Saturday, April 14, 2012
Diving with the Whale Sharks in Belize (Gladden Split)
Belize is worth a trip for a variety of reasons. If you like to relax on tropical beaches, or if you like to party, there is plenty for you to enjoy there. As a nature lover, you can hike through jungles, swim through caves, zip-line across the tree-tops, see manatees, Jaguars, and Monkeys, and lots more. But for scuba divers in particular, Belize is a prime destination with attractions like the world’s second largest barrier reef (only the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is bigger) and the Great Blue Hole. Around every full moon in the spring however, attention turns to Gladden Split, as Whale Sharks congregate to feed on snapper spawn.
Note: If you are interested in diving the Great Blue Hole of Belize, see my other blog post here.
My attention was first drawn to Belize for this very reason. I would imagine every scuba diver wants to swim with whale sharks at least once in their lifetime. There are various places to do this, although in many one can only snorkel rather than scuba dive. In Belize however, you can encounter these amazing fish at depth (and with fewer people around), which is a completely different experience altogether. This appealed to me enough to tickle my curiosity. Once we did a bit more research on the country, and I found out about their barrier reef as well as other dive sites, but also other offerings for the adventure and leisure tourist, we were sold. So off we went in the Spring of 2011.
As it turns out, we should have planned our trip a bit better. I knew snappers spawned around the full moon in April and May. I wasn’t quite aware of how closely they stick to their schedule. They don’t just do this “roughly around the full moon”, but it has to be right during the full moon. In 2011, we thus ended up being just a few days too early. Nevertheless, it was an awesome trip (you can read about it here), whale sharks or not. We did however immediately plan to return in 2012 just to get another shot at seeing these marvelous creatures. (And you know what: Regardless of whether there are any whale sharks in Belize or not, we would have returned to Belize anyway, and now that we saw the whale sharks, we plan to return in the future as well).
Planning the Trip
I have to admit: I am normally not a big planner. I get an idea for a trip and off we go on short notice. But our 2012 trip to Belize has been planned for almost a year. We knew the full moon was going to occur in early April and early May. The best chances to see the whale sharks are just after the full moon, so we planned our trip around that fact (whale shark dives start perhaps a day or two before the full moon but go on for several days afterwards). We did our successful dive on April 9th with the full moon having occurred on April 6th. We heard some unconfirmed rumors about a single sighting the 8th and I don’t think there were any sightings earlier. We did however hear that there were a number of sightings the two days following our dives as well. So I would plan all my future attempts a few days after the full moon. Note that if you go outside this window of opportunity, you will not have a chance to see the whale sharks, as operators aren’t even running any trips. There simply is no realistic chance of seeing them.
The best place to start your trip from is from Placencia in the south of Belize (which is also one of my favorite destinations in Belize otherwise). You can find accommodations of any level in Placencia, from the super-fancy Turtle Inn (designed and owned by Francis Ford Coppola), to the still very funky Robert’s Grove Resort, all the way down to pretty simple inns and hotels. Personally, I enjoy staying at the Maya Beach Hotel and Bistro, which provides simple yet very unique accommodations paired with the best food you will get on the Placencia peninsula.
Placencia has a number of dive operators. We have used 3 of them (Avadon Divers, Sea Horse Divers, and Robert’s Grove) and found them all to be well run (Splash is another operator we hear good things about but haven’t used ourselves). Personally, I think Avadon Divers is a level above all the others, but I would recommend all of them. (And I am the kind of diver who may simply not dive at all on a trip because the operators are not to my liking… as happened on a recent trip to Cozumel).
Gladden Split is a marine reserve and whale shark dives are regulated to make sure there never are too many people in the water at once and to ensure the animals are not bothered in their regular routine. Dive operators enter a lottery system to be assigned limited time slots. No more than 6 dive boats are allowed in the Gladden Split Marine Reserve at any one time, and each boat is limited to 12 divers (even though most dive boats are of a size where they could easily accommodate larger groups) and I believe 8 snorkelers. What all this means is that you want to reserve your spot early, as these dive trips are popular and are usually sold out (with many divers returning for multiple trips out). We do almost all our diving in Belize with Avadon these days, but unfortunately, we couldn’t get on their boat for the whale shark dive. Avadon passed us on to Robert’s Grove, which was also good, but not quite up to the Avadon level. (Note: Our boat was not completely sold out with only 8 divers and only a handful of snorkelers. I think Robert’s Grove may mostly service its own hotel guests and may thus be worth a call if you can’t find openings with other operators).
The trip out to Gladden Split was relatively easy the day we did it. Gladden Split is about an hour and a half straight out into the Caribbean Sea from Placencia (due east). Boats are limited to 2-tank dives, which means you do not usually have to start too early (our boat left at 9am) as they can easily fit in the dives. Our trip was during an exceptionally calm day with almost no surface waves. I understand that often this is not the case and it could get a little rough. (This may also impact the enjoyment of snorkeling I would think…).
As you enter the marine reserve, the captain of your boat has to obtain permission from a marine park ranger who is on site with an anchored boat on a shallow part of the reef. It is somewhat likely that there already are a number of boats at the main whale shark area and your boat will have to wait. In general, this dive is an all-day affaire and you want to make sure you are on a boat of reasonable size. Operators such as Robert’s Grove and Avadon have good-sized boat with plenty of space to move around and (most importantly) plenty of shade as well as food and drink. We have also seen other boats out there which were much smaller, requiring divers to stay in their seat and offering practically no shade (we saw some divers seek shade and cooling in the water and under the small bow of their boats). It would seem to be an absolutely awful idea to be out there with one of these small boats. Not just would it make for a long day sitting in one spot, but you would absolutely get your noggin boiled under the tropical sun! So make sure you use an operator with a good-sized boat.
Our Time In and On the Water
Our boat left dock at about 9am embarking on our 90 minute trip out to the Gladden Split area. It is a nice boat ride going out in between some islands and over relatively shallow water. I had my feet dangling of the bow of our boat and saw a few rays swim under us and I saw dolphins on at least 3 or 4 occasions. (Although unlike Avadon on our prior dives, the Robert’s Grove guys did not slow down or stop to see if the dolphins had any interest in interacting with us). We arrived at Gladden Split and checked in with the park ranger. At that point it became clear that there were already 6 boats out in the relatively small whale shark area, so we queued up to wait with 3 other boats. There clearly was no particular rush for us to be out there any earlier. We anchored in a sandy area between some shallow reefs. For about an hour, we had the opportunity to swim and snorkel off the boat in quite a nice area. It is amazing how you are basically out in the middle of the ocean yet all of a sudden have an opportunity to swim in 10 feet of water and leisurely snorkel about.
Whale shark watching season is also turtle mating season. For almost the entire time we anchored, we had a very large (biggest I had ever seen) and friendly loggerhead turtle swim back and forth under the boat. I am not sure if it just enjoyed seeking out the company of humans or whether it mistook us for potential mates. At some point, a second turtle came around and started to interact with “our” turtle. For a while we thought we were about to witness something special, but alas, it was not to be as the female in the end just turned the unfortunate would-be-dad down and he swam away with seemingly his head hanging low.
Before we knew it, it was our turn to try our luck with the whale sharks. We knew from radio chatter, that none of the other boats had seen any yet (and there were only vague rumors about a single whale shark sighting the day before), so my expectations in general were fairly modest. We motored out into the deeper waters where the snappers spawn and the whale sharks come to feed.
The dive itself is a “blue water dive”. This means that you are diving in deep water suspended in the water column. In other words: You will often not see the bottom and you won’t see the surface. (It’s anywhere between 130 and 200 feet deep there, or more). This was our first blue water dive and it is a different sort of diving. I am not prone to getting disoriented, but even to me, this was a little odd. You take your giant stride off the back of the boat and the group then descends to 60 or 70 feet. (You are not allowed to dive deeper than 80 feet in the Gladden Split Marine Reserve). At that point, all you see is blue. Horizontal visibility that day was about 80-100 feet or more, but I can only say that because I saw the other divers in the water. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know whether you are seeing 200 feet of blue water, or 2 feet of blue water. At is an eerie feeling at first as you find yourself looking around in all directions, as you are not sure what might be appearing out of the deep or from behind you or…
After a few minutes, a certain calm sets in even for new blue water divers. On our first dive, we saw absolutely nothing. I think I may have briefly glimpsed a fish at one point or another, but all in all, there was nothing. After the first few minutes of blue water excitement, this was the most boring dive I have ever done. What could you see theoretically? Well, a lot! In addition to the whale sharks, there are other sharks (reef sharks, bull sharks, silky sharks,…), rays, dolphins, barracudas, and a whole lot more. But we didn’t see anything at all. Not even a jelly fish. Only an undetermined distance of blue water in front of our masks. My expectations sank to an all-time low. I would have bet a lot of money that there was no whale shark in the area.
We surfaced after about 35 minutes with seemingly little air in my tank. Much less than I normally have at a dive to 70 feet. It seems I had developed a problem with my gas-gauge. I surfaced with my buddy and we kept swimming at the surface with a few snorkelers, until I was completely out of air. Oddly enough, my gauge already showed I was at 0 psi, yet I kept breathing out of my tank for another 10 minutes or so. So something was clearly not right. Nevertheless, I noticed that every single diver on this dive ran out of air much quicker than normal. I am not sure whether that is due to the excitement or whether it is because one tries to swim further than normal in the hopes of finding a school of snappers with the likely accompanying whale shark.
We went back onto our waiting dive boat and motored back to shallower areas for lunch and some additional snorkeling. At that point, our crew made a crucial decision: We were going to wait until as late as possible before we would go back in. You have to be out of the Gladden Split area by 5pm, so our plan was to not motor back in until 3:30pm or so. I give the crew a lot of credit for this, as they could have taken the easy way out and tried to be back home as early as possible. A lot of other dive boats seemed to do exactly that. But our boat wanted to wait it out because the dive master felt the best opportunity for sightings was as late in the day as possible. (Note: The Avadon boat also seemed to follow that same strategy of going the extra mile and went in for their second dive at exactly the same time as we did). So we waited on our boat for a few hours, had lunch, went snorkeling, and tried to stay in the shade.
On our way back in, we used the sonar of the boat and motored around in the main area for a little while in an attempt to find schools of fish under water, which we hoped were the spawning snappers. (One can never be sure as there are other schools of fish as well). Finally, our captain settled on an area he thought looked promising. From a bystander’s perspective of course, all one sees is the nondescript surface of the ocean. Our captain seems to have a good eye for different shades of blue, as well as his depth finder, because as soon as we entered the water, we saw schools of snapper beneath us. We descended to 65 feet.
Yet still, all we saw at first was snappers. Gazillions of them. Our dive master was a little ways ahead of us, while Ellen (my buddy) and I hung back with a park ranger who accompanied us, in the hopes she might know any special tricks. After about 10 minutes of finning around however, the dive master tapped his tank in a clonking noise to get our attention. He pointed into the blue void. At first, we couldn’t see anything, but soon enough, the dark outline of a whale shark appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
I am not even going to attempt to describe the awe-inspiring feeling this was. You see the wide iconic shape of the head of the shark (just the mouth can be more than 4 or 5 feet wide) with the pectoral fins off to the side. It was just slowly swimming right towards us with slow but powerful left and right sweeps of its tail fin. Most people are amazed as to how slow this animal moves, but looks are deceptive. It may not move its tail fin back and forth all that quickly, but when a 30 foot fish moves its fin back and forth, it’s sweep radius is considerable. The fish swam right through the group of divers at exactly our depth. I imagine the snorkelers could still see it, but clearly, we got a much better look. The whole encounter was surreal. You just float there, trying not to forget to breath, and the shark glides by you in the most peaceful way possible. Some people wonder whether it is scary to see an animal of this size, but the encounter is so non-threatening, there just never is any thought of fear entering your mind.
The encounter only took a minute or two. In hindsight, the first sighting was really just a blur. But there you have it: Your adrenalin sky-rockets after the sighting, as you realize you had just checked one of those items off your bucket list. It was fun to see the reaction of the group. Most people had probably given up hope of seeing a whale shark that day. Several of the divers in our group had been out the prior days without any luck, and this was their last opportunity. One girl even did a little victory dance under water :-).
But this was just the beginning of the dive. We swam on for another 15 minutes or so without another sighting, but then another whale shark appeared out of the depths. It came up from below us and headed straight towards us. This time, we had a bit more composure to actually take it all in and enjoy the whole experience. I think for most people, the first encounter is to overpowering to really enjoy it, but this second encounter was just plan incredible. As the shark was literally headed straight for Ellen and me, we go the classic look of the shark coming at us head on. Eventually, I even pulled Ellen to the side a little so we wouldn’t accidently be bumped by the shark (which I envision similar to being bumped into by an inflatable rubber boat).
The shark then swam right past us very slowly and I could see its tiny little eye look right at us, probably trying to figure out what this weird species of aquatic bipeds with cameras was that congregates at Gladden Split every full moon in the spring.
The shark was easily close enough for us to touch it with our outstretched arm. (Do NOT however touch a shark or even try to hold on to it to hitch a ride! Not only does it distress the animal, but there is a $10,000 fine for touching a whale shark, and apparently there could even be associated jail time!). The encounter also seemed a bit longer this time (although it is hard to say). The shark then swam a little closer to the surface so the snorkelers probably got a better look this time than with the first shark.
At that point, I started to supposedly get low on air again. I was reasonably certain I just had a problem with my gauge, and I had checked Ellen’s air and I knew I could breath of her’s for a little bit if need be. But why risk anything? I had decided to ascend to safety-stop depth when I got an answer to that question: A third shark appeared! I just had to stay! It slowly cruised by us, getting as close as 10 or 15 feet to me and Ellen. Not quite as close as the second one, but still! This was the third different shark we saw that day (one can tell by the shape of their fins).
Note: The whale sharks you encounter at Gladden Split are not juveniles, but they are not fully gown. The ones we saw were about 30 feet or so. They grow as large as 40 or 45 feet. But let me tell you: A 30+ foot animal (10 meters) is a LARGE fish. It is like swimming with a school bus! I’d still like to get a chance to see one that is even bigger, but these were still plenty large. They are the largest fish there is, after all.
After this third encounter, I was down to about 300 psi and gave a signal to the dive master that the two of us were going to ascend. Unlike in all other dives I have done where the whole group generally ascends together, in this case, we ascended and the rest of the group stayed as depth, as a single buddy-team doesn’t want to ruin the chance of the rest of the group for another encounter.
So we ascended to our safety-stop depth of 15 feet on our own, and all of a sudden, we were surrounded by other sharks! I am not even sure how many there were, and after seeing a 30 foot fish, it is hard to estimate the size and distance of anything else, especially in blue water. I would think that these sharks were about 4 or 5 feet in length. They were silky sharks. The Wikipedia says something like “silky sharks have been known to act aggressive to divers but that is generally not a problem as they only occur in open water and you are unlikely to ever encounter one”. Well, except for us, since we were out in the open ocean. After all the excitement of this dive, I have to admit, it gave me pause. What were we to do now? But since I was basically out of air, we had little choice but to hang out for our safety stop, alone, and have these sharks circle around us. All in all however, they did not seem overly interested. We just waited it out, and they made no aggressive moves. We continued our ascend after the safety-stop and swam around on the surface a bit longer.
At that point, just to top off this 5-star dive, I got stung pretty good by a jelly fish. I never wear a wet suit when diving in warm waters, so this one hurt (and I still have the markings as I write this close to a week later). I felt we had accomplished our mission on all accounts so we returned to the boat. I suppose we should have waited just a little longer, as the people who remained in the water saw a fourth shark just a minute or so after we had climbed up the ladder. But oh well!
As you can imagine, back on the boat, everyone was all smiles and people were high-fiving each other. This was an incredible, maybe even a life-changing experience. And by all credible accounts, we had been the first ones to see them this year, thanks to the extra patience of our dive crew. (Over the next few days, there were numerous sightings as well).
I have been told by some divers that the experience of a while shark dive like this was too organized and crowded for them. Personally, I never felt that way. Yes, our group had 8 divers in the water, and we did see another group under water. But when you see a whale shark 2 feet away from you, whether there are a few more divers within sight is really something that doesn’t make a big difference to me. Would it be cool to just encounter a whale shark somewhere by accident? You bet it would be! But the chance of that happening are remote.
I did enjoy doing this with scuba gear and at depth. I know there are several places where one can snorkel and swim with whale sharks, and I am sure that is cool too. But I enjoyed seeing them under water and in a smaller group. I think all the snorkelers on our boat had a great time, but swimming at the surface, elbow-to-elbow with the next snorkeler, looking a the sharks from above in the hopes that one will come close to the surface just can’t be the same experience. I would recommend the Gladden Split dive over organized whale shark snorkel trips (as are offered at places like Isla Mujeres in Mexico and other places) and I would recommend diving over snorkeling at Gladden Split too.
On a side note: As we were told afterwards, Bill Gates was also there that day and saw the whale sharks. I have no way of checking whether it is true or not, but I have no reason to doubt that he was there as we heard it from several independent sources. If it is true, he must have been among one of the groups of divers we met under water. So I guess we can now say “we went to Belize and dove with the whale sharks together with Bill Gates”. If nothing else, it makes for a good story! ;-)
Note: A big “thank you” goes to Tony Darst who gave me access to the photos I used in this blog post. My own camera case broke a few days earlier, and I would not have had any photos from our dive if it wasn’t for Tony who was on this dive with us and has since become a friend. Check out many more of his photos at www.Tonys-Eye-Photography.com
Posted @ 4:46 PM by Markus Egger (email@example.com)
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)