Turtles and Sting Rays and Sharks, Oh My!

At the top of my list for Belize (and any tropical destination for that matter) was to go snorkeling in their barrier reef system.  A lot of people don’t know this, but the Belize barrier reef is so large, at 190 miles long, that it’s the second largest reef in the world, right behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  There are 3 different atolls within the reef as well, including Glover’s Reef, Lighthouse Reef and the Turneffe Atoll.  The Belize reef system also includes the Blue Hole, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, made popular by Jacques Cousteau in 1970.  Before my ankle sprain, I had some lofty plans to do two separate day trips, one to try and snorkel the Turneffe Atoll and another to visit the Blue Hole, but since I was on limited mobility, we ended up just doing one day out on the reef, which was plenty.

Ready for a day of snorkeling!

We booked a full-day excursion with lunch to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark & Ray Alley through Tsunami Adventures.  A lot of people book in advance, and it’s recommended during the busy season, but we were able to ride our bikes down to the pier in the morning and hop on a tour with 30 minutes to spare.  Tsunami Adventures didn’t have a full day trip leaving to the Hol Chan Reserve that day, but they work with two other tour companies, and the woman in the office generously offered to call both other outfits to see if we could join one of their tours.  Luckily, French Angel Expeditions had a small group leaving at 10:30am for a full-day snorkel tour, and they had two spots left for us!  We put in our lunch orders quickly and biked across the island to their departure pier, along with 6 other snorkelers.  We had a great group of people- two guys from Houston who were power plant repairmen, a girl from Norway who was currently living in Cuba, a couple from northern California, and one single guy.  Our guide Oliver was amazing, very friendly and outgoing right off the bat and very helpful with my crutch/one-legged situation.  We boarded our little speedboat and away we went!

Clearest water I’ve ever seen

It was about a 30 minute ride to the reef, located north towards San Pedro Island.  Our first stop was not in the reserve itself, but at a Turtle Zone, which is a spot close to the reef where two fisherman are the only people permitted to clean their catch out in the water.  They come to the same spot every day and the ocean floor is littered with empty conch shells from the day’s haul.  The fish know the routine, so there’s always a large group of marine animals surrounding the boat, including several sting rays and a resident turtle!  We hopped in the water after a warning from Oliver that one of the turtle’s eyes was bad and that he tended to bite, so make sure not to get too close!!  We spent about 15-20 minutes there, and the turtle would not leave our group alone!  He kept making his way over to Katie and I, swimming directly underneath her at one point, and then meandering back to the boat.  We saw a lot of brightly colored fish as well, a huge pufferfish that I kept my distance from, and a curious spotted trunkfish who swam right up to my camera.  Overall it was a great start to our day and it made me even more excited to get into the marine reserve.

Oh, hello!
Loggerhead turtle

Belize’s oldest marine reserve is know as Hol Chan, or “little channel,” and it was our second stop of the day.  The channel is a small gap in the reef about 25 yards wide and about 30 feet deep.  The coral reef area is located right around the channel, and sandy grass beds and mangroves also make up the reserve.  Oliver had to literally guide us on our tour of the marine reserve, so we made a large semi-circle out from the boat towards the channel, along the reef, and back out into the grass beds.  Once in the water, I was amazed by the variety of corals and marine life.  Oliver told us that there were over 150 species of fish in the marine reserve and over 40 species of corals.  The colors of the fish and clarity of the waters were amazing.  While there was a slight current, I didn’t have any problems keeping up with the group since I didn’t have fins on.  Thank goodness for high school swim team!  We swam along a coral shelf that went down about 30 feet, and we could see schools of larger fish below around larger coral formations.  We saw hundreds of blue striped grunts schooling around elkhorn coral, and Oliver pointed out a particularly spikey looking coral that he said would leave little burns on you if you touched it.  We saw brain coral, some beautiful tangs, and a school of jacks was following us throughout our entire tour, swimming in and around the group, getting almost close enough to touch!

School of grunts
Southern Sea Turtle munching on some grass
Brain coral

As we swam back to the boat, a nurse shark appeared off the stern, circling us as we climbed out of the water.  Oliver said his name was Benji, and he frequented the area where we were anchored.  But Benji wasn’t the only shark we saw that day, no sir.  Our next stop was Shark & Ray Alley, an area where fisherman used to clean their catch at the end of the day.  They noticed that this activity got the attention of Nurse Sharks and several Southern Sting Rays in the area.  The spot became a popular stop during snorkel tours because as soon as the sharks hear the motor of the boats coming into the area, they make their way over, hoping for some scraps.  There’s no need to be afraid of the sharks, they’re very docile and tend to swim right up to snorkelers.  It’s always best not to touch the marine life, so just stay out of their way and enjoy!  Oliver got in the water again and led us over to another area of coral and tropical fish.  At this point I got a little behind the tour- mainly because I accidentally kicked Katie in the chest and was laughing so hard that I thought I might drown- so Oliver had to swim back and drag me along to catch up with the rest of the group.  Again we saw a lot of jacks, elkhorn and fan corals, a few butterfly fish, and a batfish.  I shot all my videos and photos with my GoPro Hero Plus that Julio bought me for my birthday, it’s been getting some great use!

Nurse sharks fighting over conch shells

Our fourth and last stop on the reef was a spot called Coral Shores North.  Oliver stayed on the boat to prep our fresh fruit snack, and gave us about 40 minutes of free snorkeling around the area.  Katie and I went off by ourselves and were attempting to get some pictures of each other on the GoPro, when suddenly Katie grabbed me and started pulling me around very quickly.  A manatee!!!  Oliver had told us mating season didn’t start until July, so we probably wouldn’t see one, but there he was, a giant sea cow lumbering along about 10 feet below us on the sea grass.  What we didn’t expect was how fast he could swim, so we took off after him, me trying to get a video with my GoPro in one hand and only kicking with one leg, and Katie speeding along in her fins.  I popped my head up to see if any of our other group members were around, and managed to yell to two of them so they caught a quick glimpse of the manatee as he swam out of sight.  How lucky were we??  I was so glad to have seen everything on my personal list of “must sees” on our Belize snorkel trip.  And it wasn’t over quite yet!

A manatee!!

As we headed back to Caye Caulker, Oliver let us know that we had two extra stops to make before we made it back to the dock.  The first stop was by some mangroves on the north west side of the island where there were 20-30 Tarpon swimming close to shore.  Tarpon is Belize’s sport fish, strictly catch and release.  The speed at which they can move is amazing- Oliver tossed a few scraps in the water to demonstrate how they can snatch it out of the water within seconds.  Our last stop was alongside a dock where tiny seahorses are known to live.  Oliver hopped out of the boat, and with the help of a local who was walking by, managed to find a two inch seahorse in the sea grasses below the dock.  He was so cute!  They live there because the currents on the reef are too strong for them.  After snapping a few pictures of him, we put him back in his grassy home and made it back to the dock to finish our day.

Tarpon in murky water
The lone seahorse of the day

French Angel Expeditions was a fantastic tour company to do our snorkel trip on the Belize Barrier Reef with.  I loved that we had such a small group of people, so we could really interact with Oliver and hear what he was saying in the water at Hol Chan.  He was very knowledgeable, helpful, and an all around fun guide, and the best part was that you could tell he was very concerned about preserving the reef and its animals.  I would suggest French Angel to anyone wanting a great all day snorkel trip from Caye Caulker!

4 Comments Add yours

  1. What a wonderful report. Well done Rachel. There’s nothing I enjoy more than clear, blue water and lots of sea life. Someday you must go to Bon Aire one of the ABC islands just off the Venezualan coast. Aruba, Bona Aire and Curaceau. They are all great but Bon Aire is rated number two only to the Great Barrier Reef.
    You should give some consideration to putting all of your trips into a how to do it book and trying to get it published. I will be glad to help you.
    P.S. I think the reference to “The Wizard Of Oz” was a really cute idea.


    1. Rachel Elyse says:

      Thanks Uncle Ralph! Now that you told me about it, I’ve already started researching Bon Aire- it sounds so amazing! It will definitely be on my trip list in the near future.


  2. Bob Morris says:

    Good job! Great photos.


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