By Mark Kolsen
Having visited Ambergris Caye some 30 years ago, I decided to return for three weeks snorkeling in Belize in November 2023. I spent one week on Ambergris, one week at Blackbird Caye Resort on Turneffe Atoll, and one week in Placencia, where I did day trips to various cayes. An easy plane ride from Houston or Miami, English-speaking Belize offers one of the less expensive Caribbean escapes for Americans. Belizeans are friendly, and compared to cities like Chicago, crime is minimal.
Snorkeling From San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
With one exception, snorkeling from San Pedro on Ambergris Caye will only satisfy beginners. The primary sites visited by tour boats—Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Shark Ray Alley, Mexico Rocks, and Tres Cocos—have mediocre coral. Hol Chan can also get crowded.
Companies like Island Dream Tours compensate by offering all day “snorkeling” trips featuring music, good food, and open bars on large catamarans with comfortable seating. These tours earn excellent reviews, but as I noted on TripAdvisor, snorkeling time is minimal. On our eight hour, top rated Island Dream tour, my partner and I spent a total of ONE HOUR snorkeling at two different sites. At Hol Chan, half of our time was spent swimming back and forth from the boat to the reef. Admittedly, watching the crew feed goliath nurse sharks at Shark Ray Alley was fun and interesting. But serious snorkeling it was not.
Ambergris does offer one worthwhile snorkeling adventure at Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve, a one hour boat ride to the north of San Pedro, adjacent to Belize’s border with Mexico. Here the coral is much better than other San Pedro sites. Unfortunately, none of San Pedro’s tour boats go there regularly, and only a few mention they go at all.
We went with New Day Adventures, a family run company that runs a solid 30 foot panga with a 115 hp Yamaha outboard, a boat that gets you to Bacalar quickly. Once there, you visit two different snorkeling spots, are then given a homemade lunch on shore, and then return to the water for a third snorkel.
Altogether, we spent at least three hours in the water, led by the family’s patriarch, who—it so happens—is also an experienced lobster fisherman. During the snorkels, he hooked (legally) at least eight lobsters, as well as several conchs. He gave us four lobster tails which we ate for lunch the next day. I should add that after snorkeling, you get an interesting tour of the marine reserve, during which we had the good fortune of seeing–and following–a manatee.
Our Bacalar trip was essentially a private charter for which we paid $450 (though the in-season charge is $500). That may seem expensive, especially if there are only two of you. But if you are a serious snorkeler, you will find this trip light years better than any of the conventional tours on San Pedro.
Snorkeling From Turneffe Atoll
I spent one week at Blackbird Caye Resort on Turneffe Atoll, which caters to both snorkelers and divers. It’s a beautiful resort, similar to the two Raja Ampat resorts I reviewed. But Blackbird is even nicer: it has well manicured, wide beaches, a lovely air conditioned dining hall, and a swimming pool with a bar. Although the internet is available only in public areas, it works very well. Another plus: Blackbird fronts an expansive reef, and most snorkeling sites are not more than 15 minutes distant.
Blackbird has two well equipped 41 and 38 foot dive boats and a 25 foot canopied panga for snorkeling, all powered by newer Honda four stroke outboards. For longer trips and transfers from Belize City, it also has a 57 foot cruiser with twin diesel inboards. At Blackbird, snorkelers do two trips every day, at 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Each trip lasts about an hour.
Beautiful coral fans are everywhere along Turneffe’s reef, though on the whole, the coral is less dense and less colorful than in Indonesia or Egypt (see my Egypt trip report here). Sea life—especially tropical fish—is also less varied, big fish rare. If the snorkeling experience at Raja Ampat is a 10, and at Egypt’s Red Sea a 9.5, then by my reckoning, Turneffe Atoll is a 7.5. I should add that although a family of well traveled divers said they had enjoyed their experiences, they made it clear that sea life at Turneffe Atoll did not particularly impress them.
Every week, Blackbird takes its divers and snorkelers to Belize’s Blue Hole, Half Moon Caye and Long Caye. Fortunately, during my week, we had sunshine and calm seas, which not only made for an easy one hour trip from Blackbird but also gave us time to snorkel the entire perimeter of the Blue Hole. Although coral was sparse in a few spots, overall it was excellent, far better than the reef fronting Turneffe Atoll.
Coral was good at Half Moon too, but apparently had suffered storm damage subsequent to Nicole and Galen’s glowing review of Half Moon Caye. But we were compensated by sea life–a pretty flounder, two camera loving barracuda, some large Midnight Parrotfish, a porky Nassau Grouper and other big fish not evident on the resort reef.
This trip—which included a delicious buffet lunch—was the highlight of the week. If a week at Blackbird included daily trips to places like these, the Blackbird experience would score a 9. Perhaps liveaboards take you more often to spots beyond Turneffe Atoll; if so, then, they may offer a better snorkeling experience than the experiences provided by land-based resorts.
One more thing about Blackbird; in November, lobsters and conch are in season, and my snorkeling guide harvested several. Given that they are in abundance, and that I am an experienced fisherman, I had no moral qualms about his taking them. He also made a delicious ceviche and broiled a lobster tail for me. But if you can’t stomach watching a lobster kill, then you should tell him before you snorkel.
Snorkeling From Placencia
From Placencia, I took several day trips with Go Sea, a modest but competent and well reviewed company located near the municipal pier. They primarily run two boats, an old 38 foot and a 28 foot panga-type craft, each powered by twin Yamaha 200 hp four strokes. Both are reasonably comfortable and fast. All-day trips run $100-125/person, and include lunch and water.
Go Sea has rotating snorkeling guides; they are competent and friendly but occasionally snorkeled too fast and too far ahead of the group. I reminded one of them that after pointing out something interesting, guides should allow time for their clients to take a careful look and perhaps shoot photos before the guides swam ahead in search of their next “find.” Among the guides I snorkeled with, Bryan was easily the best.
My first snorkel was an all day trip to Silk Caye, a 50 minute run from the dock. Silk Caye is as small an island as you could imagine; you could walk its circumference in five minutes. Shade is at a premium; claim your spot early. In the water, our group first snorkeled for an hour around the island’s circumference, and then–after a cold chicken/slaw lunch break–swam out to a coral reef about a quarter mile offshore, where we snorkeled for another hour. In contrast to the mediocre coral on our circumference snorkel, the offshore reef sported excellent, colorful corals of many varieties, and made the trip worthwhile.
As in other Belizean snorkel sites, sea life was scanty, except for a quick stop at a nearby fishing vessel which was tossing lobster and conch scraps into the water. Nurse sharks and various rays congregated there for a meal, and a turtle showed itself. But most impressive was an enormous stingray lying on the seafloor; from the surface, it seemed to approach the 10 foot length said to be found in Mozambique.
My second snorkel was to Glover’s Reef; depending on wind and waves, you’ll spend 1.5-2.0 hours just to get there from Placencia. Same routine: 1 hour snorkel, followed by (a spartan) lunch, and then another 1 hour snorkel. Coral here was excellent, as good as–maybe even a touch better than–the coral surrounding the Blue Hole. Sea life was above average for Belize. In fact, I experienced a “first” when I observed five juvenile squid swimming together, side by side, like one happy family. A school of tarpon, a nurse shark, a rather large trumpetfish, and several stingrays also appeared.
My final trip was to Laughing Bird Caye, a 35 minute journey from Placencia. Here Elkhorn and Staghorn coral predominate, but coral bleaching was very evident. According to the island’s ranger, this year’s water warmup off Florida swept south and caused major bleaching to the caye’s shallow water coral. Channel crabs, a moon jellyfish, and a couple stingrays and nurse sharks appeared, but as a coral lover, I found this caye least satisfying among Placencia’s three typical offerings.
Summary of My Three Weeks Snorkeling in Belize
Belize certainly offers beautiful coral to snorkelers. “Not to miss” places include Bacalar Chico Reserve, the Blue Hole and Glover’s Reef. Turneffe Atoll has some good snorkeling spots, as do Half Moon Caye and Silk Caye. Sea life, however, may disappoint the experienced snorkeler.
Bryan, a tour leader at GoSea, told me that since 1999, he has witnessed a steady decline in sea life, primarily due to overfishing and poaching. Rangers on all cayes have patrol boats to police the waters, but regulating commercial fishing on these vast waters may be as difficult to do as it is on the high seas.
Day trips from Placencia (and longer excursions from San Pedro) require that you travel beyond the reef into choppy Caribbean waters. The ride out can be rough–3-5 foot waves are typical–especially if the prevailing east wind is blowing. If it’s blowing hard, you may want to wait a day until the sea subsides; otherwise, you’ll have the type of spine-rattling ride experienced by Nicole and Galen on their ride to the Blue Hole. Choosing a calmer, sunny day will make for a more pleasant ride and snorkel after you arrive.