Big Northern Caye, across a narrow strait, has a landing strip that used to serve the now-closed resort here. There are long stretches of beach to walk, beautiful vistas, mangroves, and lagoons, home to snowy egrets and crocodiles. Halfway down the spatula-shaped atoll, about where the blade meets the handle, lies the magnificent Blue Hole, a formation best appreciated from the air, but also impressive from the bridge of a boat.
At the elbow of the handle is Half Moon Caye, a historical natural monument and protected area with its lighthouse, bird sanctuary, shipwrecks, and incredible diving offshore. Finally, on the handle, is Long Caye, a lonely outpost with a small dock, large palms, and glassy water.
This circular underwater formation, with its magnificent blue-to-black hues surrounded by neon water, is emblematic of Belize itself. The submerged shaft is a karst-eroded sinkhole with depths exceeding 400 feet. In the early 1970s, Jacques Cousteau and his crew explored the tunnels, caverns, and stalactites here, angled by past earthquakes.
Most dive groups descend to a depth of about 135 feet. Technically, this is not a dive for novices or even intermediate divers, though many intermediate divers do it with a guide. It requires a rapid descent, a very short period at depth, and a careful ascent, requiring excellent buoyancy control. For a group of 10 or more, at least three dive masters should be present. The Blue Hole is everything it is hyped up to be; my own personal experience there was extraordinary, and I gasped at the sight of the gigantic formations, the infinite depth, and the Caribbean reef sharks that circled nearby. It’s akin to an out-of-body experience. The lip of the crater down to about 60-80 feet has the most life: fat midnight parrot fish, stingrays, angelfish, butterfly fish, and other small reef fish cluster around coral heads and outcroppings.
Accommodations on Lighthouse Reef
The only place to stay overnight on Lighthouse Reef Atoll is on Long Caye, with Huracan Diving (U.S. tel. 518/253-7705, email@example.com), where you can choose from either a four- or seven-night all-inclusive dive packages (US$990- 1,490). The four guest rooms at Huracan’s lodge have private baths, king beds, ceiling fans, and screened windows. Pickup and transfer from Belize City is included in your package. A second option is the Itza Resort (U.S. tel. 305/600-2585, or tel. 501/223-3228, R&R package US$995-1,650 for 3 nights, US$1,395-2,795 for 7 nights, rates vary), a 20-room oceanfront resort offering diving, fishing, water sports (kite surfing) and “R&R” packages.
Half Moon Caye
Dedicated as a monument in 1982, this crescent- shaped island was the first protected area in Belize. Half Moon Caye, at the southeast corner of Lighthouse Reef, measures 45 square acres, half of which is a thriving but endangered littoral forest; the other half is a stunning palm-dotted beach. This is also the only red-footed booby sanctuary in the Western Hemisphere besides the Galápagos. The US$40 pp admission fee is sometimes included in your dive boat fee, but sometimes you’ll pay it directly to the park ranger when you disembark.
As you approach Half Moon Caye, you’ll believe you have arrived at some South Sea paradise. Offshore, boaters use the rusted hull of a wreck, the Elksund, as a landmark in these waters. Its dark hulk looms over the surreal blue and black of the reef world. The caye, eight feet above sea level, was formed by the accretion of coral bits, shells, and calcareous algae. It’s divided into two ecosystems: The section on the western side has dense vegetation with rich fertile soil, while the eastern section primarily supports coconut palms and little other vegetation.
Besides offshore waters that are among the clearest in Belize, the caye’s beaches are gorgeous. You must climb the eight-foot-high central ridge that divides the island and gaze south before you see the striking half-moon beach with its unrelenting surf erupting against limestone rocks. Half Moon Caye’s first lighthouse was built in 1820, modernized and enlarged in 1931, decommissioned in 1997, then felled by the elements in 2010. A newer lighthouse was built in 1998 and is still functioning.
Dive Sites in Half Moon Caye
Half Moon Caye Wall
Here on the eastern side of the atoll, the reef has a shallow shelf in about 15 feet of water where garden eels are plentiful. The sandy area broken with corals extends downward till you run into the reef wall, which rises some 20 feet toward the surface. Most boats anchor in the sandy area above the reef wall. Numerous fissures in the reef crest form canyons or tunnels leading out to the vertical face. In this area, sandy shelves and valleys frequently harbor nurse sharks and gigantic stingrays. Divers here are sure to return with a wealth of wonderful pictures.
Long Caye Aquarium
Minutes from Half Moon Caye Wall, often combined with a Blue Hole trip, is a spectacular dive site ideal for photos and with the most marinelife spotting, even more than at Half Moon Caye Wall. The electrifying deep-blue waters will stun you, as will the schools of bright colorful fish and the large eagle rays, sea turtles, stingrays, and nurse sharks.
The shoals of silversides (small gleaming minnows) that gave this western atoll site its name are gone, but Silver Caves is still impressive and enjoyable. The coral formations are riddled with large crevices and caves that cut clear through the reef. As you enter the water above the sandy slope where most boats anchor, you’ll be in about 30 feet of water and surrounded by friendly yellowtail snappers. Once again you’ll see the downwardly sloping bottom, the rising reef crest, and the stomach-flipping drop into the blue.
On the western wall, “Three Coconuts” refers to trees on nearby Long Caye. The sandy bottom slopes from about 30 feet to about 40 feet deep before it plunges downward. Overhangs are common features here, and sponges and soft corals adorn the walls. Another fish lover’s paradise, Tres Cocos does not have the outstanding coral formations you’ll see at several other dives in the area, but who cares? There’s a rainbow of marinelife all about. Turtles, morays, jacks, coral, shrimp, cowfish, rays, and angelfish are among the actors on this colorful stage.
Farther north and about even with the Blue Hole, West Point is well worth a dive. Visibility may be a bit more limited than down south, but it’s still very acceptable. The reef face here is stepped. The first drop plunges from about 30 feet to well over 100 feet deep. Another coral and sand slope at that depth extends a short distance before dropping vertically into very deep water. The first shallow wall has pronounced overhangs and lush coral and sponge growth.
Everyone should go to the observation tower, built by the Audubon Society in the ziricote forest; climb above the forest canopy for an unbelievable 180-degree view. Every tree is covered with perched booby birds in some stage of growth or mating. In March, you’ll have a close-up view of nests where feathered parents tend their hatchlings. The air is filled with boobies coming and going, attempting to make their usually clumsy landings (those webbed feet weren’t designed for landing in trees). Visitors also have a wonderful opportunity to see the other myriad inhabitants of the caye. Magnificent thieving frigates (the symbol of the Belize Audubon Society) swoop in to steal eggs, and iguanas crawl around in the branches, also looking for a snack.
Getting to Half Moon Caye
It’s 52 miles from the mainland to Half Moon Caye, a long boat trip over open ocean. Most visitors make the trip through one of the bigger dive shops, like Amigo’s on Ambergris Caye. Otherwise, only chartered or privately owned boats and seaplanes travel to Half Moon Caye. Check with the Belize Audubon Society in Belize City for other suggestions.
Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Belize.