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.





Snorkeling around Half Moon Caye Belize!

8 05 2014

I chose this trip because I had learned Belize has some of the Atlantic’s only coral atolls – and that their reefs are super healthy. It was all true. Snorkeling just off Half Moon Caye Belize is super easy. Simply slip your mask, snorkel, and flippers on, and a mere 50 yards from shore amazing underwater wildlife thrives.

Queen Triggerfish at half moon caye

Queen Triggerfish

This blog post covers some simple snorkeling just off the island. On the west side of the island, Lighthouse Reef’s 8-10 foot lagoon sports countless coral heads, which are home to dozens of species of fish, turtles, lobster, and squid.

Blue Chromis on lighthouse reef belize

Blue Chromis

Yellow grunt at half moon caye

Yellow Grunt

On the east side of the island, it connects with the reef ringing 22-mile Lighthouse Reef. Our first snorkel took place out there. Right off, I was rewarded, witnessing so many brightly colored reef fish living out their lives in this protected reserve.

Grunts are very common on the reef!

Lots of grunts on the reef!

Some of the most common fish on the reef are grunts. There are different variants, but a frequently seen grunt is the Blue-Striped Grunt.

Blue Striped Grunt

Another fish I saw lots of is the Blue Tang.

A blue tang seen while snorkeling Belize

The Blue Tang – ubiquitous reef inhabitants

 

Spotfin butterflyfish snorkeling belize

A pair of Spotfin Butterflyfish

Rarely seen are the Spotfin Butterflylfish.

There were sharks, too. And rays. And Parrotfish, and Barracuda. And Squid.

Nurse shark seen while snorkeling lighthouse reef belize

I swam right over this Nurse Shark – I almost didn’t notice it!

I brought an underwater camera along for this trip. I was learning to use it as the trip progressed, and I was able to get some video of underwater wildlife.

In this video, I was shooting for images of parrotfish and blue tang on a coral head – but I did not know I was about to have my first shark encounter!

In this video, I simply swam 50 yard off the beach and saw parrotfish and trunk fish!

Here, you can see a beautiful Stingray I encountered just off the beach!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





Half Moon Caye Belize on Lighthouse Reef with Island Expeditions

25 04 2014

If you have seen “Gilligan’s Island,” then you might have imagined Island Expedition’s small operation on Half-Moon Caye. It is a true slice of paradise! No more than a mile long, coconut palm forested Half-Moon Caye sits in the southeast edge of Lighthouse Reef.Calm Day  North

Just off its eastern edge, the water drops to 12,000 feet deep. But inside the 22-mile long lagoon, the water is no more than 10 feet deep. This creates some interesting explosions of sea life, which we’ll explore in later posts.

Half-Moon Caye and several square miles around it are a World Heritage Site. The caye hosts a colony of rare red-footed booby birds.

These birds are amazing acrobatic aerial fishermen. Every day hundreds issue forth to forage in the ocean.Image

They bring back food for their young, but they are never alone.

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Red-Footed Boobie

Red Footed Boobies are symbiotically connected to Frigatebirds, which steal the food for themselves.

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Like an F-15 the Frigatebird wheels to steal some food.

Frigatebirds are even better fliers than boobies. But they have absolutely no fishing skills. They are completely dependent on stealing food from the boobies. So much so, that frigatebirds defend the entire colony from other scavenger species such as sea gulls or petrels. Oddly, the boobies seem OK with surrendering food.

Island Expeditions had about 12 platform tents arranged along the east side of the island, facing the ocean. Just beautiful, with coconut palms overhead.

 

ImageI certainly enjoyed my tent, which had two twin beds inside. ImageIt was simple yet thoughtfully laid out. It had strong pipes for a frame. It had a nightstand, a table, a laundry line, a hanging “dresser,” and an anti vermin cannister just in case. It stood up to the 24mph winds one night.

One job all of us had was keeping sand out of the tents!

Here is a video of the layout. Here is a video on a calmer day…with snorkelers!

Lodging is a misleading term, because we “lodged” in platform tents – each with beds. No super resorts here: exactly what I wanted. There were 12 tents lined up along the shore. Island Expeditions runs a sustainable operation – with water from rain collectors, a well, and composting toilets. Electricity was on four hours per day, just enough to charge your camera batteries. So, we were far from luxury yet far from roughing it. The kitchen served up three sumptuous meals daily.

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Dishes included Creole fair (lots of bbq), plus conch soup, coconut pie, pineapple and mango, and when we caught fish, catch of the day.

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Rise and shine! 6:30 a.m. yoga.

We were fortunate to have Tisha, a yoga instructor from British Columbia, on hand. Each morning she’d lead us in stretching and moves to open up the day.

In the evenings, we all gathered in the dining tent for discussions of the days adventures and misadventures.

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With island life taken care of, we had much off shore activities to pursue. So the next series of posts will explore kayaking, fishing and snorkeling in Lighthouse Reef, and the Great Blue Hole!

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The lagoon at sunrise.

 





A Trip Kayaking and Snorkeling in Belize – An Introduction

20 04 2014

ImageThe next series of posts to Cabin Fever Chronicles shall focus on a sun-splashed week I spent on Half Moon Caye, a tiny coconut palm island on Lighthouse Reef, 50 miles off the coast of Belize.

Why Belize? Why did I pick this trip? For starters, I usually think of mountains and cultural immersion when fantasizing about an overseas trip. This time, I wanted to switch it up. I’ve been to hot, humid, jungle destinations like Laos, Cambodia, or Northern Thailand. I actually was close to picking a trip to the headwaters of the Amazon. But for the past year I’ve found myself researching places with healthy beaches and coral reefs. I cannot stand big resorts or cruise ships. No, I wanted an adventure. I have not snorkeled on a healthy coral reef since I was 14 years old. More recently, I snorkeled on some reefs off Bali, Indonesia, and Sayulita, Mexico, but these were in decay. Many of the healthy reefs are in the South Pacific, some elsewhere in Indonesia or The Phillipines. I also found myself on the Internet searching for Pacific Atolls. Along the way, I came across rare coral atolls in the Western Hemisphere – and most of them are in Belize.

Another factor in deciding on this destination was my injury. If you read a few blog posts ago, you know I sustained a lumbar injury lifting a kayak – which referred down my hamstring. I’m still healing – so full-on camping is not comfortable right now. But I found a trip with Island Expeditions, and they have tents on Half Moon Caye that have beds in them. Perfect! This trip would involve kayaking, kayak sailing, fishing, and lots and lots of snorkeling. I can do all of that even with my recovering injury. This trip would be a perfect mental-health break from the injury-related-life I have been leading of late.

Belize. It is a country on the east side of the Yucatan Peninsula. The coast faces east – the Caribbean Sea. Formerly British Honduras, Belize, which became independent in 1982, has a population of 324,060, and locals speak English, Spanish, and Creole. Inland, there are Mayan ruins, a few rivers which are fun for whitewater, and interesting caves to explore. Its highest mountain, Doyle’s Delight, is 3,688ft high. The country is only 180 miles long and 68 miles wide – not counting the atolls off the coast. The population is split amongst ethnic Maya, Maya/European (Mestizo), Creole, and Barifunda (African Descent).

My flight to Belize was an overnight flight, from Portland, Oregon. Our first day was spent gathering up the seven souls participating in our Gilligan’s Island adventure. We would spend the afternoon and evening resting at the Bird’s Eye View Lodge, about 45 minutes from the Belize City Airport.

The following day, after a quick cruise on the lake, we drove to Belize City and met our boat which would shuttle us out to Lighthouse Reef. Our guides oriented us to the reefs off the Belize Coast, and our route out to Half Moon Caye.

Our route today!

Our route today!