There are many romantic associations with the word lighthouse. Think of a wise sentinel on a rocky face, watching over as you test your limits in the choppy surf. You get to be as adventurous as you dare, so long as that lighthouse stands tall, serene, eternal, protecting you from harm.
Lighthouse Reef Atoll in Belize fulfills the aquatic explorer’s every romantic ideal. Within this coral atoll’s thirty-mile-long, eight-mile-wide lagoon, scuba divers and snorkelers encounter dramatic drop-offs, a vast array of vibrant coral species, many fascinating aquatic animals, such as the green moray eel and the peaceful nurse shark – not to mention the world-famous Great Blue Hole. This atoll is one of the most extraordinary dive spots in Belize, rivaling top diving destinations the world over.
An atoll is defined as a ring-like coral island or a string of small islands that partially or completely encircle a lagoon. Since reef-building corals thrive exclusively in warm, brackish water, atolls exist solely in the tropics and subtropics. Only four such atolls can be found in the western hemisphere. The Lighthouse Reef Atoll is the easternmost of Belize’s atolls, located 50 miles southeast of Belize City and accessible only by boat or private float plane.
In 1836, long before travelers could take a convenient flight to these pristine waters, world famous biologist Charles Darwin sailed to this region and became enamored of Belize’s atolls. Darwin claimed that they constituted “the richest and most remarkable coral reefs in the entire western Caribbean.” More than a century later, Jacques Cousteau investigated the Great Blue Hole and the Belizean atolls, stirring up awareness of the area as a top diving spot. You can plunk yourself into the water anywhere along Belize’s coral reefs and witness gorgeous and diverse aquatic life such as graceful gliding stingrays, silvery ray-finned barracuda, and parrotfish as bright as a neon sign… but the recognized “best dive spots” are situated along the walls of Half Moon Caye and Long Caye. And of course, the iconic Great Blue Hole.
Advanced divers will want to start their diving adventure at the Great Blue Hole — undoubtedly the deepest dive of the day at a depth of 130-140 feet. Even at this depth, the Blue Hole extends another 300 feet or so below you, allowing for a profound sense of the ocean’s extent. Those without an advanced certification can still witness the Blue Hole by snorkeling the stunning coral surrounding the impressive drop-off to the Great Blue Hole.
For those ready to descend into this world-renowned limestone sinkhole, expect a steady descent into blue-black water in the company of Caribbean reef sharks. Then, you’ll have about 8 precious minutes requiring good buoyancy control at 135 feet. As you approach the deepest point you can safely descend, note the disappearance of almost all fish life. Instead of the active characters of the reef, this part of the Great Blue Hole features eternal stone projections – giant stalactites and stalagmites.
After emerging from the depths, move on to one of the cayes and get some solid ground under your feet. Half Moon Caye looks like a movie set built for a tropical island paradise. But don’t be fooled, the caye is all-natural. Its perfect sandy beaches, towering palm trees, and endemic wildlife could only be designed by natural forces. Offshore it gets even better. A shallow shelf on the eastern side of the atoll, only 15 feet underwater, literally crawls with garden eels. From there, you can expect to find canyons and tunnels with sandy shelves where nurse sharks and gigantic stingrays hunt for food.
Within view is Long Caye — over 14 times the size of Half Moon but hardly touched by human development, it is a true desert island paradise. Giant palm trees sway in the warm breeze, and tucked away is a private lodge and a boutique dive resort. In the next few years it will become the home of a luxury eco-resort affording unprecedented proximity to Belize’s best dive and snorkel spots. Tres Cocos, referring to the coconut trees on the island, is the name of an interesting dive spot off the caye. A sandy bottom slopes down gently to about 30 feet before it plunges vertically — a great spot to explore overhangs decorated with colorful sponges and a rainbow of soft corals. Many exotic fish take refuge from predators under the overhang, so expect to see turtles, angelfish, shrimp, and morays. Divers and snorkelers in search of the most spectacular dives sites in Belize spend the day anchored in Lighthouse Reef to dive The Aquarium, Half Moon Wall and other world-class wall dives.
When it’s time for a break from exploring the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, settle in on one of the sandy beaches to relax. Keep an eye trained on the mangrove forests for a chance to see elegant egrets or the yellow flicker of a Great Kiskadee. Even if you don’t agree with Charles Darwin on other matters, you’ll no doubt share his love for the atolls of Belize.