywood is a good place to get comfortable diving the offshore atolls. Located on the leeward side of Turneffe Islands, this site is sheltered from swells and large waves. The reef here is wide, slopes gently and provides ample shallow-water diving. Dive boats generally anchor in 4045 ft of water. It takes a good swim seaward to reach water depths greater than 50 ft.

Snorkelers will find they too can enjoy the protected shallows of Hollywood. A swim toward the distant mangroves takes you toward a reef crest that is typically under several feet of water. Because the reefs are submerged and waves attenuated, this is one of the best places to snorkel the reef crest.

Perhaps the least desirable aspect of this dive site is its low visibility. Although the water is by no means murky, clouds of suspended matter derived from the atoll are typical. Photographers and snorkelers may find this annoying because reefs at 2050 ft are lush and varied. Bathed in turbid waters, the luxuriance of stony and soft corals is surprisingly good. Here the broken reefs are built primarily by abundant tan lettuce leaf and boulder coral. But flower, giant brain, smooth brain and club finger corals also commonly compete for space. Less common are grooved fungus, large cactus, rare rose, large cupped boulder and polygonal corals.

Interspersed among stony corals is an abundance of large soft corals and sponges. Soft corals such as forked sea feathers, sea feathers and sea fans form a virtual forest, reaching 4-5 ft in height and growing on both reef formations and on the sandy floors between the coral build-ups.

Equally impressive is the presence of so many large emergent sponges. Iridescent tube, giant yellow tube, huge vase and basket sponges are common primarily because their survival during storms is enhanced by reduced water turbulence on these shallow, protected reefs.

A large amount of algae garnishes these reefs and supports a varied marine life. These algae are important food sources for a variety of herbivorous fish and urchins. You should take time to look for some filamentous green algal lawns because these are fastidiously weeded and aggressively defended by a variety of damselfish. Most common are the threespot and dusky damselfish, which fend off foraging striped parrotfish and divers with aggressive attacks. Many of the common reef tropicals such as barracudas, trumpet, queen angels, grunts and snappers are sure to be seen.

Big coral heads and outcrops start at a depth of 35 feet (11 m) and stretch down to 60 feet (18 m). These coral formations are large and wide with mountainous star coral being the most dominant variety. Numerous tunnels, arches, nooks and swimthroughs make this a fascinating dive site.

SUSIE'S SHALLOWS
Susie's is another shallow dive ideal for rounding off the day. The maximum depth is only 15 feet (5 m) and the coral heads rise up to within a few feet of the surface. All the reef fishes can be found here. it is an especially good place to photograph the radiant rock beauty.

PERMIT PARADISE
Typical Depth Range: 35-60 ft (11-18 meters)
Typical Current Conditions: None to minimal
Typical Visibility: 60 ft (18 meters)
Expertise Required: Novice

The permit, a large member of the pompano family much prized by the serious game fisherman, is a regular visitor to this area. Here a horses hoe-shaped curve cuts into the coral on the very edge of the reef. Coral types and patterns are very similar to the Hollywood site. The depth here is 60 feet (18 m).

Located along the same reef trend, Permit Paradise reefs are similar to those found a short distance north at Hollywood. Looking down from the surface after entering the water, you can see abundant clusters of large coral stacks. Most have 10-15 ft of relief above the white sandy bottom at a depth of 40-60 ft.

Large, deep-bodied permits are present in mid-water above the reef consistently enough for this site to bear their name. These graceful and fast swimming fish feed in small schools and make a challenging photographic subject.

The coral growth is fresh and varied. Forked sea feathers are especially noticeable because they form a virtual forest of swaying branches. Other soft corals contributing to the graceful canopy above a garden of stony coral include corky sea fingers, deep-water lace corals, candelabra and scattered growths of black coral.

Boulder and brain coral form the framework of most coral stacks, but large plates of various kinds of fungus coral are common along with flower and finger corals. Invertebrates and fish of all types find these ideal hiding places, so divers can discover dozens of organisms by exploring a single coral stack.

Adding to the spectacle of color and form are a variety of emergent sponges. Plenty of large basket, yellow tube, rope, iridescent tube and stinking vase sponges rise above to compete for living space with corals. The space struggle is equally great below where encrusting sponges and moss animals monopolize the undersides of corals and line the walls of caverns and reef overhangs.

Click for larger version of this drawing WRECK OF SAYONARA
Typical Depth Range: 30-60 ft (9-18 meters)
Typical Current Conditions: None
Typical Visibility: 50 ft (15 meters)
Expertise Required: Novice

Sunk by Dave Bennett in 1985, the Sayonara is a modern derelict. It is a former passenger/cargo boat and makes an excellent dive for inexperienced wreck divers. The wreck rests on a bed of coral and sand at a depth of 50 ft, listing slightly to starboard. It has about 15 ft of relief and is intact from fore to aft. Her wooden frame is deteriorating rapidly so entry of the cabin is not advisable as the whole structure may break apart. Besides, she was stripped of everything except the shaft and prop prior to sinking. Exterior exploration of the wreck can provide some interesting invertebrate life that is easy to photograph.

Around the folded back doors and loose metal sheets you can locate a variety of organisms inactive during the day. Basket starfish cling to the roof of these artificial caverns. Typically, they appear as pale tan disks because their arms are folded around the central body. Coral shrimp, file clams and other residents seeking shelter can also be found in these protected alcoves.

Much sediment and rotting wood can be seen and exploration inside the wreck is not encouraged as bubbles not only reduce visibility by disturbing the accumulated mud, and also may cause the superstructure to collapse.

The Sayonara rests among some very luxurious coral growth and away from the wreck you'll find plenty of marine life on the reef. Coral growth is typically distributed in discontinuous formations 10-20 ft across and about equally as high.

Most impressive here is the size and variability of emergent sponges. Giant basket and stinking vase sponges dwarf some of the coral formations. Basket sponges 4-5 ft high are common, together with yellow tube and bright red finger sponges. Red encrusting sponges are everywhere.

Modest fish populations may also be seen. There are always stoplight parrotfish, French, gray and queen angels. A host of barracudas frequent the area. Small schools of French grunts circulate among the reefs and occasionally peacock flounders rest camouflaged out on the sand flats.

Scores of nearby basket and vase sponges. Sandy slope with patch reefs features lots of coral heads, some 30 feet tall.

The Sayonara was the transport boat for the Turneffe Island Lodge. It was taken out of service and sunk as a dive site in 1985. The wreckage is rapidly deteriorating. The wreck has become the hangout for a number of fishes which are used to being fed by divers. The site is buoyed.

BAT BROOK SHALLOWS
Inside the reef on this southwest corner of the atoll is a wide area between the cayes and the reef. This entire corner, with its shallow diving conditions of only 15 feet (5 m), is ideal for repetitive dives. This site is very similar to Susie's Shallows although the fish life is different, with French and gray angelfish in the "young adult" stage of their development being particularly common.

JILL'S THRILL
Situated right on the edge of the wall is Jill's Thrill, one of only two wall dives off the southwest side of the atoll. Right along this corner of the reef the coral drops sharply to 60 feet (18 m). The reef then slopes gradually over a distance of 100 yards (91 m) down to a depth of 110 feet (33 m) where we find this site. On the edge of the reef wall the coral reaches up again to within 60 to 65 feet (18-20 m) of the surface before dropping down. Schooling cero, Spanish mackerel and small groups of spotted eagle rays are regularly seen here.

RANDOLPH'S ROCKS
At an average depth of about 60 feet (18 m) are a series of scattered coral heads and boulders resting on a flat surface. Giant brain corals are especially prevalent as are deep water gorgonians which provide attractive cover for all kinds of smaller reef fishes and crustaceans.

HMS ADVICE
Located just outside Pirate's Creek in 16 feet (5 m) of water are the remains of a British naval cutter which was wrecked on June 1, 1793. With a length of 56 feet (17 m) and a beam of 21 feet (6 m), the vessel carried ten 3-pounder guns. It is likely that the guns were salvaged long ago because of the shallow water, although the site is worth a search with an underwater metal detector. After almost 200 years, little is left of the actual ship except for three anchors and some mast rings. Observant divers are occasionally rewarded with buttons, brass spikes and broken bottles, so the area is worth a good dig around.

WEST POINT WALL
This is the second of the wall dives on the southwest corner of the atoll. Two coral ridges, each 35 to 40 feet (11 - 12 m) long, protrude horizontally from the vertical reef wall. They are 65 feet (20 m) apart and both ridges can be visited during a single dive. Several large fish shoals, as well as some pelagics, are seen here, but they are not as plentiful as on the eastern coast. Nevertheless, the coral is crowned W h a good display of gorgonians and the dive site is memorable for the striking coral compositions which are very different from elsewhere.

CABBAGE PATCH
Between the lighthouse and the reef is a pristine area of staghorn, elkhorn, brain and lettuce leaf corals. These varieties are found all around the southern end of the atoll, but the beauty of this particular spot is quite unbelievable. It is an excellent spot for divers who wish to photograph species of coral. Here, like elsewhere in the shallower waters, are all the common reef fishes. Angelfishes, butterflyfishes, squirrelfishes, parrotfishes, grunts, clamselfishes and even queen triggerfish are all present in good numbers along with several species of moray eel. Large tarpon are often seen between here and HMS Advice.

THE ELBOW
Typical Depth Range: 60 ft (18 meters) to unlimited (wall)
Typical Current Conditions: Strong (2 knots)
Typical Visibility: 100 ft (30 meters)
Expertise Required: Advanced

This popular dive site is found at Turneffe's southernmost promontory. Here the reef reverses its direction and is very exposed, deep and wide. Shallow reefs crest at 80 ft and deepen progressively toward the southern tip of the elbowshaped promontory. Waters above the reefs have typically excellent visibility, with currents generally flowing from the north. However, their direction and strength are inconsistent and should be checked to plan your dive.

The Elbow is considered an advanced dive because of environmental conditions. Seas are often rough even on calm days because of large ocean swells, making entries and exits more difficult. Once in the water, currents usually sweep divers out toward deep water, beyond the reef, and 75% of the dive time must be spent in mid-water because bottom time on the reefs at depth is very limited. Excellent buoyancy control and air consumption are simply a must. Depth, visibility, current and marine life conditions make this site better as a drift dive and more suited for wide-angle photography.

Like similar promontories elsewhere in the world, this site features abundant, large pelagics. Large congregations of snappers, horse-eye jacks and cubera snappers school feed in mid-water above the reefs. By looking in the canyons, divers can see large groupers lurking beneath a cover of soft corals and rocky coral ledges. Seasonal appearances of shark and kingfish add to the pelagic spectacle, but most spectacular is the majestic flight of eagle rays. On exceptional days a school of more than 50 eagle rays can bring a sensation of euphoria to even the most jaded and experienced diver.

Most popular Turneffe dive. Outstanding marine variety and color.

THE CORRAL
These two sites are close together, but are dived separately by the local dive trade. While currents are hardly experienced in Belize, these are both drift dives situated at the southern tip of the atoll reef. The currents provide a natural concentration of food which accounts for the greater number of fish shoals and pelagic life. The Corral has a constant depth of 90 feet (27 m) and can be undertaken by most divers. The Elbow is at the very southern tip and is for the advanced diver only. The average depth at the beginning of the Elbow site is 90 feet (27 m) and usually ends at 120 to 140 feet (36-42 m). Here are some of the largest gorgonians to be found anywhere. Swaying gently with the current, they create a e current, they create a marvelous backdrop to the fish life encountered as the diver drifts gently past.

THE ZOO
An excellent photography site and home to numerous nurse sharks, spotted eagle rays and hawksbill turtles.

THREE AMIGOS
Spurs that thin out to a flatter reef. Look for eagle rays over the wall and abundant reef fish on top.

MYRTLE'S TURTLES
Typical Depth Range: 60 ft (18 meters) to unlimited (wall)
Typical Current Conditions: None to strong
Typical Visibility: 100 ft (30 meters)
Expertise Required: Intermediate

Myrtle's Turtle is the first in a series of dive sites on the eastern limb of Turneffe Atoll. It is located just a short distance north of the Elbow and directly in line with the old lighthouse platform and two western points of Turneffe. It is among the best dive destinations Belize has to offer.

Myrtle's Turtle is a deep dive and requires divers to monitor their depth and time carefully. The reef is fronted by a sheer wall that begins at 155 ft and plunges vertically to intersect a slope covered with sparse coral plates and sea whips at about 250 ft. Above the wall, the reef slopes upward steeply to form the seaward flank of a system of spurs and grooves that crest at 55 ft. Along the wall, living coral formations form huge triangular blocks and an uneven line of alternating ridges and narrow cuts up to 35 ft deep. These shelter a fantastic variety of tropical fish and invertebrates.

The growth of deep-water lace coral is especially impressive on coral ridges near the wall. Elegant stands of these deep red soft corals can lend both color and form to the foreground of wide-angle compositions. A little seaward and above the reef, schools of Spanish mackerels, horseeye jacks, cubera snappers and permits commonly feed in midwater. Also present may be small schools of eagle rays, creole mackerels and tuna.

At one specific spot on the southern point, a large green turtle, named Myrtle, has appeared consistently in the spring in this part of the reef for the past 15 years. Myrtle is about 5-6 ft long and has grown accustomed to divers.

LEFTY'S LEDGE
Typical Depth Range: 50 ft (15 meters) to unlimited (wall)
Typical Current Conditions: None to strong
Typical Visibility: 80 ft (24 meters)
Expertise Required: Intermediate

The straight eastern reef line south of Black Beauty forms a small scallop at Lefty's Ledge. All along the rim are massive coral bastions and at several locations seaward, coral growths create prominent ledges that jut out above the deep-water drop-off. Behind the curved rim, the reef is deeply incised with sandy canyons that slope seaward and spill out over the dropoffs at 100 ft. Most sandy strips are relatively narrow features littered with small coral structures, but one looks like a jet runway because of its enormous width and length. This combination of craggy reefs and open sand flats creates a range of environments suitable for many different kinds of marine life. Pelagics are often attracted to an area because of an abundance of food or suitable shelter. Lefty's Ledge provides both, so pelagics are the maul attraction. Perhaps as many as 50 kinds of fish can be seen here on a single dive by exploring the reef and keeping an eye on the open sea.

All along the sloping drop-off, you can encounter schools of horse-eye jacks, bar jacks, Spanish mackerels, creole wrasses, yellowtail snappers and permits. Eagle rays, ocean triggerfish and barracudas can also be seen, along with occasional appearances of hammerhead, black tip and bull sharks.

Photographers will find it easy to shoot several rolls above and along the reef, featuring blue chromis, striped grunts, mutton snappers, black durgons, blue tangs, damselfish, groupers and parrotfish.

Plenty of other marine life can draw attention from the parade of fish. Near the wall and on the ledges are gorgeous growths of deep-water lace coral and interesting formations of boulder or sheet coral. On all parts of the reef, boring, emergent and encrusting sponges create decorative forms and add rich warm colors to photographs. As you move in and out of coral formations and across the reef top, you may find large hermit crabs, Pederson Cleaner shrimp stations, browsing flamingo tongues and orange crinoids. Wherever you dive at Lefty's Ledge, you will always be richly rewarded.

JOYCE'S JUMP

GORGONIAN BLUFF
These are three separate sites situated close together with similar features. At the edge of the reef wall, there is an awesome handshaped coral promontory with three "fingers" outstretched, each with a different name. At the tips, these fingers are 50 to 60 feet (15-18 m) apart and approximately 60 feet (18 m) deep. The last of the fingers, Gorgonian Bluff, is well known for its magnificent display of deep water gorgonians. Blacktip sharks are regularly seen at all three sites.

BILLY BOB'S SHALLOWS
Along the southeast corner of Big Caye Bokel in shallow water averaging 25 feet (8 m), are scattered coral heads with splendid structures of elkhorn and staghorn, as well as other types of coral. This is a pristine area and one of the few which attracts reef squid and octopus.

Click for larger version of this drawing BLACK BEAUTY
Typical Depth Range: 60 ft (18 meters) to unlimited (wall)
Typical Current Conditions: None to strong
Typical Visibility: 80 ft (24 meters)
Expertise Required: Intermediate

Black Beauty is another site along the same eastern drop-off as Myrtle's Turtle. Once again, the reef top consists of a series of triangular slivers of living coral and deep sand-floored ravines, culminating in a straight line near the wall at about 60 ft. From there they dip steeply toward the wall and deep water.

The featured attraction at this site was a huge black coral "tree" found along the drop-off in shallow water. However, like many other large, shallow, black coral growths, this beautiful feature has succumbed to the unrelenting hunt and demand for black coral jewelry. Rarely are black coral trees now found here above 50 ft, leaving only scattered small trees growing along the steep reef slope above 150 ft.

Although black coral growths are few, this site still has much to offer. Large pelagics frequent the wall and more than 40 kinds of other fish live among the rugged coral terrain. The ridges consist of beautiful coral growth and shelter many species of marine life.

MAJESTIC POINT
Typical Depth Range: 50 ft (15 meters) to unlimited (wall)
Typical Current Conditions: None to moderate
Typical Visibility: 80 ft (24 meters)
Expertise Required: Intermediate

Majestic Point is a small promontory formed by a massive coral ridge. Its coral buttresses rise vertically about 55 ft from the steep drop-off found all along the eastern reefs on Turneffe's southern end. On either side of this majestic spur are other well-developed coral ridges separated by sandy crevices. The sand channels generally run perpendicular to the reef line, but some turn and intersect the reef at acute angles near the drop-off.

Like similar areas to the south near Myrtle's Turtle, there are plenty of deep-water lace coral and gaudy sponges on the massive coral ridge. Many lace corals form huge fans more than 6 ft across. These sessile carnivores and filter-feeding basket, giant tube and rope sponges thrive because they have good exposure to plankton that is swept along the reef front by currents.

The promontory is very photogenic and can be the focus of most of your dive. Late morning sun bathes the decorative cover, divers or large pelagics in golden rays and the point is surrounded by streams of light when you look upward toward the early afternoon sun. This allows you to capture the effect of sunbeams being filtered by lace coral, or frame a diver dwarfed by the impressive presence of the point.

These three sites offer some delightful spur and groove formations which have created canyons, tunnels and exciting swim-throughs. As the canyons narrow, the corals combine to create a sheer cliff between the depths of 70 and 150 feet (21-45 m). Black Beauty was named after a magnificent growth of black coral which was over 10 feet (3 m) high and 8 feet (2m) across. It is deplorable that in a single day in 1989, one man removed it all. Majestic Point is just that- a majestic collection of corals in a stunning formation.

T'S TRAIL

CUT THROAT

FRONT PORCH


Typical Depth Range: 50 ft (15 meters) to unlimited (wall)
Typical Current Conditions: None to moderate
Typical Visibility: 80 ft (24 meters)
Expertise Required: Intermediate

Directly east off the front porch of Turneffe Island Lodge is another site along the same eastern reef line, northward of Majestic Point. Like its neighbor, this site has a deep and high relief reef. Its top at 55 ft is about the same depth as Majestic Point, but here fewer canyons extend through the reef all the way to the dropoff and none of the coral ridges are exaggerated in size.

Coral growth is vigorous and fresh here and, as everywhere else along this part of the reef trend, it forms many protective recesses that shelter a host of large and small creatures. Fish are quite prolific at Front Porch and several curious forms may be discovered within the darkened nooks.

One resident found here, which is not particularly common elsewhere in the Caribbean, is the dark blue toadfish. Its body is completely covered with white or light blue spots except around the eyes where a series of short lines highlight a star pattern. Some divemasters in the area erroneously identify this fish as a stargazer, but its bearded large mouth, body shape and its sound distinguish it as a species of toadfish. Many divers who have not seen this fish have heard its distinctive croaking noise, similar to, yet different from the grunting noise made by grouper. Although a shy fish, some divemasters have managed to coax it out of its hiding place to give photographers a most rewarding memento of the reef. GAIL'S POINT
Typical Depth Range: 45 ft (14 meters) to unlimited (wall)
Typical Current Conditions: None to moderate
Typical Visibility: 80 ft (24 meters)
Expertise Required: Intermediate

Gailes Point is one of those dive sites along the eastern reef line that has everything. The reef line sweeps inward toward the lagoon and forms a shallow crescent several hundred yards across and perhaps 50 yards deep. On either side of the reentrant is a massive coral ridge that forms a distinctive point. The reef top slopes gently seaward at 45 ft. It consists of poorly defined spurs and grooves that coalesce and become increasingly rugged near the drop-off.

Overhangs and caverns can be found all along and near the drop-off, including several large caverns at 70 ft on the northern coral ridge, which flanks the recessed reef line. These shelter large groupers and nurse sharks. This part of the reef may well be a grouper mating site, as a large number of Nassau, black, tiger and marble groupers can be seen here in early December.

The broad sand flats behind the reefs (along the drop-off) are popular feeding areas for spotted eagle rays looking for crustaceans. The drop-off is a superb place for working with a model to shoot exciting "diver-with-spotted-eagle-ray" shots.

Although the presence of large pelagics can be totally consuming, this site has much more to offer. The stony coral is especially well developed here and some of the narrow dark crevices are crowded with sponge and soft coral. Clusters of bryozoans, encrusting sponges and tunicates are other great photo subjects found under ledges and on the shadowed walls of crevices. On the reef top, filefish, butterflyfish and trumpetfish find the abundant reef recesses comforting.

Deep parts of the reef offer still more variety. Thickets of deep-water lace coral, scattered growths of black coral and scroll coral grace the sloping drop-off below 60 ft.

From bottom to top, this reef has enough attractions to satisfy even the most discriminating diver. One dive is simply not sufficient to capture all that is here. Although located very close together, these are separate dive sites. Lots of shallow grooves cut through the coral at a depth of 45 to 60 feet ~(I 4- 18 m) at all these sites. Over the reef wall are undercuts which create massive overhangs. There are also a number of ledges and a rarely equaled profusion of tube and barrel sponges.

It was here that 31 spotted eagle rays were seen during a single dive. Gail's Point is the southeast corner of the reef, and divers wi I I notice a change in the coral structures when heading north. This is the beginning of the dramatic vertical wall which continues along the eastern reef line.

BLUE CREEK
Typical Depth Range: 20-35 ft (6-10 meters)
Typical Current Conditions: None
Typical Visibility: 50 ft (15 meters)
Expertise Required: Novice

Blue Creek reef is named after the tidal pass that divides a tangle of mangroves a distance behind the western reef line. The reefs at Blue Creek are shallow, broken and have abundant and varied marine life. Snorkelers and less experienced divers will find this site very attractive. Live-aboards visiting this site frequently spend the night here and offer this site as a night dive.

Much of the marine life at Blue Creek is seen only on night dives. Crabs and lobsters are among the most exciting and interesting nocturnal creatures. Although these arthropods generally forage as individuals, dozens of animals can be found searching for food on the sand flats or coral formations after dark, including spectacular giant spider crabs. If you wish to photograph these invertebrates, you will need a wide-angle lens because their bodies alone are too big for a close-up kit framer.

Decorator crabs aren't as large, but they are plentiful, colorful and also active at night. These strange-looking crabs attach a variety of sponges to their bodies, so no two look alike. Look for them on sea fans and sea rods and keep an eye open for large Spanish lobsters. These bizarre creatures like to scrounge for tiny bits food and are most commonly seen sand channel floors.

Other invertebrates seen here best photographed at night inch brittle starfish and urchins. Ruby, slimy and Oersted's brittle stars can be tot near the entrance of every little reef, hole, along with Suenson's brittle stars draped over sponges. You will also find an abundance of reef and long-spined black urchins, both of which shun light and do not wander far from shelter even at night. Although only invertebrates are mentioned here, fish watchers will not be disappointed. Blue Creek makes an exciting dive that everyone can enjoy.

THE SECRET SPOT

FABIAN'S ROOST

BIRTHDAY REEF
The main feature of these three sites is the vertical reef wall. From the reef crest, the underwater terrain gradually falls away over a distance of about 100 yards (91 m) to a depth of 60 feet (18 m). Here begins the drop- off- an amazing precipice which is an example of Belizean underwater beauty at its best. Even the novice diver can savor this wall as it begins in relatively shallow water. Mountainous star, brain (including the giant brain coral) and finger corals are intermixed with large tube and barrel sponges. This is the beginning of big fish country, and by that I mean big fish in big numbers as they shoal lazily just above the drop-off. To the east is the open water of the Caribbean so pelagics are often seen, including the rare oceanic whitetip shark.

PETER'S PEAKS
The bottom here slopes away to a depth of about 35 feet (I I m). At this point the diver is confronted by an imposing wall of living coral. To get to the other side, you can either swim up to about 15 feet (5 m) and cross over the top of the wall, or you can find one of the many tunnels in the coral. Entering at 35 feet (11 m), you invariably come out the other side closer to 60 feet (18 m). This is very exciting diving.

RENDEZVOUS CUT
It is here, close to Rendezvous Cut on the western side of the atoll, that the diving trade from San Pedro give their customers a first dive when on a two- day visit to Lighthouse Reef. There is no reef crest so the boats anchor above the underwater ledge and have a large expanse to choose from.

At 40 to 50 feet (12-15 m) the seabed consists of outcrops of the most common corals. Generally rising only a few feet (I m) above the sand, there are occasionally much larger coral heads, usually giant brain, although very large branches of elkhorn are also seen. in amongst the various nooks and crannies are all the popular reef fishes the diver has come to expect: angelfishesespecially the decorative rock beauty butterflyfishes, trunkfishes and even small shoals of boxfishes. Green moray eels are also quite common.

For a number of people, this is the first taste of Belize underwater. Listening to them after the dive, the comments are indeed favorable and they are generally glad to have made the journey and experienced such good diving. But soon the memory of this particular dive will have become rather vague as they begin to discover what Belize really has to offer.

RENDEZVOUS WALL
One of the most curious dive sites I have ever encountered is just to the south of Rendezvous Cut and is known as Rendezvous Wall. The reef wall commences at a depth of 35 feet (11 m), below which is a well-formed overhang. At a depth of 135 feet (41 m), in the center of this overhang, is a hole. To be exact, it is a small tunnel (too small for the diver to enter) formed by rainfall cutting through the limestone substrata when the sea levels were much lower than today. This tunnel connects right through to one of the lagoons inside the atoll and has become a fresh water outflow from that lagoon. Both the freshwater and the silt kill the coral and have not only created the overhang but have also caused the white appearance of the surrounding corals, which are known as the "icebergs."

COCKROACH SLOPE
80+ feet. Sandy slope to deep wall drop off.

N.E. POINT
Mildly sloped coral ridges 85 feet. Shark watchers hang-out.

N.W. HAUGER WALL
Vertical wall to 40 feet then slopes to 100. Groupers+.

RENDEZVOUS POINT
25 to 80 foot wall with canyons and grottos. Lots of Grouper.

VINCENT
Beautiful 25 - 75 foot wall. Grouper in abundance.

For more on the Turneffe Islands, click here.


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