In a cozy little shack at the end of a pier, my Belizean tour guide spread a map of the ocean over his desk, pointing out the best snorkeling spots on the Belize Barrier Reef. His finger rested on a stretch of reef just four miles off the San Pedro coast: the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Established in 1987, Hol Chan is Belize’s oldest marine reserve. Its once-depleted populations of aquatic species have made a full recovery, and its three distinct marine ecosystems are now thriving hotbeds of underwater activity.
According to my guide, the must-see within the protected park is Shark-Ray Alley, a shallow area tucked into the reef where gentle nurse sharks and friendly stingrays congregate. Snorkeling in Hol Chan provides a glimpse of vibrant coral species, opportunities for incredible aquatic wildlife encounters, and breathtaking views to boot. Sign me up! I scribbled my name on the registration sheet and before I knew it, our group was loading into the boat and cruising towards the Hol Chan cut (also known as a quebrada).
This popular snorkeling location is best enjoyed in the early morning before other tour groups arrive. Set out before 8 a.m. and make your first stop at Shark-Ray Alley. For a more exclusive opportunity to experience this marine reserve, travel to Belize during the off-season. A little rain won’t spoil your underwater adventures.
As soon as we arrived, I set my feet down on a sandbar in the shallows and stood to adjust my mask… Whoa! My legs immediately started wobbling beneath me, my knees buckling into the calm water. I looked down to see literally hundreds of fish – big fish, about the size of skateboards – swarming around my legs. The flashing blues, yellows, and pinks stunned me; I was entangled in the most massive school of fish I’d ever seen.
One of the snorkeling guides led us to the Alley for shark- and stingray-petting while another guide took a group off to the North to explore the edge of the coral break that bounds the three-square-mile reserve. I learned from my guide that Hol Chan showcases nearly every type of coral found in the entire Belize Barrier Reef. Their varied forms give rise to a world both alien and familiar: sprawling networks of sponges look like weird encrusted trees; sea whips reach out with elongated fingers to the snorkelers above; bright yellow brain coral seems to contemplate from the deep.
Navigating these waters thick with sea life proved difficult, so I held fast to another snorkeler’s arm as we made our way to the Alley. We were literally surrounded – the gregarious creatures come right up to you, brushing against your legs, attempting to win your favor and a sardine treat. Despite the fact that it’s illegal to touch or feed them, and the fact that all Belizean tour guides receive training in marine conservation and wildlife protection, many guides (including ours) get more familiar with the sharks and rays than perhaps they should. Our guide scooped a stingray out of the water and hugged it to his chest, planting a kiss on its head before letting it splash back in. He next looped his arms around a nurse shark and held it out for us to pet.
It’s a cycle that’s hard to break – the creatures certainly invite such interactions – and it’s debatable whether this friendly contact harms the animals or the environment – but as a general rule, snorkelers and divers should not be touching, let alone petting or “kissing” aquatic species. The nurse shark calmly waited in the water, allowing snorkelers to run a hand over its sandpapery skin. Moved by an opportunity I’d probably never have again, I reached out.
The shark emitted a low, clear hiss and I snatched back my hand. No one else seemed alarmed by the hissing shark among us. A stingray grazed my flippers and I built up the nerve to reach for the shark once more. Again, a threatening hiss. My reflexes kicked in and I scrambled away towards the boat. This shark, I thought, is going to eat me. Never mind the fact that nurse sharks are the least aggressive of the shark species you’ll find in Belize – my life was in danger! I flippered through schools of vivid fish and groups of extroverted stingrays to reach the safety rope the guides had tied to the boat. I sat down on it in an attempt to recover myself.
Suddenly, I heard the same hissing sound, only nearer. My heart racing, I glanced around for the source of the sound – only to realize that the hissing was coming from the boat’s motor.
Absurdly embarrassed and ashamed of myself, I clung to the safety rope a moment, then clambered up into the boat. I wasn’t quite ready to laugh at myself and shake off the experience, so I hung out on the ladder for awhile, my snorkel and mask dangling from my neck, flippers thrown onto the deck. Deep purple and bright red shone across the sea as the sun began to set, painting the Caribbean with the glorious hues of dusk. The waves lapping at the edge of the boat transformed my funk into a moment of serene calm. I remembered why I came and relaxed in the moment.
When traveling in Belize, it’s best to go with the flow. Even a fearful experience can lead you to deeply connect with your environment, and that’s what I found on the Belize Barrier Reef.