Our experience snorkeling Lighthouse Reef Atoll has covered the whole gambit, from nail-biting terrified, to bored, to disgusted, to fascinated and loving it, to never wanting to see the place again. Above all it was an adventure. Below we will share what the snorkeling was like, and if it was worth it for a snorkeler.
Lighthouse Reef is the farthest offshore atoll in Belize, over 50 miles out past the barrier reef into the ocean. The atoll has a surrounding barrier reef, with a shallow center (8 to 10 feet) full of coral heads, and there are also six little island cayes north and south within Lighthouse Reef. And you get to it on relatively small boats.
Lighthouse Reef Atoll is made famous by the Blue Hole that sits in the middle of it. The Blue Hole is a nearly perfectly round reef, about a thousand feet across and goes down 400 feet. It used to be a cave that the roof collapsed on.
There are three problems with snorkeling Lighthouse Reef.
If you have never been in a small boat in open ocean (not protected inner waterways), pay heed. Lighthouse Reef is 50 miles offshore. That is a long ways in a boat. And to get out there, visit three spots, and back in one day, that means the boats have to travel fast. That can be very difficult if the waves are big. In fast lightweight motor boats, even up to 50 feet long, you are going to take a pounding.
On our trip out we had 10-15 knot winds for a few days before, which is not uncommon. Our boat was around 30 feet, open, with some very worn out cushions. We knew we were in for a ride when our boat guides (three of them) started putting on foul weather gear. What followed was three hours of hell.
It started with going through the reef cut. We were going through such tall waves that the boat would free fall on the other side, until it slammed home with a huge crashing noise, over and over. Nicole got tossed completely off her seat into the middle of the boat over the first one of these.
And it did not get much better for the rest of the trip except for when we got behind the atolls (we went through Turneffe Atoll on the way out to Lighthouse). We literally could not let go with two hands the entire time, and we got our butts pounded for hours on end. We got blisters on our hands from holding on. People got sick on the boat.
If you have the slightest back problem, and there is chance of any wind or wave size, do not even think about it. You could very easily be hurt.
Coming back was a little bit better, since we were going with the wind and waves.
Is it always like this? No, it can be calmer, or worse. It is the ocean. But the winds we had were very common trade winds.
If you are going to do it, book as big a boat as you can, and sit toward the rear of the boat. It won't pound as much there.
Lighthouse could be a great snorkeling destination, if the boat trips were focused on that. But really the trips are designed for divers. You can read more about each location we visited below, but essentially the Blue Hole was not great (actually pretty bad), and the two other spots we visited were not nearly as good as is available at Lighthouse. If you get a chance to charter your own boat, and can visit some of the better areas at Lighthouse, then it might be worth doing.
Snorkeling Lighthouse Reef can cost three to four times that of other snorkeling trips available from Ambergris. For two of us, as snorkelers, we paid $387, and that was a few years ago. Yes, you do get lunch with it, but it is still very pricey for the quality of snorkeling you get.
The only way we would consider snorkeling Lighthouse Reef again would be by chartering a sailboat and spending some time exploring the better snorkeling options on Lighthouse Reef. Or by going with an expedition group that has a resort/camping facility on one of the cayes, and that focuses on snorkeling.
The Blue Hole - Visiting this spot was the main reason we tried snorkeling Lighthouse Reef. Here we found some very nice corals, sponges and other sea life, but very few fish. And there was a residue of gas from the boats on the water that made snorkeling horrible.
Half Moon Caye - This was actually the best. The boat dropped us snorkelers off with a guide while the divers went to a different location. We snorkeled for a good long time in the shallows near the tip of Half Moon Caye and saw lots of neat stuff. Besides the snorkeling this island is very interesting because it is run by the Belize Audubon Society, and is an area for the colony of rare Red Footed Boobies. There is a great observation tower within easy walking distance on Half Moon Caye that gives great views of the roosting birds.
Long Caye Wall - This spot is actually a pretty deep, and so we would not really call it a good snorkel spot. It started about 20 feet deep and got deeper. It was pretty but not great.