For Whom the Bell Atolls: A Look at Belize’s Coral Islands

Hemingway took great pleasure in the unspoiled beauty of the Florida Keys – in his day, the remoteness of the islands was beyond compare. Although Hemingway’s keys are now developed, there still parts of the Caribbean that offer you another chance to enjoy nature in its purest form.

If you strike out from the Belize shoreline and venture beyond the Belize Barrier Reef, you'll find three Caribbean gems swathed in azure ocean waters: Lighthouse Reef Atoll, Glover's Reef Atoll, and Turneffe Atoll. These anomalies of the sea were first explained by none other than Charles Darwin; in 1842 Darwin characterized ‘the atoll’ as a combination of island and coral reef extending deep into the water, defying definitions of ‘island’ and ‘coral reef’ by their association. The island gradually eroded until it came to rest below the surface, dwarfed by an ever-growing reef, thus creating the standard structure of an atoll.

Belize atoll

Photo by Serge Melki on Flickr

Belize's atolls adhere to this structure; each features a very steep outer rim that gives rise to some impressive wall dives, as well as a perimeter rim of reef flats and islands, and the central lagoon. However, each Belizean atoll promises a distinctive perspective for divers, snorkelers, anglers, and nature-lovers alike.

Lighthouse Reef Atoll

Named one of the top ten diving sites in the world by Jacques Cousteau<, the Great Blue Hole represents the biggest draw for visitors to this most easterly atoll in Belize. But the famous limestone sinkhole is hardly the atoll's sole attraction. The 18-mile-long Lighthouse Reef plays host to the spectacular Half Moon Caye Natural Monument where endangered bird and turtle species nest by the thousands. Combine that with Half Moon Wall and the wall at beautiful Long Caye and you have some of the best opportunities to explore the ‘real’ Caribbean. Dramatic dropoffs create a breathtaking habitat for brightly-colored fish and a multitude of coral species. And for anyone looking to enjoy a luxurious, immersed-in-nature experience, the future eco-resort Zophora on Long Caye will be a perfect home base.

Glover's Reef Atoll

Go swashbuckling through Belize history with a visit to Glover's Reef Atoll located 36 miles out from the mainland. The atoll takes its name from the 18th century English pirate John Glover, who rested on Glover's Reef between his attacks on Spanish merchant ships to plunder their gold and valuables (Lonely Planet Guidebook, Belize). Today, the atoll itself is the treasure - Glover's Reef Marine Reserve is the largest marine reserve in the country and holds status as a UN World Heritage Site. Spectacular fishing and dive opportunities among the more than 700 patch reefs make this atoll a favorite among adventure travelers.

Turneffe lighthouse

A lighthouse on Turneffe Atoll. Photo by Serge Melki on Flickr.

Turneffe Atoll

More than 200 mangrove islands comprise Turneffe Atoll. Turneffe carries a reputation as the best fishing spot in Belize - the maze of mangroves plays host to an abundance of fish nurseries and aquatic wildlife. Bonefish, permit, and tarpon dart wildly through the waters, giving avid anglers a winning chance at catching a grand slam. Located only 25 miles off the mainland, the waters surrounding Turneffe Atoll boast a shipwreck, steep coral walls, shallow reefs, and great viewing opportunities for eagle rays.



Whether you plan on diving, fishing, or seizing treasures of unspoiled natural beauty, you won't find a better place to do it than on one of these wonders resting in Belize’s calm Caribbean waters. Centuries of geological history brought these atolls into being, and the maintenance of marine reserves and a commitment to sustainable development ensures that travelers will be enjoying the Belizean atolls for a long time.

Let the Lighthouse Lead You to Adventure

There are many romantic associations with the word lighthouse. Think of a wise sentinel on a rocky face, watching over as you test your limits in the choppy surf. You get to be as adventurous as you dare, so long as that lighthouse stands tall, serene, eternal, protecting you from harm.

Lighthouse Reef Atoll in Belize fulfills the aquatic explorer's every romantic ideal. Within this coral atoll’s thirty-mile-long, eight-mile-wide lagoon, scuba divers and snorkelers encounter dramatic drop-offs, a vast array of vibrant coral species, many fascinating aquatic animals, such as the green moray eel and the peaceful nurse shark – not to mention the world-famous Great Blue Hole. This atoll is one of the most extraordinary dive spots in Belize, rivaling top diving destinations the world over.

Lighthouse Reef Atoll

An atoll is defined as a ring-like coral island or a string of small islands that partially or completely encircle a lagoon. Since reef-building corals thrive exclusively in warm, brackish water, atolls exist solely in the tropics and subtropics. Only four such atolls can be found in the western hemisphere. The Lighthouse Reef Atoll is the easternmost of Belize's atolls, located 50 miles southeast of Belize City and accessible only by boat or private float plane.

In 1836, long before travelers could take a convenient flight to these pristine waters, world famous biologist Charles Darwin sailed to this region and became enamored of Belize's atolls. Darwin claimed that they constituted "the richest and most remarkable coral reefs in the entire western Caribbean." More than a century later, Jacques Cousteau investigated the Great Blue Hole and the Belizean atolls, stirring up awareness of the area as a top diving spot. You can plunk yourself into the water anywhere along Belize's coral reefs and witness gorgeous and diverse aquatic life such as graceful gliding stingrays, silvery ray-finned barracuda, and parrotfish as bright as a neon sign´┐Ż but the recognized "best dive spots" are situated along the walls of Half Moon Caye and Long Caye. And of course, the iconic Great Blue Hole.

Advanced divers will want to start their diving adventure at the Great Blue Hole — undoubtedly the deepest dive of the day at a depth of 130-140 feet. Even at this depth, the Blue Hole extends another 300 feet or so below you, allowing for a profound sense of the ocean’s extent. Those without an advanced certification can still witness the Blue Hole by snorkeling the stunning coral surrounding the impressive drop-off to the Great Blue Hole.

For those ready to descend into this world-renowned limestone sinkhole, expect a steady descent into blue-black water in the company of Caribbean reef sharks. Then, you’ll have about 8 precious minutes requiring good buoyancy control at 135 feet. As you approach the deepest point you can safely descend, note the disappearance of almost all fish life. Instead of the active characters of the reef, this part of the Great Blue Hole features eternal stone projections – giant stalactites and stalagmites.

After emerging from the depths, move on to one of the cayes and get some solid ground under your feet. Half Moon Caye looks like a movie set built for a tropical island paradise. But don't be fooled, the caye is all-natural. Its perfect sandy beaches, towering palm trees, and endemic wildlife could only be designed by natural forces. Offshore it gets even better. A shallow shelf on the eastern side of the atoll, only 15 feet underwater, literally crawls with garden eels. From there, you can expect to find canyons and tunnels with sandy shelves where nurse sharks and gigantic stingrays hunt for food.

Within view is Long Caye — over 14 times the size of Half Moon but hardly touched by human development, it is a true desert island paradise. Giant palm trees sway in the warm breeze, and tucked away is a private lodge and a boutique dive resort. In the next few years it will become the home of a luxury eco-resort affording unprecedented proximity to Belize’s best dive and snorkel spots. Tres Cocos, referring to the coconut trees on the island, is the name of an interesting dive spot off the caye. A sandy bottom slopes down gently to about 30 feet before it plunges vertically - a great spot to explore overhangs decorated with colorful sponges and a rainbow of soft corals. Many exotic fish take refuge from predators under the overhang, so expect to see turtles, angelfish, shrimp, and morays. Divers and snorkelers in search of the most spectacular dives sites in Belize spend the day anchored in Lighthouse Reef to dive The Aquarium, Half Moon Wall and other world-class wall dives.

When it's time for a break from exploring the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, settle in on one of the sandy beaches to relax. Keep an eye trained on the mangrove forests for a chance to see elegant egrets or the yellow flicker of a Great Kiskadee. Even if you don't agree with Charles Darwin on other matters, you'll no doubt share his love for the atolls of Belize.