“This really feels like the middle of nowhere. How many nights are we here?” My friend Fariza grips my hand, pressing her face against the tiny window of our Saab 340 (a two-engine turboprop aircraft).
“Just two,” I remind her, leaning over to see the triangle of peppermint green that is Aitutaki, unmistakable against the dark blue of the South Pacific.
Aitutaki is a coral atoll in the Cook Islands that used to serve as a refueling stop for seaplanes flying the Coral Route (Auckland-Fiji-Samoa-Cook Islands-Tahiti) in the 1950s. Nowadays, Boeings and Airbuses navigating a US-New Zealand route refuel on the larger, more populous Rarotonga – the island we left behind just thirty minutes ago.
Aitutaki is one of several atolls I’ve traveled far out in the ocean to visit – coral atolls offer some of the best scuba diving in the world, thanks to their elaborate undersea gardens, clear waters, and abundant marine life – but it’s the only atoll I’ve seen from the air, an experience that helps me realize how special these coral atoll environments are. The shallow waters allow for incredible visibility, even all the way up here.“There’s a shark! I can see a shark!” Fariza pulls me back to the window and points out a small, lonely dark shape swimming through the shallows.
Eager to explore more of the world’s best shallow reef dives, I followed up Aitutaki with a visit to Belize, which boasts three of the four coral atolls in the entire Western Hemisphere. The outermost Lighthouse Reef Atoll is 50 miles off the coast and home to one of the best deep dive sites in the world: the Great Blue Hole. This famous limestone sinkhole tends to overshadow many of Belize’s other incredible dive sites and the shallow diving opportunities around Belize.
Here are a few shallow dive spots to check out on your next trip to Belize:
Half Moon Caye Wall
25 minutes north of the Great Blue Hole, on the south side. The dive site ranges from 6-42 meters (although the wall disappears much deeper into the blue) and is frequented by manta rays and sharks. The top of the wall is a thick forest of staghorn coral and home to groupers, angelfish and butterflyfish. Most of the visible light spectrum is absorbed by the time you descend 10 meters (about 30 feet), muting the colors of coral and fish that can be so brilliant in the shallower waters. Deeper dives are generally ‘blue’ experiences due to the deeper penetration of the longer blue light wavelength.
Long Caye: Tres Cocos
On the western side of the atoll this shallow coral reef, wall and series of overhangs plays host to spotted moray eels, lion’s paw sea cucumbers, cowfish, jackknife-fish, damselfish, parrotfish, blue tang, jacks, black groupers, turtles, Spanish mackerels and Creole wrasses, to name a few. Underwater photography opportunities are equally varied and impressive. The shallows around coral formations are notoriously rich in marine life and perfect places to test your fish identification skills. The waters around Long Caye are a hive of activity with some of the most colorful and lively fish in the ocean.
Its name inspired by the coral spires (the tallest is over 8 feet) and narrow passages that characterize this section of the reef, the Cathedral is another prime location for the underwater photographer. Beyond the shallow reef, intricate sea fans and other soft coral species sprout from the wall as it plummets to the seabed. You’ll find the greatest diversity of coral in shallow dive spots, where ample sunlight penetrates the clear water to nourish the coral.
The extensive network of holes and caves here provide ideal hiding places for a number of aquatic species. Many nocturnal creatures spend their daylight hours furrowed away in these hidey-holes. Rare yellow-to-pale-green star-patterned sclerosponges can be seen here, along with the large population of silverside minnows that give this location its name. Some of the live-aboard dive boats like to anchor here. Divers that stay shallow enjoy the warmest, most comfortable waters, which makes it easier to focus on capturing that prize-winning shot.
There are a number of other shallow dive sites on Lighthouse Reef Atoll: The Aquarium, Nurse Shark Lodge, Quebrada, West Point, Tarpon Caves, Elkhorn Forest, Angelfish Wall. Many of the names of these top shallow diving spots read like fairground rides: The Abyss, Flats Wall, The Playground. Visit any of these on your trip to Belize, and you’ll never forget the time you spend exploring the coral gardens in the shallows of these inviting Caribbean waters. I haven’t. Next time, I hope to add an aerial view of Lighthouse Reef to my exploration of its shallows.