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Snorkeling in Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Belize

 

Searious Adventures headquarters and dock in San Pedro
Searious Adventures headquarters and dock in San Pedro

Our half day snorkeling adventure with Searious Adventures started early. Our boat left the Searious Adventures dock at 8am sharp so we had to be there by 7:45am. Luckily, San Pedro is not very big and we could easily walk the 5 minutes from our hostel to the dock. Once we reached the dock, we were handed our snorkeling gear. Carlos, our tour guide for the day, shuffled Lindsay and I into the Searious Adventures’ boat and off we went. But, first we had to pick up more snorkelers along the way from their resort docks. We stopped twice and picked up a total of 6 other couples who would join Lindsay and me for the day.

Once everyone was onboard and we made a quick stop to exchange flipper sizes for one woman at another resort’s dock stocked full of snorkeling and diving gear, we were off for the 5-10 minute boat ride to Hol Chan Marine Reserve. The weather was perfect for snorkeling. It was a bright blue sky day with a few clouds. The wind was calm and it was hot. Good thing we would be in the water most of the trip!

As we got closer to the reserve we saw about 15 boats moored together and about 80-100 heads bobbing up and down and the telltale splashes of flippers. We had arrived at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. First, Carlos had to check in with the park rangers since the reserve is protected. There is a $10 USD park fee to enter the reserve. The fee was included in our snorkeling package with Searious. Once we received the thumbs up from the rangers, we slowly made our way over to a mooring line to begin our underwater adventure.

We spent about 20 minutes in the boat while Carlos gave us a brief introduction to Hol Chan and the ground rules for snorkeling.

Who doesn't want to look at this all day?
Who doesn’t want to look at this all day?

Belize is a small country with an area of 8,800 square miles or roughly the size of Massachusetts. However, it is home to the second largest coral reef in the world (the largest is the Great Barrier Reef located off the coast of Australia). The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System begins in Cancun, Mexico and runs a total of 560 miles (900 km) down the Belize coast to Honduras. Hol Chan Marine Reserve is located off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye and focuses on a little more than 25 yards (23 m) cut through the reef called a quebrada. Hol Chan is Mayan for “little channel.”

Hol Chan Marine Reserve Map Source: Hol Chan Mareine Reserve National Park Website
Hol Chan Marine Reserve Map Source: Hol Chan Mareine Reserve National Park Website

The entire reserve covers only 3 square miles and is divided into four zones marked by buoys: a) the reef, b) the seagrass beds, c) the mangroves, and d) Shark Ray Alley. The Government of Belize established the Hol Chan Marine Reserve on May 2, 1987 in an effort to control the often destructive fishing and diving activities that were occurring in the area. Shark Ray Alley was added to the reserve on August 31, 1999 to protect the area where numerous nurse sharks and southern sting rays congregate.

Once Carlos gave us the signal that we could hit the water… SPLASH I was in. This was my first time ever snorkeling so I was more than excited to get moving! It took about another 15 minutes to get everyone ready to go and in the water. As soon as I hit the water I saw a bunch of fish congregating under the boat. Carlos led the way for us as we began swimming towards the channel. The channel itself if only 25 yards wide, but is about 30 feet (9 m) deep.

holchan1

CoralReefThe reef near the cut is characterized by large formations of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmate). There is a high degree of bioerosion of these corals. However, a large variety of other encrusting corals and sponges have attached to dead sections of the elkhorn coral. Other coral located in the area include: brain corals (Diploria spp.), Starlet corals (Sideratrea spp.), boulder corals (Montastrea spp.), Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), and numerous species of sea fans (Gorgonia spp.). The water over the reef ranges from 3-6 feet deep. I honestly was surprised how bland the reef was. I was expecting the reef to be full of bright colors, but I guess that shows my ignorance. Don’t get me wrong though, there is some color! And the water is a beautiful turquoise blue.

Hol Chan Marine Reserve is home to more than 500 species of fish. It is common to see large schools of blue tang, grunts, triggerfish, hog fish, parrot fish, barracuda and nurse sharks. Loggerhead sea turtles can often be spotted as well.

Barcuddavsfish
Barracuda vs. fish

We spent about an hour in the water snorkeling around the cut. We saw an abundance of fish, including barracuda and parrot fish. We saw a couple nurse sharks and a few stings rays. Hol Chan is dominated by southern sting rays, but occasionally if you’re lucky like we were, you’ll see a spotted eagle ray. As we left the boat area and headed towards the reef we saw a young sea turtle feeding on the sea grass. I got to swim along him for a little while.

SpottedStingRay

After arriving back to the boat, we headed about 2 minutes south of the reef to Shark Ray Alley. Shark Ray Alley was essentially manmade. For several years, local fishermen often cleaned their catch in an area located just inside the reef slightly south of the cut. Fishermen began to notice that their cleaning of fish had attracted nurse sharks and southern stings rays. The fishermen reported the activity to local dive instructors and thus Shark Ray Alley was born.

SeaTurtleFloor
A young sea turtle snacking on sea grass

Shark Ray Alley is a very popular snorkeling and dive site and was my favorite of the day. As soon our boat came to a mooring buoy, we could see dark shadows following the boat. Female nurse sharks and southern sting rays congregated around our boats in the area looking for scrapes. Carlos threw out some chum and as soon as it hit the water the sharks, rays, and horse-eye jack fish were swarming the water to eat. As soon as Carlos gave the signal I was in the water and swimming towards the school of hungry shark, rays, and fish! The shark and rays have no interest in you and they have no problem swimming around and up close to you. Carlos was able to snag a few rays and we were able to pat them.

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Okay, maybe I told you a white lie. You have to make sure your hands and feet stay away from their mouths because they will suck the flesh off of your arm! But the chances of that happening is extremely rare. It was absolutely incredible to get so close to the sharks and rays. The water was not very deep in the area we were in and we could swim without our fins, which I prefer.

After spending about another hour in Shark Ray Alley, we hopped back on the boat. Carlos handed us sodas and water and also very delicious coconut tarts. We headed back towards land, but not without stopping at a local fisherman’s boat. The fisherman was “fishing” for conch. To “fish” for conch, one must dive down into the water and bring the shell up. Once you have a shell, you then have to punch a hole in the top of the shell and cut the conch muscle that is holding them into the shell. Once the conch is out, fishermen throw the shells back into the water for fish and invertebrate homes.

Sting rays up close and personal :-)
Sting rays up close and personal 🙂

Carlos traded the men sodas and tarts for a piece of conch meat. He passed it around the boat and we all tried a piece. The meat was actually sweet and had a tough texture like clams or mussels. It was good! We watched a bit as one of the fishermen was feeding a loggerhead sea turtle pieces of conch meat with tongs. Carlos told us that the turtle was extremely old and blind. The turtle would probably not survive long if the fishermen didn’t feed him.

Finally, we began dropping the members of our tour off at their respective docks and Lindsay and I headed back to the San Pedro dock with Carlos. The snorkeling tour was amazing and definitely worth the money! The tour cost $72 BZ or $36 USD and included snorkeling gear, the park fee to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and sodas and a snack. I would have loved to do their full-day catamaran tour, but their boat was back in Belize City Harbor for maintenance.

MeSnorkeling
Thumbs up for snorkeling with Searious Adventures!

If you’re heading to Ambergris Caye, I highly recommend taking a snorkeling tour with Searious Adventures. Our tour guide Carlos was extremely knowledgeable and very professional and friendly. He spoke excellent English and handled the boat well. Just don’t tell if him you’re afraid of sharks because he might just sneak up on you in the water and grab your toes like he did to poor Lindsay!

A Few Tips for Snorkeling:

  • Wear waterproof sunscreen and reapply A LOT!
  • Wear a t-shirt over your swimsuit of else you’ll probably end up sunburnt like Lindsay and I
  • Bring a waterproof camera – I love my Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS4!
  • Bring water – you’ll get thirsty from the hot sun and also want to wash out the salt water taste
  • Tip your guides!
Hello my friend!
Hello my friend!