Swim among manta rays and nurse sharks at Shark Ray Alley. // © 2017 Creative Commons user alancox
Feature image (above): Hol Chan Marine Reserve // © 2017 Olivera Rusu Photography
I was about to embark on a trip to Belize’s Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which is host to some of the Caribbean’s most legendary snorkeling spots, including the menacing-sounding Shark Ray Alley. And I was panicking.
But the kind folks at Las Terrazas Resort, my Belizean hideaway on Ambergris Caye, assured us that we would only be “rubbing fins” with nicer, more docile nurse sharks. Plus, Hol Chan snorkeling tours generally don’t make you walk the plank into shark-infested waters right away; the friendly, easygoing tour guides are often considerate enough to let you test the waters first.
Our first stop was the park’s Coral Reef Zone, prime real estate for snorkeling and scuba adventures. Sizable schools of silver and multicolored fish — from the tiniest gobies and parrotfish to groupers and snappers — swarm its relatively calm waters. There are also bug-eyed barracudas, majestic stingrays and GoPro-curious green moray eels; it’s next to impossible not to be rewarded with an unforgettable encounter.
Yet, it isn’t just gill-bearing denizens that impress. Carpets of corals, made up of different varieties and colors, bloom here like meadows in the springtime, making this section of the park extremely photogenic.
Once we snorkeled to our heart’s content, we headed for Shark Ray Alley, the second and last stop for most tours. This shallow zone is exactly what its name implies: It’s a section in the park where nurse sharks and stingrays have perennially congregated, borne out of local fishermen habitually cleaning their day’s catch past the reef. Here, clients don’t just see 10 or so sharks and stingrays, but a large number that constantly swim around.
Despite my preconceived fear, I jumped in — and I’m glad I did. Sure, it sometimes felt a little touristy, and the waters were crowded, too, with other snorkelers. The sharks seemed to be used to humans, which some might believe to be slightly inauthentic. But it was amazing nonetheless and one of the few times I’ve come closest to truly witnessing nature’s many wonders.
There are many tour operators on Ambergris Caye that host snorkeling trips to Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Guests at Las Terrazas Resorts, however, have the convenience of booking a smaller, more intimate tour at the resort’s on-site watersports hut, White Sands Dive Hut.