Our first dive was to Esmeralda, a reef cut in the outer barrier reef that drops precipitously to over 30 meters (100 ft). We worked our way across a colorful, healthy reef and followed deep sand channels at 25 meters (80 ft), encountering curious nurse sharks and fearless black groupers.
On our next dive we descended into the San Pedro Canyons, sharp fissures in the reef that drop away ever deeper—to 50 meters or more (165 ft). There, we spotted an inquisitive Green Moray eel and were surrounded by more nurse sharks and big groupers (at one point, we counted 12).
Halfway through the dive, we discovered the reason for this enthusiastic escort: our divemaster Patojo was toting a virtual sushi restaurant in his vest pocket! Although feeding fish in the wild is not something we condone, in discussion with Patojo back on the boat we understood that this is a common practice on Belize’s reefs. His logic is that this form of symbiosis ensures that the groupers are valued by the dive community, and hence not caught for dinner. Hmmmm….
Only a short while later, we were to discover another form of life insurance that seems far more sustainable: Hol Chan Marine Reserve. After a quick change of boats to a Belize Fisheries Service patrol boat, we joined Miguel Alamia, the Reserve’s manager, for what turned out to be far and away the best dive we’ve yet made.
On the 15-minute passage to the Reserve, Miguel related the history of Belize’s first true marine reserve. Covering 35 square kilometers (21 square miles), Hol Chan (“narrow channel” in Mayan) was originally declared in 1987 and expanded in 2008. The reserve encompasses an entire reef ecosystem, from offshore waters to coral reef, sea grass beds and mangroves. Each distinct zone has different protection guidelines, and historic fisheries are still allowed in most locations within the reserve. But it is a marine protected area and it is enforced: our crew Edgar and Grimaldo are both licensed officers with the power to arrest those who violate the law.
Arriving among a covey of turista snorkel boats, we learned that this throng is in fact an important part of the Belizean economy—tourism alone is the nation’s largest industry. Carefully managed, the dive operators honor the rules in order to access the Reserve: no anchoring is allowed, tour guides must earn a license after a rigorous training program, boats may carry a maximum of 8 guests, and floats must be used to ensure snorkelers do not touch or kick the reef.
We followed Miguel into the 27C (80F) water, completely unaware of what we were about to experience. Imagine a cross between Jurassic Park and Finding Nemo…a magical, natural sand channel between two robust and healthy reefs—populated by literally thousands of fish!
Big fish like Cuban jacks, black grouper and tarpon. Schooling fish like yellowtail, cubero snapper, and permit. Beauties like rainbow parrotfish, French angels and queen triggerfish. Plus a green sea turtle, several stately spotted eagle rays and a bevy of groupers: black, Nassau, reds and yellows.
As the sun lowered in the western sky and our air got low, we couldn’t tear ourselves away. Back on the boat, we agreed that THIS is the way to ensure the future of the fish and their habitat. If ever there was a Hope Spot, it is Hol Chan Marine Reserve—a place on our planet too important to leave in fate’s hands. Sitting in the channel as the sun sank into the mangroves, we were sure the fishes below would agree.
By John Racanelli
Photography By Kip Evans