qualifies as a “first” trip for us. We had previously been to Belize
in the early 1990s but that was not only over 20 years ago, but I
didn’t lead the trip for us. So this was definitely my first and
you’ve got to figure, like with many other dive areas, things have
changed in the last two decades.
We were 13 strong on this adventure: Laurie Kasper, Sue Krauth, Lisa
Mercier & Jay Lark, Walt & Susan Crandall, Kiff Crandall &
Joy Radecki Crandall, Selo Imrohoroglu, Philip Nicozsis, Mike &
Sharol Carter, and me (Ken Kurtis). And our vessel of choice for all of
this was the Belize Sun Dancer II (SD2 - which is owned and operated by
the Aggressor Fleet).
The short version of this is that it as a very good trip but perhaps not
exactly the trip we had all hoped for due to elements out of anyone's
control. How much you end up enjoying a dive trip is going to be based
on a number of factors: (1) The group of people you're with, (2) the
location you go to, (3) the boat or resort you dive with, (4) the
conditions, and (5) the overall weather.
Weather is what affected this for us and not in a good way. When we
landed in Belize City on November 1, there was a pretty good wind
blowing. Wind is never a friend for diving because it can chop up the
ocean and stir up the visibility. Unfortunately, the wind not only blew
15-20mph for our first three dive days, but the direction kept changing.
And that complicates the choices of dive sites greatly because it meant
that one site that was sheltered from the wind in the morning became
exposed in the afternoon when the wind shifted. And while the SD2 crew
did the best they could to adjust, it eliminated some dive site choices.
For instance, the two famous dive sites in Belize are the Blue Hole
(more on that in a bit) and The Elbow. We made it out to the Blue Hole
but we never were able to dive The Elbow, although we did dive a nearby
But my overall impression - and I really don't think this was
wind-related - was that it wasn't as fishy as I'd expected. In general
terms, you're diving walls or at least semi-walls. These are not the
types of walls that we get in Indonesia where they're fairly vertical.
In Belize they have a slope, albeit a steep one, to them. And there are
certainly sections that are fairly vertical but there's not really that
"wall sensation" of looking straight down and seeing the coral
wall fade into the dark blue of the deep ocean.
Now I'll concede that even in Indonesia, you see less fish on the walls
than you do on the tops of the walls and in the shallows. But in Indo,
the walls are still fairly well-populated. And granted, it's
Indo-Pacific which is a very different ecosystem. But there just didn't
seem to be all that many fish and even when you got into the shallows,
it was better but not as densely populated as other Caribbean areas,
This isn't to imply that it was bad. It just wasn't what I'd been led to
believe it would be from listening to people over the years rave abut
the diving in Belize. It was OK, but not spectacular. On a scale of 1-10
with 10 being best, I'd give it a 6. For comparison, I'd give Bonaire an
8 and Indonesia a 10. But it was still enjoyable and we still saw cool
critters, just not in the proliferation that I'd expected.
Critters we did see on every dive were Lionfish. We certainly didn't see
them all the time but I'd say we saw anywhere from one to five on each
of the dive sites. I also don't believe for a minute that the Lionfish
are responsible for what I perceived as a lack of fishiness. There's no
doubt they're voracious predators but by the same token, we watched a
few of them stalk prey (usually small fish) and they weren't very
successful. On top of that, Lionfish in the Caribbean is not really a
new phenomenon although it's only recently that it's been widely talked
about. There are areas in Caribbean where Lionfish have been present for
20 years. (I'm not sure how long they've been in Belize.) And you've got
to believe that at some point over an extended period of time, a natural
balance takes place where either there's not a large enough food source
for the Lionfish or some animal starts preying on Lionfish or whatever.
And at the risk of sounding like a climate-change-denier, I'm not only
not sure that the threat is as grave as it's pitched, but we've now been
trying to "control" the Lionfish population for a decade or
more with little or no success. So at some point it may be like Kudzu in
the south: You can't get rid of it and you learn to live with it.
Weather and less-than-expected numbers of fish notwithstanding, we had a
really great trip. And that was due in no small part to the collective
efforts and attitude of the crew of the SD2 under the guidance of
Captain Eddy Anderson and second captain Megan O'Meara. Both are
enthusiastic souls and Megan bills herself as "Chief
Enthusiast" and that's an understatement. Normally we'd think of
bubbles in diving as being bad but Megan's bubbly enthusiasm is actually
First Mate John Garroway was also a delight to dive with and talk to.
Chef Jerry Carcamo, aided by sous chef Carlos Soler and galley assistant
Barbara Anderson, delighted us every meal with something wonderful and
tempting. (And he was even able to accommodate one of the divers who was
a vegan.) Generally there was a continental breakfast (cut up fresh
fruit, toast, yogurt, coffee & tea) out at 6AM. Hot breakfast (some
form of eggs, pancakes or French toast with sides of bacon) was served
at 7AM. We generally dove at 8 and 11AM, and a buffet lunch was served
around Noon. Then we'd get in two afternoon dives, a dusk dive at 6PM,
and a full sit-down served dinner at 7:30PM. One night we even had an
early Thanksgiving with roast turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, stuffing,
green beans, and more. And it was all fabulous. I haven't yet polled our
group to see how much weight everyone gained during the week but this
sure wasn't a Weight Watchers Cruise.
The crew was also quite helpful during the dives, from the moment you
stepped on to the dive deck until you finished the dive and headed back
to your room. They like to call their service "Fintastic"
(Megan's term - no surprise) and it basically means they want you to do
as little as you need to for the dive. They were quite happy to help you
suit up and when you reached the dive platform at the stern of the boat,
they'd have your fins ready for you and would even put them on your feet
and tighten up the straps. (As a dinosaur instructor, there are simply a
few things I still insist on doing myself and they took this all in good
stride and with good humor.) If they could breathe the air for you, I'm
sure they'd do that.
During each of the daily dives, there would be at least one dive guide
in the water. You were welcome to stay with the guide or dive your own
plan. Obviously, if there are any "special friends" around,
it's best to stay with the guide to find them but on Wednesday, they
went above and beyond on the post-lunch afternoon dive. A few of us were
cruising the wall around 80 feet or so when we looked up and saw Captain
Eddy frantically motioning us to come up. He had swum over to find us
and then led us another 50 yards or so across the shallows to the red
seahorse he had found. And then he went off and found other groups of
divers to make sure as many people as possible saw it. Now THAT'S
At the end of the dive, many divers spent their last three minutes on
the hang bar of the boat. At this point, the dive guide was usually back
and waiting at the surface and would swim down and grab any cameras
divers were holding. When you finished your safety stop, you went up one
of the two boarding ladders and simply extended your legs backwards as
the first then the second of your fins were quickly removed. Plant your
feet on the ladder and up you go. You'd be asked your max depth and time
(which they recorded for everyone on every dive) and then would move to
your gear station to secure your stuff. But it didn't end there.
There were fresh-water showers on both back corners of the deck but
they've taken the hot towel service that Aggressor started (but every
liveaboard seems to do now) a step further. Not only were the towels
embroidered with your station number (so you got the same one each time)
but once you'd completed your rinse off, they would insist on draping
the towel over you and force you to endure a fabulously relaxing neck
So the Belizean weather may not have been what we hoped for, but the
climate on the boat was superb.
We also liked the physical layout of the boat. The main deck was the
dive deck (rear 1/3 of the vessel) with everyone having an individual
station with plenty of room to don gear and a small basket underneath
for loose things like hoods, masks, etc. There were two multi-shelf
camera tables and a multi-shelf charging corner with plenty of outlets
(plus I also bring power strips). All diving is done directly from the
boat so once you geared up, you walked back to the stern area, donned
your fins, and made a small stride into the water to begin the dive.
The forward 2/3 of the main deck is where rooms #2-10 are located. #2
& #3 are "master" rooms (queen-sized double bed) and go
for a slightly higher rate. The other rooms are "deluxe" and
all have twin beds which can be pushed together to form a king. Each
stateroom has a large window, TV, bathroom, closet space, and even robes
for each passenger.
The hot ticket IMHO is stateroom #1 where Laurie & I were. It was
the "Owner’s Suite" when Peter Hughes ran the vessel and is
about 30% bigger than the other rooms. But it goes for the same price as
a deluxe stateroom. However, it’s below the main deck (about even with
the waterline) and only has two small portholes. But if you don't mind
that, it definitely got more walking-around room than the others
(although the closet space seemed rather minimal).
The second deck of the boat is the social area. There's a semi-open area
in the back 1/3 (which is in turn covered by the third deck) with fixed
tables and chairs as well as a small bar. Sodas and beer (from a
dispenser) were out in the area too, as well as this served as the dive
briefing area. Moving forward there's a roomy salon with six tables that
easily seated everyone and still left room for workspace for those with
computers. There’s a huge TV in here, coffee/tea station, as well as
the galley and wheelhouse further forward, but those areas were
The third deck, which runs the rear 2/3 of the boat, was a sun deck with
chaise lounges and a great view of wherever we were. It was also an
excellent spot to dry gear at the end of the trip.
Diving conditions were good and occasionally very good, but not
spectacular. Visibility generally ranged from 50-80 feet (with a couple
of dives in the 100-foot range) but on one dive it was less than 20
feet. Much of this was likely weather-related. Water temps were
generally in the low 80s, ranging from 80-85º on my Proplus3 computer.
On our first day, the ocean surface was rather choppy to the point that
we cancelled the night dive. But even on that day, once you got
underwater, there was no surge or chop to speak of. We hit some mild
currents over the course of the week but again, nothing too severe.
It's important to understand the layout of Belize to understand the
diving. There are basically three areas you hear about: (1) Ambergris
Caye (pronounced "key"), (2) Turneffe Atoll, and (3)
Ambergris is in the northeast corner of Belize and is actually attached
to mainland Mexico. There are a number of land-based resorts there and
my understanding is that most of the diving they do is local, with an
occasional foray to the Blue Hole. We did not go up to this area, which
is about 40 miles from Belize City.
Turneffe is a series of small islands, about 30 miles southwest of
Belize City. There are a number of sites here, including The Elbow
(which we didn't get to), but the jewel is considered to be the sites
out at Lighthouse Reef, another 20 miles west and home to the Blue Hole.
Lighthouse is a fringing reef with a few small islands, and much more
exposed to weather than Turneffe.
Because of the wind, we sat in port Saturday evening (SD2 lists their
normal departure time as 6PM Saturday) and instead departed at 4AM
Sunday morning for a smoother crossing. We ended up at Turneffe for our
first day, diving Black Beauty and Grand Bogue. One thing you notice
right away is a pretty good proliferation of tube sponges (mainly yellow
and purple), and fairly large barrel sponges. We also found quite
regularly over sandy areas, small colonies of Yellowheaded Jawfish. I
really like shooting these guys partly because of the challenge and
partly because they're cute. They basically hover over the burrow and
zip right back in at the first sign of danger. So the trick is to get
them comfortable with your presence so they don't feel threatened and
will come out. The Holy Grail of Jawfish shots is to find a male
brooding eggs in his mouth but I didn't get that lucky this week.
Monday we made it over to Lighthouse Reef and started at Half Moon Caye
Wall, which we liked so much we stayed for a third dive. We had some
good turtle encounters here, got some really good Garden Eel
opportunities, a couple of Eagle Rays, and also ran into free-swimming
Green Morays, which you seemed to see almost everywhere.
This was also a spot where there are Sailfin Blennies on the concrete
mooring block, both males and females. The males do their name justice
by sticking out of the holes and rapidly flashing their sail (dorsal
fin) to impress the females. Photographically it's a tough shot to get
because it only last a few seconds. But I decided to give that a whirl
on one dive and literally sat in front of one (I was shooting macro
since they're only about two inches long) for over half an hour. The
trick is to pre-focus (or fix the focus and disable autofocus) and hold
your shutter button halfway down so that when he comes out and displays,
you push and the camera shoots with no shutter lag. It's tricky (but
fun) and I shot about 75 frames until I got one I liked.
This was also the spot where we found a large Barracuda getting cleaned
which meant you could get fairly close to shoot.
But this was also where we go tour first taste of visibility changes.
Normally the SD2 does two dives at site A in the morning, moves during
lunch, does two dives at site B in the afternoon, and then usually the
dusk or night dive still at site B before moving to an overnight
anchorage. But we liked Half Moon so much that we asked to stay for the
first post-lunch dive and were very surprised when we all jumped back in
and the vis was half of what it had been two hours earlier due to lots
of particulate (almost like snow) in the water. We assumed it was due to
tidal conditions but it was both interesting and amazing at how it had
Tuesday we started at Uno Coco which we liked a lot. It had a nice wall
with big Elephant Ear sponges and lots of tube sponges, as well as
plenty of Angelfish and Parrotfish, along with the usual reef creatures.
But best of all was a very cooperative Hawksbill Turtle we encountered
on the second dive. This guy was calmly munching on sponges while
everyone took his picture. He couldn’t have cared less and simply went
about his business. We stayed with him and watched mesmerized for about
15 minutes until he meandered off.
Tuesday after lunch we pulled into the appropriately and unfortunately
named Sandbox and it lived up to that name. Visibility couldn't have
been more than 20 feet and it was a sandy/snowy 20 feet at that. Sort of
like our third dive at Half Moon but with worse conditions. In fact
conditions were so bad that I only snapped off 20 frames, where normally
on a dive I shoot around 125 shots. Needless to say, we moved after the
dive. We pulled into Long Caye Wall and liked that much better with a
good array of Indigo & Barred Hamlets, Blue Chromis, and many
Flamingo Tongues. Plus there was a huge school of Horse-Eye Jacks that
formed under the boat and stayed there the entire time we were moored.
On Wednesday we were told the weather was favorable to make it out to
the fabled Blue Hole. (Officially, it's known as "The Great Blue
Hole.") The winds had calmed, the sun was shining, and it should
have set us up for a lovely dive. I will tell you at the outset that I
was unimpressed and even a bit disappointed.
The Blue Hole was formed some 150,000 years ago when sea levels were
lower. It's essentially a collapsed cave system. When sea levels rose,
it flooded. It's pretty much circular, about a thousand feet across, and
a little over 400 feet deep. The floor of the Blue Hole (which we did
NOT visit just for the record) is actually very slowly rising as
sedimentation continues over time. John told us that 50 years ago, it
was measured at close to 500 feet deep.
The Blue Hole is surrounded by a fringing reef, which actually makes it
a bit tricky to get to because you can easily run a boat the size of the
SD2 aground. But Eddy expertly guided us in and tied up to the mooring.
The SD2 crew really runs this dive expertly and wonderfully. John was
the lead guide with Megan bringing up the rear. This is the only dive of
the trip, due to the depths and potential dangers, that you dive it as a
single group and must stay with the guide. The plan was to enter the
edge of the hole at about 30 feet, slide down the vertical wall to 100+
feet, and then cut under the wall and continue down to about 130 feet
which is where the bottom of the stalactites are, which hang from the
ceiling. The total bottom time of the dive, including the descent is 8
minutes. At that point, everyone starts slowly back up, you come up the
wall, exit back on to the rim of the hole, do a preliminary 2-minute
stop, and then proceed to a formal 3-minute 15-foot safety stop.
Total time for the entire dive is about 30 minutes start to finish.
Water temp was about 84º but dropped to 81º inside. But the vis was
only about 40 feet and I was told that's fairly typical. It makes sense
when you realize you're diving into a closed system with little or no
My impression prior to the dive was that we'd be diving into gin-clear
water and when we got down to the stalactite level, you'd be able to
look up and see the rim of the hole and maybe even the boat, and when
you looked down into the abyss, you'd see the light fading out into a
deep, dark, mysterious blue. That would be cool but that wasn't the
You'd look up and, well, it's 40-foot vis. You don't see too far. You'd
look down and, well, it's 40-foot vis so you don't see too far. So what
you are left looking at is . . . rocks. Long pointy rocks hanging down
from a ceiling but rocks nonetheless. Not my idea of a great dive.
And after this experience, you have to wonder why people continue to
rave about the Blue Hole. If you like getting narc'd, you don't have to
go to the Blue Hole to do it as you can achieve those depths at most
Belize dive sites. The only thing I can come up with is that it's like a
diver's rite of passage, that people aren't that jazzed about it
afterwards, and that there's a feeling of "If I had to suffer
through this, so should others." Let me put it this way: Having
done it, I wouldn't do the dive again. And if you go to Belize and don't
make it out to Blue Hole, I don't think you're missing much except for a
check mark on your diving bucket list.
After the Blue Hole, you actually skip (at least on SD2) the late
morning dive as they check in at the ranger station on Half Moon Caye
which also gives everyone a chance to walk around (and off-gas) to see
the Red-Footed Boobies that nest on the island. After lunch, it was time
to get wet again and we plopped in at Silver Cave which we liked a lot,
especially because of the second seahorse that was spotted there.
Thursday saw us at two of the better sites on the trip. We started the
morning at Chain Wall, so named for a long-abandoned anchor chain there.
But the real highlight (which we were told of ahead of time) were the
two Gray Reef Sharks who make the place home and who come visit and make
close passes by divers out on the wall and in the shallows. At no time
did anyone feel threatened by these graceful creatures and everyone got
a good, close look at them. I'd estimate their length at 7 feet or so.
So this is not a small animal and one whose presence you definitely
And I had a great end-of-dive experience just before lunch when I was
going back to the boat and noticed a Nassau Grouper just sort of sitting
and hanging around on the bottom. I dropped down (he was at about 50
feet) to investigate and he just nuzzled right up next to me. It ended
up that he seemed to enjoy looking at his reflection in the camera and
being petted (gently) at the same time. Neat experience and only my
dwindling air supply made me leave my new dive buddy.
In the afternoon we moved over to Cathedral and that was another lovely
(religious???) experience as we quickly discovered a number of swim-throughs
that were loaded with schooling Silversides. Great photo op and just fun
to swim through as well. Not too surprisingly, there were Tarpon and
Jacks and other predators lurking about, hoping to catch a snack.
Our final dive day, Friday, began rather early because we needed to be
back in Belize City (a 3-hour run) around 1PM. So we motored back to
Turneffe overnight and began the first dive at 6:30AM at Front Porch.
Because of the light, I decided to take down my GoPro instead of my
Nikon to shoot video and I'm glad I did because this is where
"Morning Moray" occurred where a free-swimming Green Moray
spotted me and made a beeline for my camera, bumped his nose into the
lens, and then backed off and went on his merry way. A link to the short
video is posted along with the other pictures. A second dive at Front
Porch got us more Jawfish, Pederson’s Shrimp, and other creatures. We
had been told there might be Spotted Toadfish there, but we couldn't
find any (although two were spotted earlier in the week). Then it was
time to bid underwater Belize goodbye for the journey back to the
mainland, an overnight stay on the boat, and then an 8AM sendoff to the
Belize Airport for the journey home.
All in all, as I've said, it was a good trip. It just wasn't quite the
trip we'd expected or hoped for. For me the true test of any trip is
answering this question: Would you go back again? And the answer is yes.
We may have just hit an off week. And once again I want to point out
that the sunny disposition of the crew more than compensated for the
lack of sunny weather. So the thought of a better weather week AND that
can-do attitude from the SD2 folks makes Belize a place we'll look
forward to visiting again soon. Maybe you'll even come with us this