Anna’s Favourite Warm Water Dive Destination #2 – Belize’s Great Blue Hole

Anna’s Favourite Warm Water Dive Destination #2 – Belize’s Great Blue Hole

Created: 2021-01-16

The Great Blue Hole – Lighthouse Reef Atoll – Belize – Caribbean Sea

 

Where is the Great Blue Hole and what’s so special about it?  Imagine this…it’s 1971, you’re scoping out the shallow reefs and coral heads, singing “Just my Imagination” by the Temptations. You’re 60 miles from the Belize mainland, south of Mexico, North of Honduras, west of Cuba, but it’s not a pleasure dive, you’re helping navigate a channel guiding Captain Jacques Cousteau’s huge wood hulled exploration ship the “Calypso” through the remote, untouched and uninhabited Lighthouse Reef. The aim? The Great Blue Hole. 

 

What is it?  The Blue Hole is an immense, perfectly circular sinkhole 400m wide, 120m deep in the middle of the Atoll. 50 years ago, Cousteau and his dive team explored it for the first time. Once a colossal terrestrial cave (into which the Vatican’s St Peter’s Basilica would fit) boasting immense 6-8 metre stalactites and stalagmites, the sea level hundreds of metres below what it is today, it succumbed over millennia to rising sea levels. The roof collapsed, flooding the space below and leaving an incredible mark on the seascape. 

 

Why should I dive it? 60 miles off the mainland, strikingly visible by air, the Blue Hole as a dive site is often maligned – “boring… it’s a hole… dangerous… waste of time”.  Divers mention a 2+ hour, early, bumpy boat ride out to the atoll (you have to cross a reef four times getting there for a day trip) an unfeasibly deep (40m), stupidly short (20min) and annoyingly busy dive (shared with other boats) with no fish or reef.  Other divers marvel: “breath taking… a thrill… unique…!” but all divers rave about the next two dives that are usually packaged on the same day – Half Moon Caye wall and the Aquarium. An insider secret for you… why not stay on the island next to the Blue Hole and get there before everyone else, in 12 minutes? Why not stay a week to dive the other UNESCO world heritage sites that everyone raves about before being whisked back to their hotel (60 miles away…)? Turtles, shark, grouper, unbelievable coral… The Blue Hole is an amazing experience and needs to be understood in context. No, it’s not a pretty wall dive. No, there won’t be schools of fish, teeming with nudis or the usual reef suspects but then, you don’t dive Scapa either and complain you didn’t see fish. You may get to see hammerheads, blacktip reef sharks, bumphead parrotfish and the fabled three flippered turtle “Lefty”. Don’t expect to arrive there and see the iconic aerial shot either (sounds logical) so rearrange your expectations! 

 

When to go?  Between November and April/June is “tourist season”; do your homework on the “shoulder” season though for fewer visitors and better prices (October, July). 

 

What to take? You should ideally have your Deep Dive Specialty for the Great Blue Hole so you can enjoy the dive and really get the most out of it. I would also take a camera (my favourite is the Olympus TG series – incredible macro, great in relative low light) – but reserve it for the reef dives – without a serious light rig and more time, you’re best off focusing your attention wholly on enjoying the dive experience at the Blue Hole. 

 

Insider tips…. 

There is only one Dive operation with accommodation in the Atoll, at Long Caye, which happens to be surrounded by the best dive sites – arguably in Belize – including the two everyone raves about, as mentioned above. You can literally roll out of bed (or your hammock) into the dive boat, come back for late breakfast or lunch – up to four dives a day.  Hassle free, it’s a “liveashore”… like a liveaboard but on an island, fabulous food and you’ll share with an absolute maximum of 6 or 7 others. Huracan Diving Lodge.

 

The 7 Belizean UNESCO world Heritage sites in the Meso-American Barrier Reef which stretches from Mexico down to Honduras are all diveable. Just remember that the closer to the mainland, the less spectacular they’re likely to be precisely because they’re so easily accessible. The ones above, Glover’s Reef and South Water Caye are my favourites. Remote, beautiful, laid-back, each with a different vibe. 

 

Belize has an astounding array of cultures you’ve never have heard of… Kriol, Mestizo, Garinagu – amazing food and traditions, and not a single Pizza Hut or McDonalds. 

 

The forested interior is really wild and home to jaguar and many other incredible species. Almost everyone speaks English and you could be hiking in a jungle in the morning and scuba diving in the afternoon – the country’s about the size of Wales with a population of fewer than 400,000. What’s not to like?? 

 

Splurge. Do put aside a couple of hundred dollars and take a “puddle jumper” plane ride over the Blue Hole. Alternatively, take a helicopter over the Blue Hole then land on the beach if you’re staying out at Huracan Dive Lodge. That’s what credit cards are for. You will not regret it.

 

Fun fact: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin once owned land on Long Caye, which had been earmarked as a sort of Retired diver community. Nearest light pollution 60 miles away.

 

 

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Ocean Turtle Diving
Ocean Turtle Diving
WIth a return to the water imminent, now is the time to make sure everything is in good working order and serviced in line with manufacturers' recommendations. Bring us your regs, BCDs, computers and tanks - we offer a 2 week turnaround time for most servicing so that will ensure your gear is safe and ready to use by the time we can resume diving. We are open on Thursdays from 10am until 5pm, for a kerbside drop off and collection service, but please ensure your visit is part of an essential journey in line with current guidelines.
Ocean Turtle Diving
Ocean Turtle Diving
Not to be outdone by BoJo, here is our road map.

We will remain closed until 12th April 2021, with the exception of click and collect / kerbside service as before. For these, we will continue to open every Thursday from 10am until 5pm, with no appointment necessary.

We hope to commence outdoor in-water training from 29th March assuming our inland dive sites are classed as outdoor leisure facilities. We then aim to commence indoor in water training from 12th April when indoor leisure facilities are allowed to reopen.
Ocean Turtle Diving
Ocean Turtle Diving
As the end of lockdown appears to be within touching distance, we come to the 8th in a series of Anna's favourite warm water destinations.

RAJA AMPAT – WEST PAPUA - INDONESIA

Where is Raja Ampat and what’s so special about it?

Although technically you wouldn’t be wrong to say that Raja Ampat is situated roughly halfway between Madagascar and Mexico, and is an archipelago made up of the four (Ampat) Kings (Raja) islands (pulau) of Misool, Batanta, Salawati and Waigeo, in reality, there are more than 1500 islands here, with a total population roughly the same as the town of Salisbury in the UK. You can spend a week anywhere here and spend time with pretty much only the people you’ll dive and stay with, either on a liveaboard or on land (I spent a week on Gam, one of the smaller islands. No roads, no mains electricity, no noise, no light pollution. Marvellous). Other advantages include its considerable and stunning marine life biodiversity and a reef system agreed as housing the richest ecosystems on earth. This area is also home to the incredible Birds of Paradise (for your entertainment – watch “Dancing with Birds” on Netflix, narrated by Stephen Fry).

Why should I dive there?

See above. What other reason would you need. You won’t run out of dive sites, nor things to see. Absolutely incredible. You will likely see the Tasseled Wobbegong shark, Giant Clam, Bumphead parrotfish, pygmy seahorse and many kinds of frogfish. Raja is also known for some fierce currents, so get some diving practice in before you go to fully appreciate it. All the islands will offer spectacular diving – Misool is considered the crème de la crème as it really is so much further (and less explored/busy).

When to go?

October to March has the calmest waters if you’re doing a liveaboard. Having said that I was there in November and some days were pretty choppy, but not blown out. Visibility is superb, and the water is always warm.

What to take?

There’s a fair bit of flying involved, so definitely trade out the heavy wetsuit for a dive skin. My favourite is the Sharkskin, it’s super light to pack, windproof, warm, quick drying and neutrally buoyant. A reef hook. Do NOT be tempted to buy one there or any other dive related item for that matter, you will pay double or triple UK prices. Take a camera and learn how to use it before you go! If you’re going to be island based, particularly homestay, do take some snacks and favourite foods like apples, oranges, snackbars, as the food can sometimes get a little samey (in my experience), drinking water is in good supply but don’t forget your reusable water bottle, and a good supply of electrolytes! Try to take as little packaging as possible, or plan to take it away with you.

Preparation, preparation, preparation !

It takes time to get there, so plan your time appropriately. You’ll fly into Sorong, and if you’re land based will need to take a speedboat to your accommodation. It’s very easy to arrange one (just tell your accommodation and they’ll pick you up), but not particularly cheap (too many variables to list here – the exchange rate at a glance is…. Knock four zeroes off the end and divide by 2 e.g. 3,000,000 rupiah  3,000,000 300  £150 approximately.) If you’re land based, you may need to pay cash (the bigger resorts will take cards, homestays don’t), and hence you’ll need to plan a larger than normal zipped bag/Ziploc to carry around your wad of notes.

Where to stay

You can choose to spend as much or as little as you wish, from high end luxury liveaboards (the Dewi Nusantara, anyone?) which will give you a fabulous selection of incredible dive sites throughout a week or 15 nights, to basic beachfront homestays (from around £25 a night upwards, including board), up to beautifully appointed dive resorts (Raja Ampat biodiversity Resort for example). One salient point to note… the liveaboards boast photos of white billowing sails atop romantic Phinisi schooner style yachts… you may get a last morning photo op with the sails up, but don’t be fooled – you’ll be motoring around the dive sites, not sailing. Homestays are all grouped and managed under the “stayrajaampat” website since they’re remote and don’t all speak English/ have internet. It’s a great website for info on all the islands and their attractions: https://www.stayrajaampat.com/ultimate-raja-ampat-guide/raja-ampat-islands/ It’s also run by volunteers who do an amazing and fair job.

Splurge.

Raja Ampat is definitely a splurge destination – but as much as you want to spend all your time underwater, do plan for a few days on land exploring the jungle and the magnificent birds of paradise on Waigeo or plan to go further afield down to Misool which is 4+ hours by speedboat from the airport town of Sorong and may set you back over £300 (round trip) on top of your accommodation. You may want to plan a trip to the highly picturesque Piaynemo island lookout (below is a picture of my friend and dive guide Tommy precariously showing off there).

How to get there?

Sorong airport is your destination whether land or liveaboard based (there’s a smaller airport in Waisai but isn’t that useful for transfers). You get there via Jakarta, Makkasar, Manado, then a ferry (huge, busy, cheap, relatively comfortable, air conditioned, fascinating if you’re a people watcher) to Waisai, then a small boat to your destination. It’s a long, long trip and you will know you’re on the other side of the planet by the time you get there. Plan the length of your holiday accordingly. I only had an hour and a half flight from Manado but the transfers took all day from Sorong to Gam (see map below) and vice versa.

Good to know?
Overweight luggage isn’t actually that expensive on the local airlines.
Get your cash before you get to Indonesia, preferably! ATMs limit you to 1,000,000 at most (£50).
Bring a good first aid kit and make sure you have insurance (Dive and travel). Dive conservatively. There is a deco chamber in Waisai, but it’s expensive and doesn’t guarantee 24/7 operation. The nearest DAN approved chamber is in Manado (see above for my trip times to and from Manado).

I stayed at Yenros Homestay and dived with Raja Ampat Biodiversity Resort next door, on Gam island.

Photo Information:
Map Source: Wikipedia
Piaynemo islands. Photo Credit: Tommy Milton
Ferry from Sorong to Waisai. Photo Credit: Anna Williams
Tiny frogfish. Photo Credit: Anna Williams
Dive dock at Gam island. Photo Credit Anna Williams
Ocean Turtle Diving
Ocean Turtle Diving
This week Anna is transporting us away from the grey skies of the UK, to the crystal clear Caribbean Sea!!!

The Elbow – Turneffe Atoll – Belize – Caribbean Sea

Where is Turneffe Atoll and what’s so special about it?

Turneffe is one of the only four atolls in the Western Hemisphere, three of which are in Belize (sandwiched between Mexico and Honduras). Almost every diver will be familiar with the Maldivian atolls of the Pacific– typically a ring shaped coral rim, a chain of islands surrounding an extinct volcano that has eroded leaving a central lagoon. Turneffe Atoll is almost 50km long, 30km off the mainland, and is the largest atoll in the MesoAmerican Barrier Reef System with over 200 mangrove cayes (islands). What is more, it’s been a Marine Reserve for nearly 10 years, has no permanent inhabitants and is largely littoral forest and mangroves – great news for both marine fauna and us divers!

What is The Elbow?

The Elbow is one of the most well-known dive sites in Belize, but whereas most of the dive sites are generally known for being calm, easy, shallow and colourful with no current, the Elbow is famous for being a true drift dive (with occasional currents running like a train!). Situated at the southernmost end of Turneffe Atoll, the current here rages towards the south, and divers are scooped up on a kind of marine motorway, shunted out into the blue, down the coast and spat out where the eastern and western drifts meet at the atoll tip. More info on Turneffe and its other dive sites here:

https://ambergriscaye.com/pages/town/diveturneffe.html

Why should I dive it?

Big currents mean big pelagics, big schools and the big wide blue. The current whisks divers out into the blue, where I’ve seen runs of 20+ huge eagle rays, schools of Horse eye jacks and cruising turtles before drifting back towards the wall. It’s huge thrill “armchair diving” and watching the canyons and coral formations scroll beneath you.

When to go? Between November and April/June is “tourist season”, do your homework on the “shoulder” season though for fewer visitors and better prices (October, July). The Elbow dive is most definitely dependent on conditions including weather, swell and tides so it’s best to stay at the Atoll to make sure you get to dive at optimum conditions. Blackbird Caye Resort is a well-established 5* PADI dive resort right on the ocean’s edge.

What to take?

If you’re a photographer – it’s your wide angle kit you’re going to need at the Elbow.

Preparation, preparation, preparation!

The Elbow is most certainly an Advanced Open Water Dive/ Deep Diver spec – for the depths (up to 30+ metres), and the drift (Drift Diver recommended). You’re likely to be doing a negative entry (buddy teams descending together directly from the boat without surface wait) and each diver should be very comfortable sending up their DSMB. Preparation makes the most of your dive!

Insider tips….

There are weeks and weeks’ worth of dives here at Turneffe, so it makes sense to stay on the atoll to take full advantage. Turneffe is also home to the rare Whitespotted Toadfish endemic to Belize. Listen for it, you’ll hear and feel its grrrrunt in the pit of your stomach before you see it. (Like a mobile phone vibrating on a glass table).

Splurge.

Blackbird Caye is the only resort on Turneffe to have its own airstrip. Do splurge, Turneffe from the air is breathtaking! Do not miss treating yourself to a few days inland either … I highly recommend Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Jungle lodge where you can float upriver and visit a Mayan spiritual site deep within the caves, before relaxing in your rooftop bathtub under the stars and palms. Un-Belizeable!

Bonus

Belize is English Speaking and tiny. You can get from the mountains to the bottom of the sea in a couple hours. It’s also absolutely stunning.

Fun facts

Turneffe Atoll has been touted as the actual location of Peter Pan’s NeverLand according to a theory published in 2018. An attempt to drum up business was subsequently made by the Belize Tourism board, offering a free holiday at Turneffe to randomly selected applicants with the names Wendy or Peter. News and video here:

https://www.breakingbelizenews.com/2018/05/10/is-turneffe-atoll-the-geographic-location-of-peter-pans-paradise/

Whitespotted Toadfish. Photo Credit: www.reefguide.org