Belize’s Lighthouse Reef Atoll

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, attracts legions of wetsuit-clad admirers the World over, but the reef is also endowed with plenty other coral formations, aquatic walls, and dive sites.

Just 50 miles southeast of Belize City, the physical mass of Lighthouse Reef is meager: only 30 miles long and eight miles wide, and some of the country’s most impressive dives are to be had within this atoll.

Most divers first stop at Blue Hole National Monument. The monument was formed from 15,000-anni caverns that collapsed, creating a 1,000-foot-wide sinkhole.

Centered in 75 square feet of shallow water, the Hole descends over 400 ft, with a straight, 125-ft 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 are not just 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 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 ft of water, giving novice divers and snorkelers the chance to intermingle with the underwater locals, including an impressive population of garden eels.

Diving deeper into the Caribbean, a 20-ft 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 Moom, but without the crowds.

A small airstrip on Big Northern Caye enables day trippers 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.

It is a good idea to hook up with a regional outfitter and plan on staying on Lighthouse Atoll for at least 4 days, you will only scratch the surface, but that will more than likely be enough to get you to come back.

Those drawn to Blue Hole should temper all pulls of gravity with the fact that some experience is necessary to dive the monument’s depth, local guides with solid diving reputations are highly recommended.

The Great Blue Hole remains one of the top attractions in Belize. It is not only a world class destination for diving but also a rich habitat for a variety of marine life like nurse sharks, reef sharks, black tip sharks and even giant groupers.

Here are ten things you probably didn't know about the great blue hole of Belize.

- 1. The great blue hole is a tremendous underwater sinkhole that is located off the coast of Belize and lies near the center of Lighthouse Reef.

- 2. The actual name of “The Great Blue Hole” was created by British diver and author Ned Middleton after having lived in Belize for 6 months. He was so impressed with this natural feature that he reasoned in his book “Ten Years Underwater” that if Australia could have ‘The Great Barrier Reef’ then Belize could equally have ‘The Great Blue Hole’ – thus setting this feature apart from similar, albeit lesser in size, structures.

- 3. The hole is circular in shape and has over 300 meters across and 125 meters deep. It is the world’s largest natural formation of its kind and is part of the Belize Barrier Reef System.

- 4. Giant stalactites, dripstone sheets, and columns can be found inside the blue hole. Scientists believe that these structures were formed in a dry cavern above sea level during glacial periods.

- 5. Analysis of stalactites found in Great Blue Hole shows that formation took place 153,000; 66,000; 60,000; and 15,000 years ago.

- 6. The French Explorer Jacques Cousteau revealed the secrets of the great Blue Hole to millions of viewers in a television series called “The Undersea World of Jaques-Cousteau”.

- 7. The Blue Hole Monument is one of the seven wonders of Belize’s World Heritage site.

- 8. In April of 2012, Bill Gates, the 2nd richest man in the world visited the Great Blue Hole with his family.

- 9. Day trips to the Great Blue Hole are full-day trips and are offered from the coastal tourist communities in Belize. The tour usually includes one dive in the Blue Hole and a dive on Half Moon Wall.

- 10. The Discovery Channel ranked the Great Blue Hole as number one on its list of “The 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth”.