The Hol Chan Marine Reserve is probably the most popular dive destination of the cuts or channels. The words ho/ chan mean “little channel” in the Maya language. The reserve covers about five square miles and is located four miles southeast of San Pedro in the northern section of the Belize Reef. The channel is about 30 feet deep, and since no fishing is permitted in the reserve, it is rich with sealife of every description. Divers can expect to see abundant angelfish, blue-striped grunts, schoolmaster snapper, and hundreds of other varieties. It’s also well-known for the green moray eels living in tiny caves along the wall. The areas for recreation are marked with buoys. The usual rule: take only photos! It is clearly spelled out: do not collect coral or fish whether with spear or handlines. Mooring buoys are in place to help protect against anchor damage.
The Reserve, about 4 miles south of San Pedro, is a 5-square-mile underwater national park established by the Belize government in 1987. Because fishing is prohibited in the reserve, there is a considerable amount of sea life. At the cut here, you may expect to see large groupers, nurse sharks, sting rays, moray and other eels, spadefish, schoolmasters and other fish. Much of the bottom is sandy, but you also will see bright coral. Depth is fairly shallow at between 5 to 30 feet. Visibility is usually good, at 50 to 60 feet or more, with late spring having the best water viz. You will not be alone. As many as 10 or 15 snorkel boats may congregate at one time.
When cruise ships are in port in Belize City, the Hol Chan is particularly busy. In fact, it’s a good idea to make a mental note of the name or identifying colors of your boat, so you don’t swim back to the wrong boat. With so many snorkelers and divers – albeit the total number is nothing like that in popular snorkeling areas in Mexico or the United States Virgin Islands – the environment here has suffered some damage, despite the designation of the area as a reserve. Do not touch the coral with your hands or fins, and do not feed or touch the fish, even if your guide does. Caution! Tidal currents here can be quite strong. Weak swimmers and children may tire quickly swimming against the current. Ask your guide about the strength of the current at the time you are there, and let the guide know if you are not a good swimmer or have any disability. Don’t be shy about accepting a life jacket.
Shark Ray Alley
Shark Ray Alley is a shallow cut to the south of Hol Chan where nurse sharks and sting rays congregate. Shark Ray Alley is located just one mile south of the Hol Chan cut and is listed as “Zone D” of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Once a place where fishermen would clean their catches, this 1,280-acre protected region has evolved into a top snorkeling location. Guides sometimes chum to attract the sharks, and you can jump in and swim with them. It’s not half as scary as it sounds, and most of the people who come on the snorkel boats do get in the water here. Visitors snorkel or dive and can get up close and personal with Nurse Sharks and Southern Sting Rays. When visitors arrive, they will often see the surface boiling with rolling sharks and sting ray as they compete for the scraps. These creatures have a great tolerance for divers and snorkelers. The rays, which have a ‘wing-span’ of two to four feet, swim directly towards the divers, mouths often turned up hoping for a hand held tid bit to be placed near their mouths. The docile Nurse Sharks average four to six feet in length and can be a bit more aggressive than the sting rays. The excitement and novelty of swimming with large numbers of nurse sharks and sting rays can be breath taking. At Mexico Rocks, off North Ambergris opposite a former coconut plantation, you may not see as many fish as at Hol Chan, but the coral is beautiful. Also, this area is protected from ocean swells and currents, so it makes for easier snorkeling. It is a good place for novice snorkelers. Depth is only about 5 to 12 feet, so you can see everything up close, and if necessary you can usually find a place to stand with your head above water. Water visibility is about the same as at Hol Chan, 50 feet or more.
Day snorkel trips to Hol Chan cost around US$30 to $40 per adult, plus a US$10 park fee, and to Mexico Rocks US$35 to $50. These prices may include snorkel mask and fin rental and a guide who will go into the water with you and point out the sights. Kids under about age 12 go for half price. These snorkeling trips usually last two to three hours. Typically, snorkel boats go out once in the morning and once in the afternoon, more frequently during busy periods. A couple of dozen dive and snorkel operators offer snorkel trips. It is difficult to recommend one over another, as the quality of the experience depends on who is your guide on a particular trip and also the weather and sea conditions. Note that boats cannot always go out, due to wind and weather conditions. When there’s a strong wind or during “Northers” in the late fall and early winter, snorkeling is unpleasant at best and could be dangerous. Night snorkeling trips also are available, at around US$40 to $60 per person. Night snorkelers may see lobster, eels, octopus and other creatures. For those who don’t want to get in the water, there are glassbottom boats You’ll pay about US$45 per person plus the park fee.
Catamarans and other vessels based in San Pedro visit some of Belize’s other cayes and atolls, on longer trips for snorkeling and picnics. You typically pay US$40 to $75 for these trips, plus the $10 park fee if you go to Hol Chan, depending on the length of the trip, where you go and whether lunch and drinks are included. Many visitors say they really enjoy the day snorkel trips with a beach barbecue, featuring fresh-caught fish. It’s a long way to go for snorkeling, but Belize’s atolls offer good snorkeling in shallow water around patch reefs. Day snorkel trips to Lighthouse or Turneffe atolls run about US$150 to $185, plus a US$40 park fee for Lighthouse, including lunch and snacks.