Tracing its way along Belize's white-sand coast, Lighthouse Reef forms an integral section of the longest coral reef system in the Western Hemisphere. Its crown aquatic jewel, Blue Hole National Monument, lures legions of wetsuit-clad admirers the world over, but the reef is also endowed with plenty other coral formations, aquatic walls, and dive sites to keep even the most wave-weary under the surface of the Caribbean.
Just 50 miles southeast of Belize City, the physical mass of Lighthouse Reef is meager: only 30 miles long and eight miles wide. Yet some of the country's most impressive dives are to be had within this atoll. Most divers first stop at Blue Hole National Monument—and with good reason. The monument was formed from 15,000-year-old caverns that collapsed, creating a 1,000-foot-wide sinkhole. Centered in 75 square feet of shallow water, the hole descends over 400 feet, with a straight, 125-foot vertical descent. The Blue Hole looks most impressive from the air—brilliant shades of blue rapidly shift from the lightest of Caribbean aqua to the deepest navy as you approach the monument's apex, but its true glories aren't merely skin deep: shallow reefs around the perimeter of this aquatic abyss burst with vibrant coral, home to angelfish, butterfly fish, sea urchins, and giant green anemones, while a vast network of underwater valleys and tunnels lie hidden in its deep-blue heart.
But, while Blue Hole may receive the lionfish's share of attention (Jacques Cousteau was an ardent admirer), the Lighthouse Reef's best full-on diving can be found at Half Moon and Long Cayes; Half Moon Caye Natural Monument is easily the best of the 40 or so dive sites on the atoll. Off the eastern coast of Lighthouse, this shallow reef shelf rests in 15 feet of water, giving novice divers and snorkelers the chance to intermingle with the underwater locals, including an impressive population of garden eels. Delving deeper into the Caribbean, a 20-foot reef wall supports a bustling contingent of nurse sharks, gigantic stingrays, featherduster worms, sea anemones, shrimps, crabs, starfish, angelfish, damselfish, butterfly fish, and parrot fish. The reef then plunges another 1,000 feet down Half Moon Wall, where a colorful riot of sponges and coral growth intermingle with sea turtles, sea fans, barracuda, lobsters, morays, jacks, wahoos, groupers, and millions of smaller fish. Long Caye, positioned on the southern outshoot of Lighthouse Reef Atoll and directly west of Half Moon Caye, is a remote outpost of big palms and glassy water that protects the same impressive aquatic life found at Half Moon—but without the crowds, the shoals of fish notwithstanding.
A small airstrip on Big Northern Caye enables daytrippers to drop in from Belize City, and a flotilla of boats is on hand to take visitors out to easily accessible dive and snorkeling sites. However, hook up with a regional outfitter and plan on staying on Lighthouse Atoll for at least four days—you'll only scratch the surface, but that will more than likely be enough to get you to return. Those drawn to Blue Hole should temper all pulls of gravity with the sobering fact that some experience is necessary to plumb the monument's depths—local guides with solid diving reputations are highly recommended.
Dove the Blue Hole yesterday with Amigos Del Mar here in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. The dive was spectacular! The boat moored to a bouy about 25 yards from the hole - we entered, tested our bouyancy (1st dive of the day) and swam to the hole. Descended to 45' and met on the sandy ledge - then ascended together into the hole. Our group was 12 divers, including three dive masters. The hole itself is very large - we could not see the other side during the dive - the water was a bit murky but viz was still about 50'. Descended to 130' and investigated the stalagtites and stalagmites left from this collapsed cave - really amazing! Bottom time was limited to eight minutes to avoid a decompression situation - but was plenty to see what we wanted to see. Above us during the entire dive were bull and reef shark - around 5-15 ft. in length - they were beautiful, and seemed as curious about us as we were about them - they never got closer than 40' to us. After our eight (8) minutes of bottom time elapsed we made a slow diagonal ascent along the wall, continuing to "take it all in." We hovered at 45' for about five minutes (a little extra safety margin) while watching the fish and sharks - During the 15' safety stop (for about 10 minutes - a bit extra for extra safety) the boat chummed the waters with fish (this is an OPTION - if everyone on the dive does not want to do this they won't chum) which attracted around 25 sharks of similar size to those mentioned above - they were SPECTACULAR - at NO time did anyone feel in danger - these were not JAWS sharks people :-) Everyone on the dive was PUMPED to have seen the beauty of the blue hole and the magnificent sea life... we boarded, motored to the Half Moon Caye area, and did a wall dive (SIT 1 hr) - then took a two (2) hour break on Half Moon Caye (saw the Boobie birds - neat!) and then did a dive at a sight called "The Aquarium" which had the nicest coral and fish yet... Overall an excellent experience! Will definately make the trip again on our next trip down to Belize.. The Blue Hole is a must-see.. it is an advanced dive due to it's depth, so you'll want a good number of dives under your belt before attempting (I have been waiting two years to make it - wanted some experience before making the dive) - the dive shop operated the trip in a safe and FUN manner (Amigos Del Mar) - their boat is AWESOME and the dive masters / captain were extremely friendly - the fruity rum drinks and snickers on the trip back to San Pedro didn't hurt either! :-) Gear was in very good shape and tanks all started above 3000 psi... Might need to make a stop at Wines DeVine (a MUST-VISIT while on the island) to pickup a bottle for the crew before leaving town- they earned it! :-)