Diving the Great Blue Hole in Belize is something that is on nearly every diver’s bucket list. When I first read about it as a kid in my bulky copy of Cousteau’s the Ocean World, I was mesmerized and vowed to pay it a visit one day. It was one of the things I was most excited about doing here in Central America and when I arrived in Caye Caulker, the first thing I did was sign up for the next trip with Frenchie’s Diving.
Here’s the thing – it was the best day of diving I’ve ever done, but not for any of the reasons I expected!
The Shaky Start
The day before the dive, I went to get my gear set up and realized I was feeling some nerves. Even though I just got my advanced certification a couple of weeks ago, I was still anxious about the fact the Blue Hole dive notoriously takes you to the depth limit for recreational divers at 135 feet. My excitement was tempered with some legit fear (which is usually a good thing).
At the shop, the guys added to my apprehension, telling me there would 14 other divers going tomorrow with only 2 divemasters. That seemed unsafe to me, but they promised it was how things were usually run. Then they told me since it was such an early start that I’d be setting up my gear and checking it tonight.
I was surprised and slightly out of it because I’d just done five hours of paddleboarding in the sun followed by a couple of beers, and I accidentally put my BCD on my tank backwards. Before I could correct it, one of the divemasters asked me when the last time I went diving was. When I told him 10 days ago, he sneered and told me the tank was on backwards. Then he asked how much weight I used normally and I told him 12 pounds. He laughed and said “You better have really good insurance if you use twelve pounds. I’ll give you 10, but really I should only give you 8.”
I felt embarrassed and kinda insulted. I even started to reconsider going with Frenchie’s at all because the guy was such a dick, but I chalked it up to the fact he probably gets a lot of inexperienced divers making mistakes (worse ones, I’m sure) and has little patience for it. Plus he was short.
The next morning, I was up before the crack of dawn and at the dive shop at 5:30am. After a quick breakfast and some coffee, me and the other divers (and some snorkelers) loaded up on the boat and began the bumpy two hour boat ride to the Blue Hole. I was relieved to find out that there were actually three divemasters with us, not two, so we wouldn’t have more than 5 people with each one.
The Blue Hole
When we finally arrived at the site at around 8am, there was already another boat there with divers in the water. Two more pulled up as we were getting suited up. Clearly, we weren’t going to have the Blue Hole to ourselves this morning.
I was struck by how small it was – the entire Blue Hole is about 1000 feet across. Even at water level, it’s easy to see the giant deep blue circle surrounded by shallow, turquoise water – a giant underwater sinkhole fringed by reef.
In our dive briefing, the head divemaster Carlos (also known as Big Sexy, apparently) told us the reason this site is so popular is not because of the marine life. People come to marvel at the limestone formations deep in the hole as well as at the drop off itself. In other words – don’t expect to see many fish.
He did tell us, though, that there’s a good chance we’d see sharks. Reef sharks, maybe even hammerheads if we were really lucky, but they tend to stay a bit shallower, around 70 feet, where the people who weren’t qualified to dive the full depth were going to hang out while the advanced divers went to 135 feet.
My ears lit up. I have not seen a shark yet while diving, so I was thrilled at the prospect, despite my shark phobia of years past.
Because of that reason, I decided to stay with the Open Water divers and not go any deeper. I don’t care about limestone formations, I just dived in the cenotes in Mexico. Show me the sharks!
And sure enough, less than two minutes into the dive at about 40 feet, three Caribbean Reef Sharks emerged from the depths and began to circle us inquisitively. I squealed into my regulator! I wasn’t even five minutes into my first of three dives and I was already seeing sharks?!? Worth the money already.
Sadly, the rest of the dive was not nearly as thrilling. A giant limestone hole is cool for about 2 minutes, then it’s just a giant limestone hole…..blue and deep and all that. We ended up going to 100 feet, and that was deep enough to get the idea that the hole was, you know, really effing deep.
We were paid another visit by the sharks on our way back up, and I was giddy with excitement as we climbed out the water. Not everyone was feeling it – several people were saying that the Blue Hole had been a bit of a let down. I was counting my blessings that I had the opportunity to do it, if only for the sharks. How could it get any better?
Clearly, I had no idea what was up next.
Half Moon Caye Wall
Less than half an hour later, we were approaching a tiny island called Half Moon Caye, where we dropped the snorkelers. From the boat, this island looked like absolute paradise – clear, turquoise waters, think in palm trees, few buildings and so small you could see through the trees to the other side.
Just five minutes from shore, we reached our next dive site – Half Moon Caye Wall. Carlos tells us this is considered one of the best dive sites in all of Belize and it’s possible for us to see great coral formations and swim through caves, all manner of fish, turtles, rays and sharks. (WOO!)
As soon as we descended, we swam across a sandy patch and down over the wall to our maximum depth of 70 feet, where we leveled out and swam along the coral wall. The reef was a rainbow of gorgeous colors – purple sea fans, neon branching reef sponges, elkorn and staghorn corals, all in endless quantities, dropping down below me into the depths.
And the aquatic life? Holy. Shit.
We saw countless fish species, moray eels, Caribbean spiny lobsters, christmas tree worms, everything you could hope to see on a reef. Then, we were joined by another menacing-looking reef shark, who made a beeline for one of the guys in the group, who tucked his legs in quickly to let it pass.
And of course, we had a couple turtle friends visit us as well. I love sea turtes – they have such big, curious eyes and so gracefully paddle along the reef. I could have easily followed alongside this one all day.
When the divemaster signaled that it was time to finish the dive, we started to ascend slowly to our safety stop when suddenly we heard a clanging on the tank from one of the other groups. The dive master with my group motioned to us to follow him quickly, so we swam with all our might in their direction.
That’s when I saw a massive shape just in the distance. I thought it was the boat and was confused. Then, it was gone. I’d just missed a giant manta ray that was apparently 10 feet across. Even though I caught a glimpse of it, I can’t cross it off the life list just yet – it was too far away to really see!
At the surface, we docked at Half Moon Caye for a long surface interval and lunch. We had the chance to walk around and check out the island, which was stunning. There is a bird sanctuary for the red-footed booby there, but I chose to wander down to the empty campground and daydream about being stranded here. At the very least, I’m coming back some day to camp here.
It doesn’t get any closer to paradise than this!
Our third dive was relaxing and beautiful at a site called The Aquarium on Lighthouse Reef. As soon as we descended here, we were surrounded by fish, attracted by our bubbles. I know the thought freaks some people out, but I love feeling entirely surrounded by fish! It’s like being in another world.
This dive didn’t feature any big showstoppers like sharks or turtles, but we did see a big moray eel swimming along the reef (usually they stay nestled in little coves in the reef during the day) and a big ugly grouper that followed along with us for most of the dive.
Returning to Caye Caulker
After the last dive we settled in for our two hour trip back to Caye Caulker, buzzing with excitement. All the people who were disappointed with the Blue Hole dive were over the moon about all we saw at the second site, especially the other groups that spotted the manta.
Just outside of the docks, the boat slowed to an easy coast and the crew brought out some rum punch to celebrate an awesome day of diving. I got to know the other divers and was feeling so happy that I decided to go ahead with the day, despite the nerves and shaky start the day before.
It was a gorgeous day, gorgeous diving, and completely worth the money. Forget the Blue Hole – it’s all about Half Moon Caye and the feeling of camaraderie with the other divers, having all experienced something so fantastic and special together.
Where: The Blue Hole is located about 44 miles off the coast of Belize.
Getting There: If you’re looking to dive the Blue Hole, you have several options of where to stay and how to get there. While you can stay on Ambergis Caye in San Pedro (more developed) or do the sites on a live-aboard (super expensive), I stayed in Caye Caulker and therefore all of this info is about doing the dive from there.
I wrote a detailed post about my time in Caye Caulker with recommendations for where to stay and what to do when you’re not diving – check it out here.
Frenchies is the cheaper of the two options and is usually favored by the backpacker crowd. The trip is $240 USD and that includes all gear, the park fee, breakfast, lunch, and snacks. They have several trips a week and, despite my initial impression of the guys who work there, I found the staff to be super awesome and committed to both safety and fun.
Belize Diving Services is more expensive, but I heard the food is better, the boats are better and you’re given a dive computer to dive with as well. To me it seems like a question of comfort with which one you choose.
Also, if you are up for trying something different, check out Scuba Sensations, in a small red shack on Front Street. The guys who work there – Burt and Zach – are AWESOME and only take small groups out. I don’t know if they do the Hole, but they do offer other trips to the reef and are fantastic guides.
- Be prepared for crowds. There were several other groups of divers at the Blue Hole, which is another reason it was kind of a let down. It’s a very popular site, and even though we were one of the first boats there, there many people in the water when we were ascending. Unless you’re incredibly lucky or pay loads of money to do a live-aboard, don’t expect to have the Blue Hole to yourself.
- I have no idea how to do it and after a quick Google search, it still isn’t clear, but there is a campground on Half Moon Caye and it would be a dream to camp there. It’s such a gorgeous little island – maybe there is a dive shop that will take you to camp there so you can hit all the big sites around the island early?
- Don’t bring a selfie stick into the Blue Hole. You don’t need it, you look like a dick and you’ll probably end up banging a few other people with it by accident, like the guy in my group did. Just, don’t.