One major reason why people flock to Belize every year is the amazing barrier reef. The largest living reef and second largest in size, Belize offers amazing diving, snorkeling & aquatic activities to the marine enthusiasts. Neither Sam or I am scuba certified, so we “settled” for snorkeling in Belize’s Hol Chan Marine Reserve just a few hours off the shores of Caye Caulker.
Although there are a lot of free snorkel areas near Caye Caulker, we wanted to see some of the cool marine life, so we opted for a tour company to facilitate the snorkel trip. I had read about Raggamuffin Tour on a few of my favorite travel blogs, and decided to give their day tour of Hol Chan a try. We arrived at their beach front office, picked out our snorkel gear and headed out onto their sailboat with about 10 other people.
The day was pretty windy but otherwise the weather was quite great– sunny skies, warm temperatures and minimal cloud cover. Raggamuffin runs their tour on sailboats, something that really appealed to Sam & I. Sailboats are so much calmer and more comfortable that big fast power boats. With the strong wind, we made it up to nearly 10 knots of speed between the two sails. The boat itself was pretty small, so we sat on the side with our feet dangling in the clear waters. It was fun getting splashed with the ocean spray and enjoying the beautiful views. Plus the staff at Raggamuffin are so much fun! They blasted music, told jokes and gave us snacks all afternoon.
It took about 1 hour to get to our first stop: conch garden. In this particular location, local fisherman clean the conch they caught in the morning so the bottom is covered in old conch shells. They throw scraps & bits into the water, so it is flush with wildlife waiting to eat. When we jumped off the boat, we immediately saw tons of fish. With only about 10 feet of depth, I got very up close and personal with the fish! Lots of different species were there in many different and vibrant colors.
In addition to just colorful fish, there were also tons of sting rays spanning almost 8 feet across. They would glide right under you with incredible grace, so close to where you were swimming. They flap absentmindedly to keep moving, like birds of the sea. The first few times it totally freaked me out, but eventually I got used to the proximity.
After about half and hour gazing at the marine life here, we moved to the next stop on our tour: shark & ray alley. Here unfortunately, they bait the sharks in order to give visitors a cool experience. That made me feel a little unethical, since I know that’s not the best way to handle the wildlife. Regardless of my feelings about it, the crew tossed in bits of fish to attract nurse sharks, a harmless bottom feeder species. Nearly 15 of them swam next to the boat, along with hundreds of big grey fish (I didn’t catch what species they were). Again, we hopped in the water with snorkel and flippers in tow to get a personal encounter with the sharks. The staff would throw the food kind of close to where we were snorkeling, and the sharks would swarm over. Similar to the rays, it was pretty unnerving at first to be so close to sharks since your primordial brain is screaming “get away, it’s a SHARK!”. Nurse sharks apparently don;t even have teeth though (they eat using suction) so they really pose minimal threat to humans.
The final stop of our snorkel tour was the Hol Chan Reserve, only about 30 minutes from shark & ray alley. This was my favorite spot on the tour because you could actually see coral and reef life. Again, it was pretty shallow so I got to appreciate the colors and movement of the sea up close. There were way more varieties of tropical fish here, and we even saw two types of turtles!
Once we were headed back to the mainland, the Raggamuffin crew broke out the run punch and fresh ceviche for our breezy return. We got lucky because our fellow tourmates were cool and fun to hang out with, and our afternoon was filled with lots of laughs and fun memories.
Overall, we had an awesome experience with Raggamuffin and exploring the Hol Chan Reserve. Besides the baiting, I thought the entire day was excellent, truly a highlight of our time in Belize. I only wish we had a GoPro to capture some of the underwater pictures, but I guess those will just have to be our mental memories to have.