Snorkeling The Great Blue Hole – Lighthouse Reef Belize!

19 05 2014
snorkeling the great blue hole belize

A lush ecosystem just under the surface!

On my vacation with Island Expeditions to Half Moon Caye Belize, my favorite snorkeling spot by far was The Great Blue Hole. It is featured in Lonely Planet Publication’s recent book, “The World’s Great Wonders.”

Made famous by Jacques Cousteau, The Great Blue Hole lies in Lighthouse Reef, 55 miles off the Belize mainland. He said it’s one of his top 10 dive sites in the world. Physically it’s 1,000 feet wide and 400 feet deep – whereas the rest of Lighthouse Reef is 22 miles long and 8 – 10 feet deep. The outer ring of the blue hole is an amazing forest of coral just below the surface. Click here for a wonderful time snorkeling amongst the corals!

blue tang swim in the great blue hole belize

A school of blue tang

No diving gear is required to explore this lush paradise of fish and coral. Divers can descend to explore the many caverns below. Click here for blue tang synchronized swimming!

The Blue Hole wasn’t always a hole. Turning the pages of time way back to the Ice Age, Lighthouse Reef was an island several hundred feet above sea level. At that time, the Blue Hole was above sea level and it was a cave. It was a great cathedral with side caverns filled with growing stalactites and stalagmites.

stoplight parrotfish at great blue hole belize

A female Stoplight Parrotfish pauses at a “cleaning station”

Then the earth warmed, the Ice Age ended, and as glaciers melted, the sea level rose. The island was submerged under water and became Lighthouse Reef. The roof of the cave collapsed, and sea water entered, creating what we see today.

Our Island Expedition guides shuttled us out to the Blue Hole as it’s pretty far from Half Moon Caye.

shuttle to the blue hole belizeOnce there, we slip on our flippers, don the dive masks, and somersault into another world. Once I adjust my mask and focus, a wave of excitement washes over me! This spectacularly preserved ecosystem is but a few feet below the surface, and I can swim right through it.

This is the healthy reef system I was longing for – everything I wanted to see. It is the ultimate snorkeling experience. Snorkeling the ring surrounding the Great Blue Hole, you witness healthy brain coral, staghorn coral, sea fans, barrel sponges, great barracuda, reef sharks, midnight parrotfish, grunts, blue tang, hawksbill turtles, angelfish, fairy basslets, eagle rays, and much much more!

Wrasse living near a sea fan blue hole belize

Wrasse and a sea fan

We spent three hours at The Great Blue Hole, but I could have explored a full day there. I knew that down below snorkeling level, there are great predators. Great Hammerhead Sharks, Bull Sharks, Lemon Sharks, and more spend time at depths in the Blue Hole. But the examples of these species are juveniles – they come to this spot for protection from predation by the full grown members of their own kind out on the ocean side of the reef.

brain coral at the blue hole in belize

Brain Coral, on the right

For this snorkeling trip, I purchased an underwater camera capable of video. It is the Fujifilm XP60. Like most point and shoot cameras these days, it only has a video screen. I am far sighted. So it was difficult to know, looking at the blurry screen in front of me, if I was definitely in focus, or even had the subject correctly framed! Add to that my body bouncing on the surface, or down under, holding my breath. Further, fish don’t just pose for pictures. They are always moving. I learned to listen to the beeping sound for focus.

Another factor I learned about is that underwater, the further you are away from your subject, the more blue-tinged the photo shall be. The closer I took the photo, the more the real colors showed up. Andy, one of our group, knew how to free dive. He could go down 20 feet and just hang out down there and got the most incredible close up photos of fish.

colorful sea fans at the great blue holeAnother factor in getting good photos of fish is their behavior. Fish tend to retreat into their hideouts when you approach. But if you linger a bit, they come back out. Lingering underwater with lungs full of air is pretty hard because your body tries to float up. Andy’s trick is to hold onto something like a rock.

He gave me some tips on staying down longer. Instead of using your air/energy do go down by kicking hard with your flippers, get completely vertical with your head down and legs straight above and let the weight push you down. When you are feeling pressure, pinch your nose and blow out to equalize the pressure. Now that you are down, and equalized, you have more time to stay down…and you can grab a rock to keep you from floating up too fast.

I tried this and many times, I got so comfortable down there I lost track of how far I had to go up to catch a breath! It was fun, and a new thing for me.

The Blue Hole was certainly well worth visiting! But it’s far offshore. So I recommend spending a few nights on one of the islands out on the reef. You can always book with Island Expeditions! They’ll take good care of you.


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