Belize Dive Sites
Diving in Ambergris Caye
Ambergris Caye is the biggest of the offshore keys and a great place to stay if you wish to base yourself in a dive resort within easy reach of Belize's barrier reef dive sites.
The reef runs for 40 km almost parallel to the shore at a distance of about 1.5 kms out to sea. To the south of the island there runs a line of small cayes and reefs inside of which you will find well-protected shallow water that offers some very good diving.
Shark Ray Alley is rated one of the Caribbean's best animal dives and is, unsurprisingly, a great dive site for encounters with sharks and rays, as well as many other species. The animals come here to profit from fishing boats' scraps tossed overboard, so they are not shy, resulting in some excellent photo opportunities.
The many marine parks here mean that fishing restrictions are in place in several areas. Hol Chan Marine Reserve, aka 'The Cut', is one such small marine reserve popular among divers from Ambergris Caye. It promises an easy dive with pelagics such as barracuda in the depths and often large animals in the shallow seagrass beds like sharks and rays.
There are a number of different ecosytems to be found here so the species variety is wider than may be found elsewhere in Belize. You can expect mangrove cayes, coral reefs, seagrass beds and lagoons, all offering something different. Punta Arena Canyons, aka 'Small Cut', is a deep dive into a cavern with steep walls and swimthroughs down to around 30m, often requiring single file diving in the tunnel which sometimes becomes enshrouded in darkness.
Dive Site Descriptions
Hol Chan Marine Reserve (The Cut) - This was the first area in Belize to be designated as a marine reserve. Since gaining this status, the once depleted fish stocks have returned in spectacular fashion. Located just 6 km southeast of San Pedro, this dive site is not to be missed.
The marine reserve encompasses an area of 5 square miles that includes the barrier reef, sea grass flats and mangrove areas. An entry fee of BZ$ 5 helps cover maintenance and enforcement costs. Mooring buoys have been installed and rangers are always on hand to enforce the no-take policy resulting in a wonderful Ambergris Caye site for both divers and snorkellers alike.
The cut itself is about 9m deep and the occasionally strong tidal currents provide a constant stream of food for the waiting filter feeders like the gorgonian sea fans and sponges that adorn the walls of the reef, which rises to the surface on either side sheltering crabs, morays and hundreds of small reef fish. Out in the main flow schools of grunts and mutton snapper are joined by cubera snapper, Atlantic spadefish, Nassau groupers, black groupers and large concentrations of schoolmasters.
As an advanced diver, you can venture out to the drop-off and sometimes be rewarded with sightings of eagle rays and schooling barracuda. At night you should look out for flame scallops, lobsters and octopus in amongst the coral and boulders.
If the current is strong, you would be advised to use the irregular topography of the bottom and channel walls to hide from the main flow. Darting from slack to slack can be immense fun but weaker swimmers should make this Ambergris Caye dive at slack tide for a more relaxed experience.
Mexico Rocks - Marked on land by a former coconut plantation, this popular huddle of coral heads lies just 20 minutes north of San Pedro and directly in front of Portofino Resort.
Protected from the ocean by the barrier reef, this shallow Ambergris Caye dive site rarely has any current. If you haven't blown bubbles for a while, this is the perfect opportunity to brush up on your skills. Shallow and with good visibility, Mexico Rocks is a great spot for photographers to play around with their composition and for snorkelers to watch the divers beneath.
Although not quite up to the standard of the barrier reef, the 3-4m high colonies of boulder corals reach almost to the surface and give refuge to a variety of marine life. Stingrays and occasionally sleeping nurse sharks are found with their heads wedged into the coral. Flame scallops, azure vase sponges, sea fans and varied butterflyfish and wrasse add the colour to the site.
A slow careful sweep of the sand flats can bring its own rewards. Burrowing urchins, hermit crabs, clams and minute mysid shrimp offer excellent opportunities for macro photography.
The outside of the reef is completely different with dramatic canyons and walls scything their way through the coral formations. Horse-eye jacks, barracuda and Nassau groupers patrol this area hoping to catch the smaller reef fish unawares. Lobster and spider crabs lay claim to the holes in the reef and at around 10m there is cave, home to hundreds of baby snappers who stare nervously out at you as you cruise slowly past.
Punta Arenas (Small Cut) - The main attraction of this Ambergris Caye dive site is a narrow, snaking 25m tunnel. Starting at the base of the coral reef, at first glance the entrance seems wide and accommodating, easily enough room for 2 divers, but as you penetrate further into the tunnel it narrows and only single file is possible.
The bottom of the tunnel is composed of sand so, apart from a few small sections where the tunnel is dark, loss of visibility is not a great concern but be careful to avoid contact with the red algae growing on the walls; the tough exo-skeleton can leave abrasions on careless legs.
If you're lucky you may find turtles, nurse sharks and giant jawfish resting in the dark recesses of the tunnel, but always you will find a school of curious looking glassy sweepers just before the tunnel exit at 30m.
You won't have too much time to look around but as you slowly ascend to the shallower area of the reef the visibility can be excellent. Schools of horse eye jacks frequent the area along with Nassau groupers, lobsters and some very large great barracuda.
As always on these sites where the reef drops away, the eagle-eyed, and fortunate can spot manta and eagle rays swooping around in the blue.
Shark Ray Alley - The name speaks for itself. If close up shark encounters tickle your fancy, then this site is one for you.
For several years this Ambergris Caye dive site was often used by fisherman to clean their catch. The discarded entrails and blood attracted nurse sharks and southern sting rays from the surrounding area.
Eventually the phenomenon caught the ears of the dive operators in San Pedro, who immediately sent divers to investigate. What they discovered led to the then world's largest diving magazine feature billing the site in 2 issues and now selected as one of the Caribbean's 7 best animal dives.
The sharks and rays are now so accustomed to being fed by the dive masters that they begin hungrily circling at the sound of the boat engines. As you look over the side the dark shapes are easily discernable against the white sand bottom.
As you drop in the rays with a wingspan of up to 1.5m directly approach you, sometimes brushing your legs as they swim around you 'begging' for food while the sharks up to 2m in length circle just out of arms reach. Even though these animals seem to tolerate or even enjoy the human interaction, as always the best policy is not to touch and leave that choice up to the wildlife.
These are not the only animals here though, dozens of smaller fish dart around grabbing the sharks and rays' leftovers, while groupers, yellowtails and green morays actively compete for the food.
Both snorkelers and divers should not forget to bring their camera here for that once in a lifetime scoial networking profile shot!
Tackle Box Canyons - The wonderful topography at this site allows for some great photo opportunities so make sure your camera is fully functional before entering the water here.
Caverns, small tunnels and deep, vertically walled, narrow canyons contrast with the well lit, clear waters at the top of the coral ridges. Lobsters, glassy sweepers and small schools of horse-eye jacks all use the darker recesses of this site to hide away from predators.
In contrast to the sporadic coral and creatures amongst the deeper areas, the site explodes with colour and life at the top of the coral ridges. Coral in various forms create the ridges including yellow pencil, elkhorn, boulder, brain and mustard hill. Interspersed with the coral are spectacular vase, basket and rope sponges. Benthic life is found on many of the dive sites of Ambergris Caye.
The visibility at the top of the reef is usually excellent, in excess of 25m, so finding the many species of groupers, jacks, snappers, parrotfish and angelfish is never a problem. When investigating the holes and cracks in the reef, you can find spider crabs and lobsters. This abundance of life attracts barracudas and different species of moray eels, the most abundant predators along Ambergris Caye. Nurse sharks dozing on the bottom are all also a common sight.
How to Dive Ambergris
Liveaboards do not visit this area and resorts on the atolls do not tend to travel inland to dive at Ambergris Caye so the best way to dive here is by staying in a nearby resort on Ambergris Caye itself.
This will mean diving both on the barrier reef and on other local sites around the island. It is possible to also dive further out to sea on the atolls if staying on Ambergris Caye but it is a long day trip. Most who stay here tend to limit themselves to diving locally.
Got a question?
Have a look through our Frequently asked questions
There is year round diving in Ambergris Caye, with the least chance of rain in February and March and the highest during August to October.
Good for: Large animals, small animals, underwater photography
Not so good for: Wreck dives
Depth: 5 - >40m
Visibility: 10 - 40m
Currents: None to very strong
Surface conditions: Mostly calm but can be choppy further from shore
Water temperature: 25 - 29°C
Experience level: Beginner - advanced
Number of dive sites: >30
Distance: 40 km north northeast of Belize City
Access: Ambergris Caye dive resorts
Recommended length of stay: 1 week
• Ambergris Caye travel information
View a map of:
Back to diving in Belize index