Sunday, April 08, 2012
Diving the Great Blue Hole in Belize
As I have mentioned in previous posts, we are scuba divers. I would call myself “avid”, although I do not have a huge number of dives. It’s definitely more a quality rather than quantity thing for me. And with that, I like to seek out interesting locations and have accumulated a rather interesting list of experiences in a relatively short amount of time (such as diving a Mexican Cenote/Cave, which is an experience most scuba divers will never have, although I would highly recommend it. Take a look at this post for more information on that little adventure). A year ago, we went on our first trip to Belize, after having read about this country in various dive book (you can read about last year’s trip in this post). The long and the short of it is that we liked it so much, we decided to come back this year.
Other than relaxing at one of my favorite places, we had a few separate goals for scuba diving. First, we timed our trip to coincide with full moon in April, which should theoretically give us a decent shot at diving with whale sharks at Gladden Split. (They usually appear at full moon in April and May… with the later being somewhat more likely, but we could only make the April date work this year due to our personal schedules). We also considered improving our scuba skills by taking another certification, since local dive operators in Belize are very good (we especially like Avadon Divers, but I hear other shops are also good). And finally, we considered diving the famous Blue Hole. Well, we succeeded in getting our Advanced Certification (we are not real certification-hunters, but thought we might as well do it after having been scuba divers for a while), and I can now also report success on the Blue Hole dive. (The jury on the Whale Sharks is still out as we are going to make our first attempt tomorrow – at the time of this writing – but so far, I haven’t heard of anyone having seen any Whale Sharks this year, so my expectations are somewhat modest).
The Great Blue Hole
There are numerous Blue Holes around the world. Blue Holes are basically vertical underwater caves. They are generally almost circular of varying diameter and reaching great depths. This makes the water in the “hole” look dark blue in stark contrast to the surrounding waters which are usually quite shallow. Hence the name “Blue Hole”. Out of all the Blue Holes, one of the more famous ones is the Blue Hole of Belize. (In fact, if you google just the term “Blue Hole”, the one in Belize is usually the one you get).
The Great Blue Hole has a diameter of about a thousand feed (over 300m) and at its deepest is 125m (about 410 feet) deep. So for recreational scuba divers with a theoretic maximum depth limit of 130 feet (40 meters), this is the equivalent of a bottomless pit. (To non-divers, 400 feet might not sound deep, but let me tell you: It is DEEP. The pressure down there would do unimaginable things to you). The Blue Hole is part of the Belize Barrier Reef System, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the second larges barrier reef in the world (after Austrialia’s Great Barrier Reef). It used to be an above-water Cenote (“sink hole”) which is now submerged. You can still observe stalactites of immense proportions under water. Interestingly, they are at an angle, which indicates that the entire cave system must have shifted somewhat (probably during an earthquake). Reading more about these facts about the Great Blue Hole can be quite interesting and enhance the enjoyment of your dive. A good starting point is the Wikipedia page for the Great Blue Hole.
The Great Blue Hole has been made famous by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who brought his ship, the Calypso, to the Blue Hole and dove there extensively. He declared the Great Blue Hole one of the world’s top-10 sites for scuba diving.
Looking at it from the air, the Great Blue Hole of Belize (near Amergris Caye) looks like this (photo from the Wikipedia):
When you approach the Blue Hole on a boat, it looks somewhat less dramatic. (Try to get to as high a spot on the boat as possible to see more of the difference in coloration). Boats are approaching in relatively shallow water, but mostly what you see is water all around (the areas around the hole which almost look like they are islands are really all submerged, although shallow, so you get much of an effect at sea level than it would appear from the photo above).
The Blue Hole is quite a ways out and not all that easy to get to from anywhere. Probably the best starting location if you are only going for the Blue Hole is Belize City (I am told). We started from Placencia, which is in the south of Belize. This made it a long boat trip. It took us about 3 1/2 hours to get there (which made for a 5am start). We had exceptionally calm waters which made for an enjoyable trip (we even spotted and interacted with dolphins on the way!). I understand that this can also be quite different when there is a bit of movement on the water, which can make for a long and rough up-wind ride. You should be comfortable on a boat and on the water in general to do this trip if the conditions are rougher.
When we arrived at the Blue Hole, there was only one other boat there and they were just getting done with their dive and about to leave. This meant we could tie up to the only permanent mooring line on the rim of the hole. This made for a casual and relatively stress-free entry (quite unlike other Belizian dives which are usually done without anchoring the boat and just jumping of the back while the boat slows down) although one could definitely tell that the excitement level on this dive was higher across the group than it ordinarily would be.
Jumping into the water, you can already tell you are over a very deep abyss. There is very little life in the Blue Hole. However, we did see some sizable Bermuda Chum (if memory serves me correctly) right after entering the water. While you are swimming at the surface, you can see the white sand below you (as you are entering near the rim) with a clear edge going into the abyss. The drop-off is vertical. Even if you are used to wall-diving, this makes for an interesting setup.
As you descend, you first go to a depth of about 30 or 40 feet (10-13m) or so (if I remember correctly), which gets you to the edge of the rim. At that point, you cross from a white sandy (sloped) bottom over the abyss. Since there is no way to see the bottom, and all you see is the deep blue water (and even very little of the wall as it is completely vertical and even a little overhanding at a few places), people liken the feeling to skydiving under water. I would have to agree with that assessment.
As you proceed further, you go to a depth of about 120 feet (close to 40 meters) where the vertical wall ends and the cavern opens up a bit. This however is not like a cave dive. The overhang is relatively minimal and you never get the feeling of being enclosed. It is just enough (maybe the overhang is as much as 12 feet in places) to swim in under and around the massive (and I mean massive) stalactites. It is an amazing feeling to swim through these formations. All you see is the wall next to you and the stalactites and the slight overhang above you. Below you is nothing but blue water. (If this thought scares you: Don’t worry. It doesn’t feel like falling or anything like that, because you can’t see to the bottom on don’t et a feeling of “being high up”. So this is not much different compared to being suspended in the water column at a safety stop).
At that point, you have reached the maximum depth of your dive. Make no mistake: This is a deep dive for recreational scuba divers! Since the cavern starts to open up at 120 feet, you are going deeper than that to actually swim around the stalactites. The deepest my computer showed after the dive was 138 feet. This is the deepest I have been and it is likely to stand as a record for me, as it even is beyond the theoretical maximum depth for recreational scuba divers of 130 feet. I am not one to hunt for deeper and deeper depths, but in the Blue Hole, there simply is a reason to go to that depth. If you do not want to go deeper than 100 or 120 feet, you are not going to see much here.
Some people are concerned about going this deep, and I think people should take this seriously. If you have never been on a really deep dive, I recommend that you take your advanced scuba classes and do a dive to at least 100 feet and go through your exercises to see if you are prone to Nitrogen Narcosis. Personally, I am not very susceptible to “getting narced”, and I felt no effects at even close to 140 feet (and I tried to pay attention to it). We did however have two divers in our group that showed some signs of getting a little silly, and one of the dive masters grabbed them by their tanks and ascended to a shallower depth. You def. want to pay attention to these things as this is not the place to be when your IQ drops by half and all of a sudden you decide you can go even deeper for no real reason. ;-) Other than that, diving at 140 feet doesn’t feel that much different from being at 80 feet. Pressure increases more gradually than the first 30 or 60 feet. You may have to suck on your regulator a little harder and you will consume your air faster, but that’s about it. But that does not mean that you should be going even deeper!
Oh, and bring a dive light! There still is natural light at this depth (although visibility is not that great… we had maybe 60-80 feet even though the conditions all around were quite calm). Nevertheless, having a light allows you to see more. I brought my large light cannon for that purpose rather than my usual small dive light, and was happy I had done so.
Due to the depth of this dive, the overall dive is very short. Bottom time at the deepest point is only 8 minutes. So you want to take it all in while you can. Between the excitement of the topography, and perhaps seeing some large marine animals (see below), it can all be quite the blur. But you absolutely must stick to your dive plan here. After 8 minutes, it is time to ascend to a shallower depth and you want to take your safety stops seriously. We ascended to 80 feet and stayed at that level for a little bit. Then we moved on to 60, and ultimately, we put in a 5 minute safety stop at 15-18 feet. Our dive plan called for a 24 minute dive, and I came up at exactly 24 minutes.
Note that this is not the place to push the limits. You are already going very deep, and if you want to dive the Blue Hole, it only makes sense if you are willing to go that deep. Diving to only 100 feet makes little sense here, and you might as well stay home and stare at the wall to get a similar experience. For this reason, you want to make sure you are not pushing the limits in any other way. You most certainly do not want to spend more time at the bottom that you have planned. While there might be worse places in the world to get bent (“DCS”… decompression sickness), you are several hours away from the next hypobaric chamber at best. You also want to make sure you are going with a dive operator you trust. We went with Avadon Divers, and they are the best operator I have ever dived with. I would wholeheartedly recommend them. But check out the operators on your own and make your own decisions.
What You Will See
So what exactly will you see on that dive? Well, mostly rocks. The amazing part of the Blue Hole is the actual formation and the stalactites and swimming suspended over the abyss. If you have come to see colorful reef fish, then this is not the place (although the other dives on the same trip you are likely to do will get you that part). You will definitely enjoy your dive more if you read about the Blue Hole and many of the facts that go with it. You will simply appreciate it all more in addition to the awe-inspiring overall setting.
As far as marine life goes, chances are you will not see much, but what you see is going to be incredible. I am told one is more likely to see some sizable sharks than not. There are Caribbean Reef Sharks, Blacktip Sharks, Bull Sharks, and Hammerheads in the Blue Hole. However, I am told that even experienced dive masters who dive the Blue Hole a lot have never seen Bull Sharks or Hammerheads on their dives. Caribbean Reef Sharks seem to be very common however. We saw 5 large Caribbean Reef Sharks on our dive.
This was the first time for me to see sharks under water (and these weren’t any of the Nurse Sharks either, but these are sharks that really look like sharks). It was clear at the beginning of the dive that an encounter was quite likely, and this just added to the pre-dive excitement. I am generally unafraid of marine creatures, but your first serious shark encounter gotta get your adrenalin flowing, right? Plus, having been stalked by a very large Barracuda for the better part of a dive just 2 days earlier made me wonder what it would have been like if the Barracuda was instead a shark.
Seeing these reef Sharks however was a completely different experience. They showed up out of the blue water (the dive master had to draw our attention to them, otherwise we might have missed them completely) and just checked out who we were. They were clearly eyeballing us, but in a “oh… how boring… false alarm” sort of way. They swam at a distance of about 40 or 50 feet from us, cruising very slowly and peacefully. At no point did we feel stalked or threatened in any way. This was an all in all very cool experience and one I will seek out to repeat in the future.
Unfortunately, I could not bring my own camera, as my housing broke just 3 days before this dive. If I get photos from one of our fellow divers, I will post them here. For now, this photo from the Wikipedia has to suffice. It shows a shark that is quite similar in appearance (although perhaps smaller and less bulky than the ones we saw… I remember distinctly how impressed I was by the size and even more so the bulk of these amazing animals), except ours were just in blue water:
Why these sharks are there, btw, I have no clue. It seems exceedingly odd to me that in this pit which offers little in terms of other food sources (or so it seems to me), one would be almost guaranteed to see massive sharks. What do they eat in there?!? I heard some rumors that they might be chummed (fed) so they are artificially lured there. But that seems a bit odd to me as well, since it doesn’t seem like there could possibly be enough of that going on to keep the sharks there permanently and support a relatively large population in a small area. But in any event: They are there and it was an incredible part of our dive experience.
I hear that this is a dive that polarizes. People either are completely blown away or miserably disappointed. Personally, I was blown away. I would do this dive again in a heartbeat, despite the long boat ride and all.
When you do the Blue Hole dive, you are likely to not just dive a single short dive, but you are likely to dive one or two more dives. Ours was a three-tank dive, so we went to two other locations on Ambergris Caye. Naturally, both dives had to be relatively shallow, with the first one being around 60 feet max, and the other even shallower. Those dives were incredible as well. We saw some of the best reef formations (lots of swim-throughs!) and a larger amount of marine life than I have seen on any of the other dives we were on in Belize. We saw everything from Eagle Rays, to Sting Rays, to Tarpons, Barracuda, lots of reef fish too numerous to list, to groupers, eals, and even a large turtle that stayed with us for probably 5 minutes or more (and got so near we could have easily touched it if we wanted), and so on.
We stopped for lunch on Long Caye, a beautiful part of the atoll. This in itself might have been worth the trip out. But that is a different story altogether :-)
Posted @ 12:51 PM by Markus Egger (firstname.lastname@example.org)