the southern tip of Ambergris Caye is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Hol Chan is Mayan for 'little channel." This sanctuary was officially established in 1987, and since then the return of all species of fish has been quite dramatic.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley is approximately 4 miles (6.4 km) south of San Pedro Ambergris Caye. It is the single most popular day trip from San Pedro, perfect for snorkeling or diving.
The reserve covers approximately three square miles (7.8 sq km) and is divided into three zones. Each one is clearly marked by buoys. The entire reserve focuses on a cut through the reef which is little more than 25 yards (23 m) wide and 30 feet (9 m) deep.
You must hire a boat and guide out of San Pedro or Caye Caulker. The costs depend on the services offered. It is easy to mix diving and snorkeling. Trips usually run once in the morning and again in the afternoon.
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Click for Reef Currents, Newsletter for the Northern Marine Reserve Management Unit
A wonderful visitor center in San Pedro on Caribena Street is open from 9am to 5 pm daily. The visitor center is well stocked with displays, information and brochures about the marine habitats of Belize.
The popularity of Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley are due to the close proximity of San Pedro, the large amount of fish life found with the Hol Chan "cut" accessible by snorkelers and beginning divers, the diversity of marine life encountered throughout the 4 zones of the park and the exitement and novelty of swimming with large numbers of nurse sharks and sting rays.
The break in the reef called Hol Chan, ranges from about 20 to 35 feet
deep. This area was recently made into a national park under the auspices
of the Belizean Government and the New York Zoological Society (Dr. Jacques
Carter, was instrumental as representative for the NYZ). Since establishment of the sanctuary, the return of all species of fish has been quite dramatic. This break was
probably was formed by erosion during the last low sea level stand (while
sea level was much lower and the reef was exposed as dry land). This pass
returns much of the sea water that comes across the reef as waves, back
to the sea. Even when wind generated surface currents are moving inward
through this break in the reef, a few inches to a few feet down there is
normally a strong current toward the seaward side of the reef.
The small blue hole in the Hol Chan Park (just off the beach at the Marco
Gonzales site area), is a collapsed solutioned vertical fracture, called
a joint. Carbonate sand and mud washed into this depression falls down this
cave system leaving very little sediment around it. The entrance to the
cave is a favourite spot for numerous fish that are fascinating to watch.
The water depth down to the cave is about 12 feet, making it relatively
easy to snorkel, but with SCUBA equipment a most enjoyable hour to hour
and a half can be spent. Larger fish are seen in this cave, including jewfish
and grouper. The edges of the joint are sparsely encrusted with living coral.
Strong outgoing currents at times, can be
found in the various channels. At Hol Chan, because it is
such a narrow deep channel, tremendous volumes of water are
tunneled from the outer reef lagoon through it on outgoing
tides. This hydraulic effect can produce strong currents and
snorkelers and divers should pay attention to these currents.
Under the cave overhangs in Hol Chan, divers should look out
for the very pretty Royal oF Fairy Basslets (these are 2 to
3" long, purple and yellow fish - Gramma loretto). Hol Chan
is also the habitat of a large moray eel population. With 5
different morays, the Green Moray (Gymnothorax funebris ) is
the largest, up to 6 ft long. note: OBSERVE BUT DO NOT PROVOKE, THEIR BITE
IS A NASTY ONE.
In the back reef, immediately south of Hol Chan there are several large
ballast rocks, but the provenance is unknown.
If you have enjoyed all dozen or so pages on this Hol Chan website, and still want more, click here for a little more information that is in our section on the National Parks and Reserves.
Diving the Hol Chan Marine Park
The Hol Chan Marine Park (Hol Chan is Mayan for Little Channel) is situated north of Caye Caulker. Declared the first marine park in the entire country of Belize,, this area has been zone a protected area. Due to its protected status, what was once a depleted fishing area has now been allowed to re-generate, producting to divers and snorkelers alike quite a colorful and varied fish spectacle.
The Hol Chan trip consists of two dives, both done outside the barrier reef area. Bottom composition in this area is mainly of coral canyons extending out like long fingers from the barrier reef. I prefer to refer to the coral composition in this area as "hard" corals, as opposed to the "softer" corals such as sponges and gorgonians found along the walls on the outer atolls. This canyon pehnomenon is caused by the motion of the water against the reef. On both dives today, you will note an abundance of HUGE fish. The Hol Chan dive is teeming with many of the fish overflow of the inside park and is colorful and highly interesting. It is not unusual in this area to spot schools of rays floating in the distance, or even schools of barracudas. The fish are pretty friendly and hand around out of curiousity. In fact, some are downright extroverts and may come right up to your mask to view you. Some of the fish are so friendly, they will stay around to be petted or may even comeup and "kiss" your mask.
Surface interval between dives is done in the "inside" area of the park where calmer waters prevail. Have something to eat (or drink). Plunge into the shallow water and snorkel off for a bit and explor the awesome wonders of the shallow waters before the next dive.
The highlight of this dive trip to me, however, is the Wreck dive. The "wreck" is really a sunken barge about 30 feet long located in approximately 80 feet of water. The main feature of this dive, though, is not necessarily the "wreck" but the fact that on this dive you are GUARANTEED to see sharks. A colony of curious nurse sharks make this wreck their home, as well as a friendly green moray that lives in the front part of the barge. Pet the eel if you dare, but remember that these are still creatures of the wild. Several sharks which I refer to as "grandpa-sized" sharks will circle you. Enjoy them. There are not many places in the world where this will happen.
Since they only eat two divers a week, check before you book this trip. Okay, that was a joke. These are probably some of the friendliest shsarks on planet earth. They have become accustomed to divers in the area and have become just as curious about you as you are about them. Please respect the wildlife. You are on their territory. Enjoy and bask in the pleasure and enjoyment of being on the same level with these awesome creatures.
Bottom time 40 minutes at 70 feet.
Enjoy your dive!!
Map of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, click image for larger version
In response to the
negative impacts of tourism on marine life, Hol Chan Marine Reserve has
conducted a Carrying Capacity Study, with the help of Green Reef Environmental
Institute and the World Wildlife Fund Mesoamerican Project. Click here for information.
Hol Chan has recently been expanded, for information about the Hol Chan Marine Reserve Extension, click here.
Here's a note on the early days of Hol Chan...
The San Pedro Sun in an article claim 50,000
visitors a year to Hol Channel on the Barrier
Reef. The number has to be an estimate, but
they sell tickets and collect money, so there
should be a more accurate number statistically,
I would think? It would be interesting to know
the accurate figure?
Hol Chan Marine Reserve Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Maps
Hol Chan channel, a 30 ft deep hole roughly a
hundred yard circle, in the Barrier Reef was
first put on the Scuba Diving map by Dick Moore
in his old navy boat that he bought second hand
up in Key West. Was about 40 ft long and had a
50 Buda diesel engine. Dick introduced me to
scuba diving in Belize, though I had done it
before in Canada on the lake at Kelowna in
British Colombia back in the 50's. Dick first
told me about the hole in the reef in the mid
60's. I started the British Honduras Scuba Diving
Association at that time and was more or less
the only Instructor certifying people in British
Honduras at the time. I probably didn't run
more than 3 dozen people a year to Hol Chan
channel with scuba or snorkeling. Nobody else
was doing it. Later by the early 70's the San
Pedro crowd started to take people snorkeling
there and by the end of the decade Scuba came to
Hol Chan channel on a regular basis, but still
never great in numbers. Perhaps at the very
most a thousand people a year.
I did a WHITE PAPER for the PUP government of
the day, mapping Hol Chan channel and
recommending it be made a Marine Park. But it
wasn't until the 80's that a Peace Corps I
believe actually, walked the Marine Park
lobbying through the PUP up in Belmopan. They
never acted on my recommendation that it be made
a Marine Park to serve San Pedro and Caye
Caulker tourism. The National Geographic gave
him an award of $60,000 USA for lobbying and
getting the PUP to make it a Marine Park. Lots
of places on the reef since then that I mapped
and sent drawings and recommendations on places
to make Marine Parks where eventually done so,
but more like 15 to 20 years later by newer
people pushing Belmopan.
Still, it is fun to look back and marvel at
the change in numbers of visitors to Hol Channel
and all those places I used to promote for
snorkelers and scuba divers throughout the 60's
and 70's on my cheap black and white Gestner
printed brochures. 50,000 visitors is probably
not an accurate statistic, but if it is even
close, it sure is a change and indicator of the
growth of tourism in Belize.
I met Louis Sylvestre an old PUP Cabinet
Minister one day while waiting for a plane at
the Caye Caulker airstrip a couple of years back
and he told me then, that I had been before my
time. As he put it! I don't really think so.
I made a living pioneering all those places and
pioneering tourism throughout Belize. Albeit
not as much money as my kids make today, or
others are doing with larger tourist volumes.
But it was a very good life and no regrets.
Would do it all over again in a minute.