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The first time I visited Belize was long before I knew how to Scuba Dive, but it was snorkeling there that first inspired my passion to explore the underwater world. Home to the second largest barrier reef in the world, the dive sites throughout Belize are world-class, and the great blue hole is consistently ranked as one of the best. Not only in Belize, but in the world. But does the blue hole dive live up to its reputation?
Is the Great Blue Hole the best dive site in Belize?
Getting to Belize
Smushed between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize is a logical stop on the backpacker trail through Central America. There are over 265 cays and islands in the waters of Belize, but only two with towns on them, San Pedro and Caye Caulker. Both of these are excellent places to stay if you want to dive in Belize.
Further South on the mainland of Belize are the towns of Placencia and Hopkins. These two towns are a great base if you want to dive in Gladden Spit, where you have the chance to see whale sharks from April-June. It is also possible to dive the blue hole from Placencia, but it’s about 4 hours by boat so tour operators won’t go without a large group. If the blue hole is where you want to dive I recommend staying on San Pedro or Caye Caulker instead.
If you fly into Belize city, it’s easy to get to any of these locations. The easiest way is to take another regional flight from the Belize International airport, while the cheapest way is to take the ferry or bus. Maya Air has daily flights to all of these towns.
If you want to go via boat to Caye Caulker or San Pedro, take a taxi to the ferry terminal in Belize city from the airport. The cost of the taxi is $25 USD, which is a government-set price. At the ferry terminal, you can catch a boat to San Pedro or Caye Caulker. There are a number of companies that run and the cost of the ferry is $25 USD Return. It is possible to book online in advance, but the boats are so frequent that you won’t have a problem to show up and catch one. If you plan to visit Hopkins or Placencia, get a taxi to the Belize bus terminal and catch a local bus which takes 4-5 hours.
If you plan to travel by land from Mexico, you can get a bus from the Cancun bus terminal to Belize City, which takes about 8 hours. Another option (and a better one if you have the time) is to go from Cancun to Bacalar, a lovely seaside town in Mexico. Stay for a day or two and then head to the nearby town of Chetumal (30-minute drive), where you can get a boat to either San Pedro or Caye Caulker. These boats only run on certain days, check here for the current schedule.
If you plan to travel to/from Guatemala, there are busses from the town of Flores (near the ancient ruins of Tikal) to Belize city. The bus ride takes about 4 hours.
Tip: If you want to fly to Belize but it’s expensive, consider flying to Mexico instead. It’s often a much cheaper destination to fly from Canada and the US. You can get a direct overnight bus from Cancun to Belize City. A bit more time, but can save you hundreds of dollars.
Ambergris Caye (San Pedro) vs. Caye Caulker
Ambergris Caye has a population of roughly 14,000 people and most people stay in the main town on the island, San Pedro. The island is busy with countless options for accommodation, dining, shopping, and nightlife on the island. Ambergris Caye is 40km long so the best way (and most awesome) way to get around is to rent a golf cart.
Caye Caulker is a much smaller island, at only 8km long with a population of just 1,500. You can easily walk or bike around the entire island. Most accommodations and restaurants are found in Caye Caulker village, which is right next to the ferry terminal. The island is laid back and prides itself on the motto ‘go slow’, which they enforce. A local gave me a speeding ticket once for walking too briskly! The laid back pace of Caye Caulker is charming.
Where to stay: The first time I visited Caye Caulker I stayed at Dirty McNasty’s Party Hostel. This place is exactly as it sounds. If you want a party hostel, it can be a good time, but otherwise, I’d recommend somewhere else. This time around I stayed at Yuma’s House, which has much more of a chill vibe. It’s still a social hostel, but you can actually sleep there.
The surrounding dive sites are accessible from both San Pedro or Caye Caulker so if you’ve come to Belize to dive then either island will do. There is more to do in San Pedro, but I prefer Caye Caulker. San Pedro has more resorts, and tends to attract families, whereas most backpackers flock to Caye Caulker. In the end, they are both amazing tropical islands with white sand beaches surrounded by turquoise blue waters, so you can’t go wrong. If you have the time, check out both! There is daily ferry service between the two so it’s easy to get between them.
Dive the Great Blue Hole in Belize
The great blue hole is an underwater sinkhole believed to be the largest of its kind. The sinkhole originally formed as a limestone cave during the last glacial period, but as the ocean began to raise the cave flooded and eventually collapsed in itself, creating a vertical cave in the ocean.
The blue hole spans across an impressive 300m across and is characterized by its rich shades of blue. Unfortunately, you aren’t going to be able to take in the magnitude of the blue hole by boat. To get a full view of the hole as seen in the picture above you have to fly over it. There are a number of companies that offer helicopter and plane rides over the blue hole. I couldn’t justify paying for both this and my dive in the blue hole, but the views look outstanding.
Scuba Diving in the Great Blue Hole
What makes the blue hole dive interesting for divers is the geological formations that lie in the ocean’s depth. Huge stalactites and stalagmites can be found below the surface, some even reaching 30-40 ft in length. Below is a video showing the formations. Excuse the shakiness of the video, I was experiencing dive narcosis at this point!
The total depth of the blue hole is 410ft deep. Of course, you won’t go that deep. After our descent down the wall, we reached a maximum depth of 134 ft/40m. We only stayed at this depth for about 5 minutes, and then completed the remainder of the dive at 60 ft/18m where there are coral reefs to explore. The total time of the blue hole dive takes about 25 minutes, which is about half of what a normal dive would be. This is because the deeper you go, the greater your air consumption is.
Here are some other things to know about scuba diving in the great blue hole:
- It’s expensive. The dive site is 2 ½ hours boat ride from Caye Caulker and requires a park entry fee. This, in combination with its popularity, is reflected in the price of the tours. I paid $275 USD for an all-day excursion to the blue hole area which included three dives, a stop at Half Moon Caye, breakfast and lunch. The equipment rental was separate and cost $35.
- There aren’t coral reefs in the depth of the blue hole, so don’t expect to see much here in terms of marine life. We saw a few fish, one shark, and a lobster.
- You may experience dive narcosis because of the depth of the blue hole. Dive narcosis comes as a result of excess nitrogen in your body, which can be delt at depths below 30m. It affects people differently, and not everyone feels it. If you’ve ever gotten nitrous oxide at the dentist, it feels similar to that (at least for me). Dive narcosis will immediately wear off as you ascend, but it’s important to be aware of the symptoms and let your dive master know if you feel them. Out of my group, I was the only one who got dive narcosis.
- You need your advanced open water certification with at least 25 logged dives to do dive the blue hole.
So, am I happy with my decision to dive the blue hole? Absolutely. The experiencing of descending to 40m below felt amazing. I loved seeing the unique cave formations and the color of the blue at that depth is mesmerizing. It was a unique experience that I am happy to cross off my dive bucket list.
However, I enjoyed the dives we did after the blue hole more. The blue hole dive site is in the center of an atoll called Lighthouse Reef, which has some other incredible dive sites to explore. Make sure to book a tour that takes you to more than just the blue hole (most companies do this). The combination of the blue hole with the other two dives makes for an perfect day of diving.
Half Moon Caye Wall
After the blue hole, the next scuba dive was at Half Moon Caye Wall. This dive is one of my favorite dives to date. The abundance of beautiful coral reefs, encounters with marine life, and great visibility makes this a memorable dive. During my dive, we saw giant sea turtles, reef sharks, eagle rays, barracudas, groupers, and more.
You will stay at around 60ft/18m during this dive for maximum air consumption, although it goes down to about 30m. You have to be careful and use a dive computer/your dive master as a reference point to monitor your depth. It’s easy to go down below 18m without realizing, especially when enchanted by a turtle.
After the dive, we got to spend time on land at Half Moon Caye for our surface internal and to enjoy an included lunch. This little island is beautiful. They have a reserve where you can see massive amounts of frigate birds and red-footed boobies flying around.
Long Caye Aquarium Wall
The third dive site we visited was Long Caye Aquarium Wall, just a short boat ride from Half Moon Caye. As soon as we jumped in the water, huge schools of Bermuda chumps surrounded us. As we descended and followed along a 90-degree wall, the area became full of purple sea fans, brain corals, and every color you could imagine.
The wall is not the only feature that makes this an amazing dive. Even in the shallow areas, there are gorgeous lush patches of coral to explore. The high visibility in combination with the colorful reef makes the aquarium an awesome dive to end the day. You stay at about 18m during this dive for a total dive time of approximately 50 minutes.
These two dives, in combination with the blue hole, make this trip an incredible day of diving. The video below shows some of the amazing marine life we saw on these two dives.
Whale Sharks in Belize – Gladden Spit
Whale shark diving has been on my dive bucket list for a long time. I was so excited to be in Belize during whale shark season, which runs from April-June. Every year for 10 days during the full moon during these months, snappers spawn around Gladden Spit which attracts numerous whale sharks, who dine on the caviar.
Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t so lucky to see the whale sharks while diving in Belize. We did find the massive spawns of snapper and followed along them hoping that a whale shark would appear but alas, no luck. The first dive was disappointing, as you are in the deep blue water and there isn’t much else to look at besides the snapper.
After lunch on the boat, we went out for our second dive, hoping for better luck. While we didn’t see whale sharks, we did see two playful dolphins and a bull shark! Seeing these magnificent creatures made up for the lack of whale sharks. I’ve never seen Dolphins diving before, it was so much fun to watch them play with each other in the water. Below is a video showing the bull shark and dolphins that we encountered.
I dived Gladden Spit at the beginning of the season (April), so I guess the whale sharks hadn’t arrived in yet. It is nature after all! It’s not a guarantee that you will see whale sharks in Belize, but in the past five years, the sightings have been frequent (apparently). If you plan to visit Belize to dive with whale sharks I recommend having some flexibility in your schedule. I was only in the area for one day, which meant I couldn’t try again another day, or wait around until there was sightings reported.
Where to stay to dive Gladden Spit
If you want to dive Gladden Spit, it’s best to stay in either Hopkins or Placencia as these are the closest towns to the dive site. It takes about an hour boat ride from the town of Placencia. I stayed at SailFish Resort, which has an awesome swim up bar. The resort is located across the water, so you have to get a quick (one-minute) boat ride when you want to leave/go. I found this somewhat annoying, but the man who runs the resort is super kind and overall I enjoyed my stay there.
Tips for Scuba Diving in Belize
- If you don’t know how to dive yet, Belize is a great place to learn. It’s not as cheap as learning to dive in Utila, but with the barrier reef as your classroom, it will surely be an amazing experience.
- Choose a reputable company. When it comes to diving, the company you choose makes a massive difference in your experience. And like most thing’s in life, you pay for what you get. Ask around town or do a quick Google search to see what others say about the company before booking. I dove with Belize diving services in Caye Caulker, which was a great experience.
- Make sure to check your equipment before jumping in the water. Even with a good company, it’s always important to check that the dive equipment is in working order to avoid any mishaps on your dive.
- Dive Equipment was an additional cost to my dive in Belize, so if you plan to do a lot of diving there it might be worth it to bring your own equipment to save money on rentals. The equipment you need is a Mask, Fins, WetSuit, BCD, and regulator.
- A dive computer can also be helpful while diving in Belize to monitor your depth and ensure you stay within safe limits. Most dive companies will not give you one for the dive so you will have to rely on the dive master. Find out more about buying dive computers.
- Don’t forget travel insurance! If you plan to dive in Belize, I recommend using WorldNomads. Providing coverage to travelers from over 140 countries, WorldNomads covers a range of adventure activities, including diving, giving you peace of mind. I’ve used and claimed with WorldNomads and the process is easy, as it allows you to claim online while you are still away. You can even buy a World Nomads policy if you’re already traveling.
I went to Belize to dive and loved my experience. While it would have been a perfect ending to my trip to see a whale shark, the other dives were more than memorable. And now I just have more of a reason to plan another dive trip! Have you dived with whale sharks before? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear about your experience!
Wondering where to go after Belize? Check out neighboring Mexico or Guatemala, a country full of adventure!