Beyond the reef, atolls present new frontiers


Special to The Herald

It's no surprise that Belize is a natural for divers. Nestled on the
Caribbean coast of Central America, the second-largest barrier reef in the
world fringes the length of its shoreline.

Beyond the reef is an untouched frontier with three offshore atolls,
or clusters of coral islands, ringed in heavenly turquoise lagoons. Divers
staying on the coral atolls at Glovers Reef, Lighthouse Reef or Turneffe
Reef, will discover legendary adventure dives at their doorsteps.


The 'Grand Slam' or the big three dives around the atolls are The
Elbow, at the southern tip of Turneffe Atoll, and The Blue Hole and Half
Moon Caye near Lighthouse Reef. Divers on the mainland spend big bucks and
journey far by boat to dive these sites while most atoll resorts include
them in their dive packages.

The most famous dive site in Belize is the Blue Hole near Lighthouse
Reef Atoll. Like a giant pupil in a sea of turquoise, the Blue Hole is a
perfectly circular limestone sinkhole, 1,000 feet in diameter and more than
400 feet deep. Once a mammoth cave submerged since the Ice Age, a portion of
the roof collapsed, creating a massive blue ocean hole.

Divers descend to around 100 feet to a deep undercut where giant
stalactites hang from the ceiling of the ancient cavern. You can explore the
dripstones to a depth of 130 feet and begin the slow ascent to the surface,
sometimes encountering sharks and grouper along the way.

Topside, Half Moon Caye is a national monument and protected reserve
to a colony of 4,000 nesting Red-footed Booby birds inside Lighthouse Reef
Atoll. Majestic eagle rays in flank formation cruise the wall, while
oversize Southern stingrays hide in the white sand slopes at dive sites
along Half Moon Caye Wall. The Elbow is a popular advance drift dive at
Turneffe's southern tip. Strong currents here bring in a parade of
spectacular schooling fish and large pelagics. Expect big gatherings of
horse-eye jack, yellowtail snapper and Atlantic spadefish, and if conditions
are right, divers will encounter spotted eagle rays and sharks. Pods of
dolphins live nearby and often play around divers on their safety stop.


Glover's Reef is the smallest of the three atolls. On Southwest Caye,
one of five tiny islands in the atoll is Isla Marisol, a family-owned island
and resort that offers dives at more than 20 local sites.

A dramatic wall drop to over 2000-feet just behind the island gives
divers that ''into the blue'' experience. The Pinnacles is a unique dive
site with gigantic coral heads towering to the surface draped in sponges,
fans, whip corals and a bevy of marine sea critters. Within the protected
marine sanctuary, eagle rays, turtles, moray eels and a kaleidoscope of
tropical fish can be encountered on most dives.

Giant whale sharks make their annual appearance at Gladden's Spit
during full moon phases in April, May and June. Thousands of mutton and
Cuberra snapper come to spawn, and whale sharks, the largest kind on the
planet, come to feed. Whale shark dives cost extra at Isla Marisol, but the
thrill of seeing the awesome creature is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.


Turneffe Atoll is the largest of Belize's atolls and closest to the
mainland, 15 miles east of Belize City. While Glover's and Lighthouse Atolls
are made up of rings of sandy islets, Turneffe is made up of dozens of
mangrove islands, offering a protective sanctuary and nursery for juvenile
fishes and corals. A marine system of coral reef, back reef flats, sea grass
beds and mangroves makes Turneffe one of the most biodiverse atolls in the

Turneffe Flats, an intimate resort, takes divers to more than 60 dive
sites around four sides of the atoll.


On the eastern side of Turneffe Atoll is the 166-acre Blackbird Caye,
home of Blackbird Caye Resort, which shares the island with a small field
station for dolphin research.

The adrenaline rush drift dive, The Elbow, is practically around the
corner, along with 70 other world-class sites.

Tranquility abounds and between dives one can rest in a hammock, spot
iguanas scoot across the sand or watch the lagoon change colors from peridot
to jade, aqua and sapphire.


I often wonder how the Audubon Society got away with jumping the park
fee for the Blue Hole / Half Moon Caye from $10 BZ per person to a WHOPPING
$60 per person...just like that!! Talk about killing the goose that lays
the golden egg. Wonder what they do with all that money? A guard shack at
Half Moon Caye and mooring buoys don't cost a lot of money.