Diving and snorkelling in Belize

The big name when it comes to diving in Belize is the Great Blue Hole, a vast circular marine sinkhole about 70km off the mainland. Once explored by scuba diving pioneer Jacques Cousteau, this geological wonder is visited by many species of fish as well as sharks.

Due to its depth, diving the Great Blue Hole requires experience and the right conditions for good visibility. However, there are many exceptional spots for diving and snorkelling along the Belize coastline that don’t get as much attention but are just as spectacular. And of course, the fewer people and boats around, the calmer and more visible the marine life tends to be.

Belize is home to the second-largest coral reef in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. And like the Great Barrier Reef, it faces some significant challenges.

“The knowledge and experience of our tour leaders ensure that the groups they’re leading know the issues facing the reef in Belize, and how they can help protect it,” says Carmel Hendry from our partner Explore Worldwide. “Let me give you just one example. A problem we have around the world is guides thinking that people want to see things close-up, like conch or starfish, that belong on the seabed. We emphasise to our guides that that’s not what we want for our travellers.”

Our Belize travel partners ensure that before any of their guests approach the reef that they are fully briefed on how to avoid causing any damage to it by touching (switching to a coral-friendly sunscreen can also help). They will also often employ local fishermen as guides or boat captains, providing an additional source of income for coastal communities that are adjusting to smaller fish stocks.

Best diving & snorkelling locations in Belize

In addition to the world famous Great Blue Hole, one of Belize’s most significant diving locations is the Hoi Chan Marine Reserve off Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. Here you could encounter angelfish, schoolmaster snappers and blue-striped grunts as well as cave-dwelling moray eels. The popular Shark and Ray Alley is among the most memorable spots here, divers can observe the harmless nurse sharks and stingrays gliding elegantly along the bottom.

Much diving and snorkelling also takes place off the Placencia Peninsula, which is the best place in Belize to see whale sharks. You can snorkel off the postcard-perfect beach of Laughing Bird Caye, about 15km off the coast, or off the well-known Tobacco Caye. “We use a very small resort with a PADI dive centre on Tobacco Caye,” says Laurenne Mansbridge from our partner Pioneer Expeditions. “It’s away from the crowds and there is exceptional diving in the Tobacco Caye cut and the Southwater Caye cut, as well as some first-rate wall dives.”
Snorkelling, too, is taught – there’s more to it than just strapping on a mask and breathing tube – from beginner through to advanced skills, before you head out to nearby cayes and cut-throughs to explore.

“There are too many species to list,” says Laurenne. “But it is a true kaleidoscope of colours and movement every time we get into the water. Stoplight parrotfish, Blue Tang and squirrelfish are quite common, and we often see turtles, nurse sharks, southern stingrays and spotted eagle rays as well.”

Most Belize holidays combine time on the coast and cayes with inland exploration. Given Belize’s compact size, our partners can get you around easily over land or using water taxis to get to the best diving and snorkelling locations. There’s no real need to take a domestic flight (given the effects of climate change on sea levels and temperatures, we no longer sell holidays that include internal jet flights of under one hour duration).
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Challenges to the Belize coral reef

The Belize coral reef is of immense ecological significance. Besides being the spine of the country’s fishing industry, which helps sustain many small coastal communities, it also provides vital protection for several threatened species including green and hawksbill turtles, and West Indian manatees. And beyond being one of the most pristine reefs in the world, it is also prized for the number of different reef types that can be found in a small area.

A 2010 ban on bottom trawling has helped depleted fish stocks fight back from decades of overfishing to an extent, but even so many local fishermen now supplement their income with other trades, such as tourism. And due to the climate crisis, rising water temperatures are bleaching coral, leaving it vulnerable to disease, and resulting in fewer habitats for marine species.

A series of marine reserves created in the 1980s and 1990s form a World Heritage Site and there is growing awareness among local people of the need for more sustainable fishing practises – but the reef is still some way from safe.
The case for responsible diving and snorkelling in Belize could not be any clearer.
As in so many marine habitats around the world, poorly managed tourism can lead to coral being damaged by boat propellers or careless flippers, and marine life being affected by too many people in the water. In recent years, Belize has also had to combat an infestation of rapacious, quick-breeding lionfish that has given conservationists significant cause for concern as they plunder fish populations. Given all that, the case for responsible diving and snorkelling in Belize could not be any clearer. Travelling with a responsible company is one way your holiday in Belize can really make a positive difference.

Best time to go diving & snorkelling in Belize

The best time of year for scuba diving and snorkelling in Belize is between March and June, when the water is generally clearest and before the rainy season starts. This is also the best time for diving with migratory whale sharks. However, you can dive and snorkel in Belize all year round, as the water is always warm enough and guides in conjunction with local fishermen know many sheltered spots where you’ll find calm water.

Responsible Travel would like to thank Belize for their sponsorship of this guide.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Belize Tourism Board] [Intro: tofoli.douglas] [Best diving & snorkelling locations in Belize: Belize Tourism Board] [Challenges to the Belize coral reef: Belize Tourism Board]