Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo – Sunset in Belize

Barrier Reef - Sailing Tour - Belize

The beauty of a seaside sunset is pretty hard to beat.  Especially when that sunset is from a tiny island in the middle of Central America, just off the coast of Belize.  I snapped today’s Friday Photo from a small wooden dock on the  island of Tobacco Caye.  The island/caye sits just off the tiny coastal city of Dangriga and is situated along/just inside the world’s second largest barrier reef.  The snorkeling off the coast of the island was unreal and full of incredible reef life which ranged from large barracuda to spotted eagle rays.

If you have the opportunity to visit Central America and want something a little less polished than the finery of Cancun’s hotels, I suggest you consider heading further south to Belize and its amazing series of small islands/caye’s  (keys).

To view previous posts in the Friday Week Travel Photo Series click here.

Special thanks to Waikiki hotels for helping make this post possible.

Sailing the Belize Barrier Reef – Day 2 and 3

Giant Fresh Caught Spiny Lobster

The following morning we struck camp; laughing at the slow, stiff movements and pained, hungover looks that plagued our group.  The tents proved every bit as difficult to break down as they had been to put up leading to small frustrated mutterings and no small shortage of lighthearted teasing.

Hermit Crab in Belize

We paused briefly for breakfast, then began transferring bags, sheets, tents and bodies back onto the cramped confines of the Ragga Queen before saying goodbye to the Island and its surprising wealth of local wild life.

A small caye in Belize

As the boat gently drifted away from the Island I was once again taken by its small size, pristine beauty and the unique flavor of the adventure.  As you might imagine, a plethora of movie references and great cinematic moments filtered through my mind – always an entertaining narrative and realization: that epiphany that you’re living the adventure often delivered as fairytale across the world’s silver screens.

Hand and Scarf on Sailboat roof

The day was beautiful with hardly a cloud in the sky.  The sun kept us warm and left us relishing each opportunity that arise to pause and dive into the water to fish, snorkel, hunt for conch, or just generally relax and cool off.

Raggamuffin Tour - Everyone relaxing on the Sailboat

As we neared our first snorkeling stop I was relieved. The weather was fantastic, the group with the exception of one bratty girl, was an absolute delight and the adventure was unfolding nicely.  I’m always wary of any sort of extended duration tour.  While something like the Raggamuffin tour tends to only attracting the more laid back, younger and heartier traveler – all it takes is one or two people to really turn what should be a 3-9 day adventure with new found friends into an absolute nightmare.   As you can tell from the photo above things were rather tight and personal space was at a premium.  That said, everyone took it in stride and worked to chip in.

Belize's stunning waters

Our first stop was along a steep wall along the reef.  As I first jumped in and looked down, I felt my stomach surge towards my throat. The water below me was some 20-30 feet deep on a steep incline, drifting quickly into a dark blue abyss.  The seafloor was covered in coral, fans and schools of fish and I couldn’t help but think I stood a good chance of seeing an open water shark.

Allowing my nerves to settle, I began to explore the area. The sea wall offered a great opportunity to see a different type of reef life.  Some of the fish were different, the corals were slightly different and the general feel of the place had its own unique flavor.  As we snorkeled around the area I made my way along the wall watching rays and schools of fish go about their daily business.  Eventually, I made a wide loop that took me into the shallow water – that which was 4-10 feet deep – and towards the areas where the reef broke free from the sea.  There, in the shallower water I was greeted by large spiny sea urchins, vibrantly colored, albeit smaller, coral dwelling species of fish and even a lazy sea turtle enjoying the open sea grass.  The video I’ve included above is shown in near chronological order, and while you may recognize it from my previous post – it covers all 3 days.

Tired and hungry I made my way back to the boat for lunch.  After a quick meal, it was time to set off again.  Sail up, bodies sprawled across the decks, the subtle sight of soft white lines decorating our bodies where we’d missed a spot of sunscreen.

Alex Berger while Sailing in Belize

Our next stop was similar.  This time, however, it was a series of small sea mounts that rose from the ocean floor (about 30-40 feet) to a depth of some 10 feet below the surface.  The mounts were small but packed with coral and sea life.

Once again we struggled into our fins, held our breaths and jumped over the side before fanning out in all directions to explore.  Some were armed with spear guns, others with cameras. As we slowly explored, we found ourselves pointing off into the blue, motioning, and trying to speak through snorkel filled mouths.  All the while sharing little discoveries – a large school of 5 or 6 barracuda, a lazy sea turtle taking a nap on the ocean floor or a particularly beautiful fish.

It was during a foray in towards one of the larger mounts – one with significantly shallower water – that I came across the largest barracuda I’ve ever seen.  You’ll notice him in the video I posted above, though the size doesn’t really come across.  Easily four feet in length the monster oozed predatory confidence as it slowly, ever so slowly drifted through the shallow water.

Eager to get video and see it up close, I followed.  All the while wondering….was it truly a good idea?  After all, the plastic housing for my camera reflected the glint of sunlight and was lined in bright dive orange rubber, looking more like a giant fishing lure than anything else.   Luckily, neither I nor the Barracuda listened to the nagging voice in the back of my head – leaving us both to watch each other warily, enjoying the moment.

Marching Lobster and Feet while Sailing in Belize

From there it was back onto the boat for more fishing, sunbathing and drifting.  Pausing periodically to hunt for Conch, Lobster and to give the captain an opportunity to put his spear-gun to work.  We feasted on fresh lobster, conch and fish ceviche, fresh fruit and cup after cup of fruit punch before eventually arriving at our second destination: Tobacco Caye.

Tobacco Caye

The small (albeit significantly larger than our last) island was home to a series of docks, a small forest of large coconut trees, small restaurant, series of cabanas and small circular beach bar.

Sunset at Tobacco Caye

We quickly set to setting up our tents in a small clear space in the middle of the island, before grabbing a Belkin – Belize’s delicious local beer – and setting off to explore the island.  Some 5 minutes later we found ourselves back at the dock eager to snorkel off the dock.

The area surrounding the island itself was sheltered by the reef behind it and offered a large expanse of smooth shallow water sea grass which stretched out and away from the island on the remaining 3 sides.  The grass itself attracted large schools of fish and a large number of rays and the incredible looking eagle rays which are black with white spots, a long streaming tail and in many ways look like a manta ray.  The eagle rays are an absolute delight to watch – not only are they graceful and beautiful, but they periodically leap free of the water, throwing themselves several feet into the air.

Sailboat at Sunset in Belize on the Barrier Reef

As with the day before, the sunset on Tobacco Caye was every bit as incredible.  This time framed by sailboats, a small panga, and picturesque palm trees.  We ate a delicious meal with fish and shrimp before settling in for another night of stories, drinks and jokes before crawling into bed.  Stiff and exhausted from a long day swimming and relaxing in the sun.

Tobacco Caye in Belize

The following morning greeted us with more blue skies and warm weather. After breaking down our tents and re-packing the boat we set off once more.  This time on the final leg of our trip to Placencia.

Lobster Sunbathing in Belize

The trip itself was fairly lazy. We paused several more times for seafood and caught a few fish by line.  With each stop the number of us that jumped overboard to explore diminished until there were only 3 or 4 of us left that dove in at every opportunity. We swam, laughed and relaxed for the remainder of the day before arriving in Placencia about 3 or 4PM.  We disembarked and set to the task of finding accommodation.

It was Christmas eve and the town was quiet, although not completely shuttered.  Before long I found a small budget hotel with a room for $40 BZD ($20USD) a night.  To my delight the room had 3 beds, and a private bathroom.  The shower didn’t offer warm water (not unusual in Belize), and consisted of a PVC pipe with a small turn nozzle. It was more than I needed.

I settled in, read my book, grabbed an evening meal and then dozed contentedly.  Life was good.

Snorkeling in Belize – Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley

Boat Captain

The morning had been delightful.  My nap had been enjoyable and now it was time to get to work. Eager to finally have a chance to see the reef and go for a swim I quickly booked the trip, tried on my fins and snorkel and then made my way down to the boat.   The captain and guide (pictured above) quickly appeared, jumped in the boat, introduced himself and then we were off.  As luck had it the trip only had a total of 3 people booked on it and after a brief detour down the coast to pick up the other two we were skipping across the surf towards the reef.

Hol Chan Snorkeling Crew

As we made our way towards the reef and Hol Chan Marine Reserve I quickly got acquainted with the other two people on the trip – Mannie and Catherine.  We shared the usual details, made sure we had sunscreen on, and then set to putting on our gear – just as we arrived at the Hol Chan Reserve.

The Hol Chan Marine Reserve is part of the Belize Barrier Reef, which in turn is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System.  The Mesoamerican reef is the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world.  Second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  The Belize Barrier Reef itself is home to more than 100 species of coral and a wealth of marine species.  The Hol Chan or “little channel” in Mayan is a break in the reef that serves as a major gathering point for marine life.

The following video has a mixture of video from both Hol Chan and the 2nd stop along our trip – Shark Ray Alley:

As we jumped into the shallow water we kept in mind the requests our guide had made – don’t touch the coral.  Don’t chase sea turtles and above all don’t stand on the reef.

Before long we were snorkeling along as our guide pointed out various interesting fish popping his head above the water just long enough to call out the name of the animal or coral we were looking at. It was incredible.  The fish were relatively tame and prolific. The coral was vibrant and diverse and the water was crystal clear and as warm as bath water.

As we snorkeled along we encountered hundreds of fish, a nurse shark and even a small sea turtle…and then as quickly as it had begun it was back into the boat and off to the next destination.

Snorkeling with Sharks at Shark Ray Alley Belize

Shark Ray Alley

As we hooked the anchor rope and tied up to the buoy we quickly realized that a greeting party was already eagerly waiting for us.  Our hosts?  A group some 10 or so nurse sharks ranging between some 4 and 6 feet in length.  As we pulled on our snorkeling gear and paused for a quick photo or two our guide chuckled at our slight anxiety encouraging us to jump in and join our surprisingly gentle hosts. Eager to oblige I paused just long enough to snap this photo before slipping over the side…careful to make sure I didn’t land on one of the sharks.

Snorkeling in Shark Ray Alley Belize

It was an exhilarating experience.  Despite the knowledge that nurse sharks are largely harmless, and that these were basically pets – it was still enough to get my heart racing.  I was doing it – one of my main goals for the trip: to swim with sharks.  It was every bit as enjoyable as I had hoped.  The sharks were gorgeous, friendly and at times nearly within reach.

I quickly realized that the sharks had a system.  Drawn by the sound of the boat’s engines they’d approach, spend several minutes circling and waiting for chump or bits of food used to bait them in by guides, and then as the food supply dried up or failed to appear would move on to the next boat to arrive.

The sharks were anything but alone though! Our guide pointed out boundaries for us and then set us free to wander at will.  As I snorkeled along enjoying the reef, vibrant colors of the reef fish and incredible mixture of large schools of fish, small solo fish and large predatory fish I could not help but smile. No small task since the smile inevitably broke the seal on my snorkel and flooded my mouth with saltwater.

Large schools of large yellow tailed jacks and permit followed the Shark’s lead as they schooled in the shade the boats created.  All the while I dove, barrel rolled and floated along the barrier reef.  Truly, it is a must see stop along any trip through Belize.

San Pedro Sunset from Boat

Tired, thirsty and with pruning hands we made our way back to the boat and prepared for the quick (albeit windy) ride back to San Pedro.

Sunset in San Pedro

As the sun slipped away and the evening settled in I paused briefly on the dock to reflect.  Enjoying the sunset and letting the richness of the experiences i’d enjoyed over the last 24 hours sink in.  Truly, it had been an incredible day.