Nurse sharks swim around the boat at Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
Famous for it’s azure, crystal-clear water, snorkeling in Belize is a must-do for any ocean enthusiasts. As snorkeling is one of my all-time favorite things to do, a trip to Belize has been on my bucket list for longer than I can remember. The water in Belize is as warm as a bathtub, which is a huge draw for those of us from San Francisco, where the ocean is icy cold even in the summer, so I couldn’t wait to hop in and see what kind of life was waiting for me below the surface.
Nurse sharks and fish wait for snorkelers’ handouts.
Snorkeling and diving in Belize is among the best in the world, or so I had heard. Anxious to find out for myself, I headed to Caye Caulker, a small, 8-mile island just north of Belize City. After a quick 45-minute water taxi to the island, I dragged my bags across the sand to my hotel, threw on a bathing suit, and headed out to get up close and personal with the marine life.
There are many options for snorkeling tours on and around Caye Caulker. I chose Nauti Time tours, which is locally owned and operated. Their full-day snorkel tour gives visitors the opportunity to snorkel with rays, turtles, sharks, eels, abundant tropical fish and even manatees! I’m so glad I chose Nauti Time, as while we were out on the water, I watched a few other company’s tour boats drive by with 15+ passengers on board. Our group consisted of only 8 guests and three awesome tour guides, all of who seemed to be part fish and really knew their stuff when it came to marine life.
Coral reefs protects fish and sealife.
We met at the Nauti Time “office”, selected our snorkel gear and took off for the first of 5 snorkeling stops.
The author with a sea cucumber.
The boat had a shade cover, which I greatly appreciated since the sun was so blazing hot. Our boat captain did a great job navigating choppy waters, carefully avoiding big waves so our trip out was comfortable. Randy, the owner, came out with us and served as our main guide for the day. He let us know we’d make a quick stop to check for manatees before we hit our first snorkeling destination.
Randy explained that manatees come up for air every 8 minutes when they are active, and every 20 when they are sleeping. These massive, 1000-pound creatures eat 10% of their body weight per day! And here I thought that I ate a lot! We scanned the water for these gentle giants but didn’t manage to spot one. On to the next stop!
Our next stop was at the famous Hol Chan Marine Reserve. This area is diligently protected, and I noticed many boats were patrolling the area to make sure everyone there was respectful to the reserve and it’s inhabitants. We hopped into the water, along with our guides, and spent close to an hour exploring the coral below.
Our guides chum the waters to attract the fish.
Sea cucumbers grow big in Belize.
I’ve been on many snorkeling trips, all around the world. I can tell you first-hand that the equipment that you use will make or break your experience. The masks and fins provided by Nauti Time were exactly what I was hoping for. The fins were comfortable, so I could leave the island blister-free. The mask fit perfectly and they even gave me some soap to prevent fogging. Great equipment allowed me to relax and focus on what I was there to see: the wildlife! At Hol Chan, we saw tropical fish galore, gorgeous coral, a couple of nurse sharks and a huge green moray eel!
Randy found a conch shell under water and instructed us to watch as he lured the 6 foot long moray eel out of its hiding place. With him there along side us, we were able to get up close and personal! He even dove down to grab a sea cucumber and let each of us hold the slimy sea turd. Each of the three guides would point out interesting fish under the water. Without them there, I would have missed so much! It’s great to have some local experts there to tell you what, exactly, you’re looking at.
After Hol Chan, we hopped back on the boat and sped off to our next stop – Shark Ray Alley! I was excited to see the two nurse sharks from a distance at our irst stop. Little did I know that I was about to hop in the water with 30+ of these amazing creatures!
A nurse shark skirts the ocean floor
Within 5 minutes of arriving at Shark Ray Alley, the sharks began to follow the boat! The captain told us that the sharks and rays here are used to boats arriving to feed them. He started to chum the water with small fish and within 2 minutes there were dozens of sharks all around the boat! We hopped in the water, bringing us within inches of these magnificent, graceful, and largely misunderstood creatures.
Nurse sharks range from 2-6 feet, and their faces look quite a bit like cat-fish. Swimming with them, I noticed that they cared way more about the fish than us. I felt completely safe, and was in awe of how powerfully and beautifully they moved through the water. Along with the nurse sharks, hundreds of big snapper and other fish came to get in on the action. We were definitely outnumbered and it was absolutely amazing to be right in the middle of a feeding frenzy!
Once the captain stopped chumming the water, the sharks quickly dispersed. Seeing them swim all around us was breathtaking. Once the sharks left the scene, I noticed some huge, slow-moving rays on the sea floor. The rays came to get what was left of the fish. Our captain even hand-fed a few of them, giving us the chance to see and even touch these beautiful fish.
Sea turtles are protected in the Belizean reefs.
Swimming with the sharks was a surprisingly peaceful experience. Our tour guides made us feel safe throughout our time with them. It’s amazing to get to visit these animals in their home and filled me with a deep sense of respect. Feeling pretty tired after the exhilarating experience we just had, it was time for lunch. Our guides provided lunch on the boat. We could choose from the local Belizean stew chicken with rice and beans, or fish or hamburgers. I chose the local favorite, which was delicious along with the super spicy hot sauce they brought on board. We washed it down with some fresh watermelon juice, reapplied some sunscreen, and were ready for our next stop.
Next up, we went to snorkel around a sunken barge. While this sounded a bit eerie, the scene below was not scary at all! Beautiful, colorful coral had taken over the sunken barge. There was so much sea-life to see! Giant schools of yellow and black striped fish, parrotfish, and colorful little blue spotted fish darted in and out of the barge. The captain told me to follow him as we dove down to a brain coral that had little Christmas tree looking things in it. The captain gently touched the Christmas trees and they sucked themselves back inside the coral. I dove down again to try it out for myself!
Belize has the second largest reef system in the world.
On our way back in, we stopped at a reef to check out some camouflaged sea horses. I had never seen them before, so it was really cool to spend some time looking for them in their coral home, like a real life Where’s Waldo.
For our last stop, our guides showed us how we could hand-feed a school of Tarpon fish. These huge, 3-foot long super hungry fish launched themselves out of the water to grab sardines from our hands! The captain told us exactly how to hold the fish so we wouldn’t get bit. I held the fish just a few inches above the water, and within seconds, a massive tarpon catapulted itself into the air and snagged the sardine right out of my hand! It’s amazing how precise this fish was. He didn’t touch my finger at all! It was pretty freaky to hand-feed such a big fish, but I couldn’t resist another one of these once-in-a-lifetime experiences to add to this snorkel adventure.
Feeling quite sunbaked, we made our way back to Caye Caulker where we started. This tour really had it all: beautiful sights, amazing wildlife, exhilarating experiences, tasty food, experienced guides and a small, intimate group to share it with. For anyone who wants to experience some of the best snorkeling in the world, Nauti Time is a great choice! Next time I go to Belize, I’d love to check out their night snorkeling tour as well! Who knows what will be lurking underwater in the dary.
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