What is it about the Great Blue Hole of Belize?
As our plane began its descent into Belize City, flying south near the Yucatan coast of Mexico, we pondered this question. We had been to Belize in the past, spending some wonderful time in Ambergris Caye only to miss out on the "Brass Ring" of Belizean diving. That trip, which featured a mixture of inland tours and exciting diving, was always tinged with a sense of disappointment at having missed diving the fabled Blue Hole. Now, we were determined to correct that situation with a visit to Lighthouse Reef, one of the offshore atolls of Belize and the one nearest to the Great Blue Hole.
Ever since our childhood years, when Jacques Cousteau made this spot famous by chronicling his exploits as part of his "Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" TV series, coupled with an exciting and descriptive book, we had longed to visit this mysterious location. We read with rapt attention whenever an account was published in a dive magazine, or a dive book. At dive club meetings we would talk with those "luck few" who had actually "been there and done that". And, often, we were disappointed to hear the accounts of our diving compatriots:
"Oh, its OK…nothing special."
"Nothing really to see there."
"Don't know what the big deal is."
Undeterred by some of these less-than-stellar-accounts, we made our way out to Lighthouse Reef and began our week of diving the Barrier Reef of Belize. Here, the diving features spectacular wall dives only minutes from shore. The weekly itinerary includes dives at the unbelievably beautiful reefs at Half-moon Caye and Long Caye to the South. However, we looked forward to the one day, mid-week planned excursion to the Great Blue Hole. Surely, this would be the highlight of the week!
The morning of the Blue Hole dive dawned still and warm, another resplendent sunrise in an idyllic tropical location. We eagerly made our way to the dock to meet the dive boat, and found ourselves the first ones there. Our adrenaline was pumping as we impatiently waited to for the boat to show up. Before too long, we were headed out towards our long awaited dive. The small boat motored south, carefully picking its way along the sometimes-shallow coral heads of the reefs in the atoll. After a short time, the engines were cut and we were there!
The origin of the Blue Hole can be traced back 15,000 years to an earlier ice age. During this time, the glaciers from the north trapped so much water in their frozen expanses that the sea level in these areas was lowered by more than 350 feet. The limestone in the area now known as Lighthouse Reef became exposed in large part. Freshwater began flowing through the limestone deposits and huge, underground caverns formed as a result. In the area of the Blue Hole, the roof of one of these caverns has since collapsed, creating the eerie, circular sinkhole now referred to as the "Great Blue Hole". Viewed from the air, it resembles an almost perfectly circular hole, filled with deep, blue water in marked contrast to the aquamarine waters of the surrounding shallow reef areas. It is an unmistakable landmark in the middle of more than 75 square miles of shallow, atoll waters.
When we entered the Blue Hole area, we could see the color change in the surface waters immediately. The arc of the fringing coral reef was also visible, especially when viewed with the benefit of polarizing sunglasses to block the glare of the sunlight on the water. However, a mild sense of foreboding began to creep over us as we watched as the sky began to darken ominously. Storm clouds from the north were racing across the waters of the atoll. Only minutes after our arrival a previously beautiful sunny July day had turned ugly. Sharp slivers of lightening could be seen striking the waters in the distance followed by a sudden increase in wind. In minutes, our view was all but obscured by sheets of teeming rain. The calm surface waters of the Blue Hole had suddenly turned choppy and we sought shelter beneath the canopy of our small dive boat. Boy, we felt cursed! Just our luck, we thought, as we watched as the worst of the storm hit. Still, we were undeterred and, as the storm began to abate, we began our preparations for the dive.
For years, the exact depth of the Blue Hole was unknown. Tall Tales from sailors often told of a bottomless pit filled with sea monsters and danger. Of course, today we know the Blue Hole measures 412 feet deep at its maximum. And, other than some sharks and other pelagic fish that have found their way into the area, there are no sea monsters that anyone knows about living in the Blue Hole.
We entered the water near the rim on the south side. A large school of Bermuda Chum greeted us as we quickly made our way to the drop off. Because of our planned depth and limited no-decompression time, we eschewed the marine life in the shallows and began our descent almost immediately. We descended to a depth of 100 feet, where the nearly vertical walls suddenly began to turn inwards at an angle of 55 degrees. This area becomes a fascinating study in geology because the overhang that results from this inward turn is adorned with large stalactites, some measuring more than 3 feet in diameter and extending over 20 feet in length. Divers also can spot numerous dripstone pillows and, more than 50 feet below the overhang the cave floor is littered with a collection of fallen stalactites.
We swam among these magnificent geologic formations, thinking back to when this area was exposed to the air, and enjoying our flight through the cathedrals of the Blue Hole. The waters were dark beneath this overhang at a depth of 140 feet and we saw really no marine life. Still, we smiled in great satisfaction as we knew that, finally, we had beaten the curse of the Blue Hole and actually made the pilgrimage to one of diving's Meccas. Our time was short, but our memories long. After surfacing, we all compared notes and observations. Everyone was excited and we definitely felt as if the trip had been worth it. Of course, as the rest of the week unfolded, we made many more memorable and beautiful dives along the spectacular walls of the atoll of Lighthouse Reef. Colorful stands of healthy Elkhorn coral, patches of undisturbed black coral and huge barrel sponges were home to a fascinating variety of marine life. Sea Turtles, Sharks and Barracuda were all observed on various dives along with a glittering array of macro subjects all thriving in the healthy reefs of Belize.
Before our journey ended, however, we had one last encounter with the Blue Hole planned. As our small plane departed the tiny concrete runway on Northern Caye, it made a long, sweeping turn to the west and back to Belize City. Peering out over the waters of Lighthouse Reef, we could easily spot the dramatic waters of the Blue Hole from several hundred feet in the air. From the air, this is a most impressive site and one we expected to photograph easily to add the finishing touches to our journey. Suddenly, however, to our horror the camera became jammed! What was happening? The shutter wouldn't release! As the plane continued its journey, the very best views of the Blue Hole began to recede into the distance. At the last moment, we managed to squeeze off one, single shot of the Blue Hole.
To this day, we don't know what happened with our otherwise perfectly functioning camera!
Was the Blue Hole sending one last joke our way?
Is there really a curse of the Blue Hole?
It sure seemed to us that, starting years ago with our visit to Ambergris Caye when we failed to even get there, to the sudden storm on the day we dove there, to the unexplained camera malfunction as we flew over, the Blue Hole was, indeed, playing tricks on us! Perhaps not a curse, but a playful spirit haunts the Great Blue Hole. Still, we achieved our goal and felt better for it. The Blue Hole remains a diver's dream destination and we hope that divers will continue to enjoy and explore this fascinating place for years to come.
Our visit to Belize was a fascinating one and we look forward to sharing with the public as part of one of our upcoming presentations called "Ancient Discoveries: In the Shadow of the Maya".
With the exception of cruise ship passengers, all visitors to Belize must present a valid passport before entering the country. Please note that driver's licenses and birth certificates are not approved travel documents and cannot be used to enter the country. Passports must be valid up until time of departure. Visas are required for nationals from some countries while others do not. Some citizens may also need clearance from the Director of Immigration in order to enter Belize as well, so make sure all your papers are in order before you leave.
No vaccinations are required for entrance into Belize. However, as an extra precaution please, consult your physician for advice in respect to anti-malarial medication, and gamma globulin, typhoid, and hepatitis shots. Make sure your tetanus shots are up to date. If you have any physical or medical limitations, or allergies of any kind, please advise your trip provider when booking your expedition, so that they may better serve you and make your stay is s pleasant and comfortable as possible.
The weather is hot, for the most part, and light weight summer clothing should be what you primarily take with you to Belize. Loose fitting, micro-fiber clothes are best. During the winter months (November - February) temperatures can drop into the 50's and 60's inland, so bring at least one or two warm outfits with long pants and sleeves.
Normal daytime temperatures reach the 90's and the evenings are typically in the 70's. Belize's rainy season is June - October, however rain is possible any time of the year and comes in heavy downpours. Rain gear and waterproof footwear as well as plenty of sun block are strongly recommended, no matter when your visit is scheduled. The height of the dry season is during the months of April and May.
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