Once, the only tourists who came to Belize were fishermen who came to catch sport fish like permit and the giant "silver king" or tarpon. The most famous of these fishermen was probably Zane Grey, the Western novel writer, but the one most revered around here is Baron Bliss, who died just a few weeks after arriving. Something of an eccentric, he left a fortune to the little country and is still commemorated with a national holiday in his honour. Long after the fishermen arrived, recreational divers started to take notice of Belize, mostly because of its barrier reef, second only in size to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the existence here of three of the only four coral atolls in the Western hemisphere, and oddities such as the Great Blue Hole, a perfectly circular hole in one of the atolls, 400 feet deep and just over a thousand feet in diameter. Finally, eco-tourists have arrived, interested not only in Belize's underwater wealth, but also in its bird life and the animal and plant life of its jungles.
The SCUBA diving and snorkelling here is definitely worth making a trip for, with excellent water clarity and a wide variety of fish and invertebrate life. The government has set aside a number of marine reserves to protect these resources, while still making them available for viewing. Perhaps the most accessible location is the Hol Chan marine reserve, only 15 minutes by boat from the tourist centre of San Pedro, near the northern border between Belize and Mexico. The edge of the reef is very close to the shore here, and the presence of a deep cut in the reef makes this a natural place for large fish to congregate, as well as the usual assortment of triggerfish, angelfish and butterflyfish. Very nearby is Shark and Stingray Alley, where you can snorkel around in 8 feet of water while stingrays, nurse sharks and other fish you might not want to meet jostle around you.
Snorkelling trips are also available to the area north of San Pedro, where you can find large coral heads within the shelter of the reef. There are not as many fish as at Hol Chan, but there's plenty of interesting and colourful invertebrate life like corals, sponges, anemones and shells like the beautiful flamingo tongues.
I also took an overnight trip out to Half Moon Caye, a small sand island within Lighthouse Reef, one of Belize's coral atolls. The caye is inhabited by a nesting colony of red-footed boobies, one of only two in the world whose inhabitants have white plumage instead of brown. The colony is also a nesting area for magnificent frigatebirds, who torment the boobies and other marine birds by swooping on them in flight and stealing their fish. The male frigatebirds have large brilliant red pouches on their necks which they inflate to impress females.
In addition to the birds and iguanas which inhabit Half Moon Caye, the waters around the caye are filled with small fish that look like they belong in an aquarium, as well as various other interesting fish doing interesting things, like the cleaner fish which keep parasites away from their clients, and long trumpetfish hanging vertically in the water like plants or sea whips, waiting to ambush small unsuspecting prey which haven't seen them. Lighthouse Reef is also the location of the Great Blue Hole. A storm turned the overnight trip into a two day trip, and it was a pretty wild ride through high seas to the hole. The storm meant that the water visibility wasn't perfect, but it was still a lot better than many of the places I've snorkelled around the world. While the scuba divers dived down to the caves and stalactities 130 feet down the vertical wall, I snorkelled around the coral wall which almost completely encircles the hole, with a curious barracuda (actually, the one you see in the "main underwater page" icon at the bottom of this page) shadowing me, perhaps attracted by the shiny metal on my camera. A queen angelfish and various other denizens made this a worthwhile trip for me.