Our Boat Snorkel Trip Report from Ambergris Caye, Belize in May 2018
This nurse shark at Mexico Rocks has its own entourage – a pair of hitchhiking sharksuckers (a type of remora), lots of gray snappers, and a sergeant major.
We wanted to share a report of the boat snorkel trips we took from Ambergris Caye. This was my husband’s and my first trip to Belize. We went in May 2018. We were impressed by the variety of corals, both stony and gorgonians, and how healthy they were. It felt like we were in the octopuses’ garden that The Beatles sang about. There were also less fire corals than we’re used to. We went on three group guided tours (Shark Ray Alley and Hol Chan, Mexico Rocks, and Bacalar Chico) with Searious Adventures, a night snorkel at Hol Chan with Ecologic Divers, and a private guided snorkel trip (Coral Garden and Tres Cocos) with New Day Adventures. The depths are very good for snorkeling at all of these sites.
The disadvantage of snorkeling at Ambergris Caye is that almost all snorkeling has to be done by boat. Because we were in Ambergris Caye at a less busy time of year, the charge for a private tour with New Day Adventures didn’t cost a lot more than one of the regular tours. Although the activities director at our resort tried to set up our Searious Adventures tours ahead of time, nothing was confirmed before we arrived. Most people probably don’t think about what tours they want until they arrive. Our tours were moved around from one day to another in order for the operator to have enough people for a tour, and we generally didn’t know what snorkel site(s) we would be going to until the day before. We were able to go on all of the tours that we wanted, partly because we had great weather. The tour operators we used were prompt in picking people up at their resorts’ docks, so be on time, and remember to carry an extra $10/person every time you go snorkeling on a boat, as that’s the marine park fee.
Guided tours are a mixed experience. On the positive side, Eddie from Searious Adventures, Jonathan from Ecologic Divers, and Laji from New Day Adventures were all good at finding interesting things, some of which we might not have seen if we had been by ourselves, telling us what we were seeing, and sometimes bringing things up from the bottom, such as shells and an urchin. If you want to see a green moray eel, Eddie is your man! He was good at luring them out into the open for the group to see using a conch, which I would not advise anyone else to try. Also, every snorkel with Searious Adventures included a coconut tart. On the negative side, we like to snorkel more slowly, at our own pace, and I’m easily distracted when I see something I like, so I didn’t keep up with the guide as well as the others in the group (6 or 7 people/guide with Searious Adventures). I think the guides wanted people on their tours to see as much as possible, so the guided tours moved more quickly than we would have liked. The private snorkel tour was better for us in that regard, as we didn’t feel the need to follow the guide as closely.
You can expect to see lots of snappers (primarily bluestriped, Caesar, French), grunts (mostly gray and schoolmaster), damselfish (especially sergeant majors), parrotfish (mainly stoplight), bluehead wrasses, and surgeonfish (blue tangs, ocean surgeonfish) no matter where you go snorkeling on Ambergris Caye, but some sites have a larger variety of fish than others. The following is an account of the other creatures we saw at different snorkel sites.
Our first stop was Shark Ray Alley, which was less crowded than Hol Chan. Because the fish are used to being fed, every time a new boat shows up, the sharks, rays, and horse-eye jacks swim over to greet it. It was thrilling to see large nurse sharks and southern stingrays so close to us, and because of how the encounter was managed, it wasn’t scary. The guides from Searious Adventures put some food in the water on one side of the boat, and we got into the water on the other side, so there’s little danger. I suspect that most tour operators use the same strategy. Try to get into the water as soon as you can. Once the sharks and rays are satisfied that they’ve eaten everything, most of them head off, especially if another boat pulls up, but some do come back. The stingrays hung around longer than the nurse sharks. There isn’t a large variety of fish other than the ones mentioned above, but we saw blue chromis, chub, porkfish, slippery dick and yellowhead wrasse.
Our first view of the reef was at Hol Chan. It was like snorkeling in a garden, especially with all of the beautiful lavender sea fans. No nurse sharks here, but in addition to the kinds of fish we saw everywhere, we saw black margate, porkfish, and dog and mutton snappers. There were more horse-eye jacks here, and another southern stingray. Other particularly interesting fish we spotted were chub, green moray eel, hogfish, permit, and slippery dick. I missed the porcupinefish, which for once wasn’t hidden under a ledge, because I lagged behind the group. The most interesting, but definitely not the prettiest, fish we saw here was an ocean triggerfish.
That same day, we went back to Hol Chan at night with Ecologic Divers. Because we were still wearing our Hol Chan wrist bands, we did not have to pay the park fee again. Before the sun set, we saw the tops of corals poking out of the water. The reef appeared almost deserted at night. Jonathan found an eel, a few lobsters, and a hogfish in the mottled phase, hiding behind a gorgonian. We watched what I think was a dog snapper hunting for a few minutes, but didn’t see it catch anything. My favorite sight was a stunning colorful, lacy basketstar. The last thing we saw before we got back in the boat were lots of small, glowing, annelid worms that we were told were bloodworms.
Our second snorkel trip with Searious Adventures and Eddie as our guide, was to Mexico Rocks. The reef at Mexico Rocks was at least equally as beautiful as at Hol Chan, and had the largest variety of fish that we saw at any site off of Ambergris Caye. If you like variety and can only go on one boat snorkel tour, this would be the site I'd choose, especially if it’s combined with Tres Cocos. When we got in the water, we were immediately greeted by sergeant majors and chubs, which I suspect were used to being fed by snorkelers. In addition to the kinds of fish we saw everywhere, we saw a nurse shark (with 2 sharksuckers, a type of remora, attached to it), southern stingray, more horse-eye jacks, and an outgoing green moray eel who completely came out of its hiding place several times. Other fish we saw included: angelfish (French, gray), great barracuda, smooth trunkfish, butterflyfish (banded, foureye, spotfin), chub, damselfish (bicolor, threespot, an iridescent blue sergeant major, presumably guarding eggs), grunts (porkfish, white margates), black grouper in the lighter color variant, graysby, bar jack, lionfish, redband and striped parrotfish, spotted eagle ray, dog and mahogany snappers, Atlantic spadefish, squirrelfish, trumpetfish, and yellowhead wrasse. Invertebrates included Caribbean reef squid, spiny lobster, queen conch, anemones, and vase sponge. We also saw green and hawksbill turtles.
We asked the activities director at our resort to recommend another snorkel site, and he suggested Coral Garden near Caye Caulker. Another couple we met really enjoyed their tour with Laji Nunez of New Day Adventures, so we asked if he was available and if he’d take us to Tres Cocos as well. Due to May being a slower month for boat charters, the price was reasonable.
Coral Garden is aptly named. We’ve seen a lot of staghorn and elkhorn coral that had been ravaged by storm surges from hurricanes, so to see large standing patches of these corals was a treat. There were plenty of other corals as well, in different shapes and colors. I don’t think we’ve seen such a variety of coral anywhere, but our frame of reference is limited. In addition to the outstanding corals and common fish, we also saw queen angelfish, spotfin butterflyfish, blue chromis, threespot and yellowtail damselfish, porkfish, and slippery dick. Indigo hamlet had been on my Caribbean fish “wish list” for many years, and I finally saw one at Coral Garden. We also saw many urchins and a couple of Caribbean reef squid.
Tres Cocos, which is near Mexico Rocks, was also wonderful. In addition to beautiful coral and commonly seen fish, we also saw: butterflyfish (banded, foureye, spotfin), damselfish (threespot, yellowtail), scrawled filefish, hogfish, sand diver, sharpnose puffer, wrasses (slippery dick, yellowhead), and queen conch. We had two fintastic fish sightings at Tres Cocos: a pair of bandtail puffers in a gorgonian (image above) and a Caribbean whiptail stingray.
The last boat snorkel of our vacation was to Bacalar Chico, with Searious Adventures and Eddie as our guide. We went through the channel that separates the southern and northern parts of Ambergris Caye, then headed north along the western, less developed side of the Caye, past mangroves and the no longer Secret Beach. Eddie entertained us along the way with stories about Ambergris Caye and the famous people who had visited and/or owned property there. Our first stop was to a small museum at the end of the Caye that held exhibits about the wildlife and the Mayans who lived there long ago. Next, we traversed the channel that separates Belize from Mexico. When we reached the eastern side of the Caye, we snorkeled in 2 spots, hoping to find a manatee. No such luck. I enjoyed the ride and was happy to see another part of the beautiful reef, but the only things I saw on that part of the trip that I didn’t see elsewhere in Ambergris Caye were a clinging crab, which I wouldn’t have seen if not for Eddie, and a porcupinefish. This was also the better lionfish sighting of the vacation. We had a delicious lunch on a postcard-worthy beach. We ventured a short distance from the beach bar, but there were piles of garbage and bugs, so we turned back. The snorkel trip to Bacalar Chico also included a stop at Mexico Rocks before we were dropped off at our resort.