WESTERN CARIBBEAN - Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson

Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)


by Lawson Wood


THE DIVING OFF THE WESTERN CARIBBEAN Barrier Reef is interesting as it covers many atolls, islands and nations. Each group is different. Most have tourism, but there are also undived areas of reef only accessible by live-aboard boat, of which there are several.

Belize changed its name from British Honduras when it gained independence from Great Britain in 1981. Still mainly English speaking, the population is made up of the descendants of slaves first brought to the colony of Jamaica. The principle industry on land is still forestry, sugar cane and oranges and their associated processing plants, while the offshore islands are geared up for fishing and tourism. Located between Mexico to the north and Guatemala and Honduras to the south, the country appears to have been made for diving, with the second-largest barrier reef in the world just a few kilometres (miles) from the mainland and three coral atolls (Turneffe Island Atoll, Lighthouse Reef and Glover’s Reef).



Turneffe Island Atoll is one of the most important biological systems in the Caribbean with lush mangroves, littoral palm forests and pristine coral reefs where the elusive manatee and playful dolphins can be found. Volunteers from Coral Cay Conservation collect scientific data and are working to survey the forests, lagoons and reefs throughout the 350 sq km (135 sq miles) of Turneffe Atoll. This is part of a national drive to establish a management plan for the protection and sustainable use of the atoll’s outstanding biodiversity. Turneffe Atoll is the largest of the three coral atolls in Belize and the only one with an extensive cover of mangrove. There is diving at the southernmost point, The Elbow 1. Shallower dives, more suitable for novices, can be found on the western, more sheltered, shoreline. More challenging dives in tidal surge and currents are found on the southeast corner.

There is an artificial reef to the south of the shallower sites called the Sayonara 2. This former passenger and cargo boat was sunk in 1985 and sits in a maximum depth of 15m (50ft) with a list to starboard. Since it is of wooden construction, it is deteriorating rapidly and exploration inside is discouraged. It is great for invertebrate spotting and there are good gorgonian corals and sponges.


In the Blue Hole at Lighthouse Reef, divers can encounter enormous stalactites at around 50m (165ft), some over 12m (40ft) long.


Scrawled filefish (Aluterus scriptus) are generally fairly wary of divers during the day, but easily approached at night, drifting amid moving sea fans and plumes.


Situated 65km (40 miles) east of Belize City and originally known as the Eastern Reefs, Lighthouse Reef was named after the lighthouse on Half Moon Cay. This reef is the farthest from the mainland and known for its better-than-average underwater visibility. However, what makes this atoll special is the massive natural blue hole in the centre of the lagoon. Forming a near perfect circle, it is 300m (1000ft) in diameter and drops 124m (412ft). It was made famous by a Jacques Cousteau Calypso expedition in 1970. There are two narrow passageways through the very shallow surrounding reef. The shallowest of the internal caverns with stalactites starts at 43m (140ft), dating to when the sea level was 105m (350ft) shallower during the last ice age some 15,000 years ago. Lighthouse reef has excellent stony and gorgonian coral growth, but they are in competition with the much more vigorously growing algae and sponges.


The Caribbean clingfish (Arcos rubiginosus), although rare in other areas of the Caribbean, is found regularly on most night dives at Cayos Cochinos.


White-speckled nudibranch (Pauleo jubatus) can be found from May to September on various species of sea plume.



The Bay Islands off Honduras to the south comprise eight islands and 65 associated cays. There is also superb diving off its three northern islands that form part of the same barrier reef running parallel to the Central American coast. Located 64km (40 miles) north of Honduras, the three main islands are Utila 4 Roatan 5 and Guanaja 6. Cayos Cochinos 8 is closer to the mainland. It has a vertical wall, with the reef crest at 6m (20ft) protecting a shallow coral garden. There are also seamounts (coral islands below the surface), which are always filled with pelagic species such as Ocean Triggerfish.

The Payan Indians, closely related to the Maya, introduced agriculture and traded extensively with neighbouring areas. All this changed when Columbus sailed into Guanaja in 1502 on his fourth voyage of discovery and named the island the Isle of Pines. Much of the local population were enslaved in the ensuing years. The name Honduras translates to something like Deep Sea. The town of Savannah Bight on Guanaja was a notorious pirate lair and Port Royal on Roatan was the scene of a particularly brutal raid in 1792. English settlers reintroduced agriculture, while Scottish shipbuilders and fishermen rebuilt the trade economy. The islands were ceded by the British to Honduras in the late 1800s. The language and customs are gradually changing to Spanish as mainland Hondurans migrate to the islands seeking work and an island way of life.

The abundance of marine life - mainly large groupers, moray eels, jacks, Manta Rays and Whale Sharks, which are becoming rare in other areas of the Caribbean - and underwater visibility of over 30m (100 ft) make it attractive to divers.


A freighter that worked between the inner islands of the western Caribbean, the Jado Trader, was deliberately sunk as an artificial reef in 1987. Now resting on her starboard side near a healthy reef, the wreck lies 2km (1⅔ mile) offshore of southern Guanaja. Resting in 33m (110ft) of water, there are obvious depth and time limitations to diving on her. Largely intact, the ship’s spars, mast and rigging stretch out at right angles to the ship, creating an excellent holdfast for gorgonian corals and long colourful sponges. The masts attract schools of small fish, with small hunting packs of angelfish, parrotfish and wrasse. More sedentary fish such as moray eels are also common. Two huge Green Moray Eels are always seen on the wreck and there are several other smaller species. The entire superstructure, decks and winching equipment are now covered in encrusting algae and sponges; their brilliant colours picked out by the divers’ torches. The underside of the hull is home to lobsters and large, inquisitive grouper.

The wreck is located far offshore and in an area of tidal current, so that there is a higher-than-average presence of marine life. There are always large packs of jacks and barracuda preying on the smaller species of fish.


The 11 small cays of Cayos Cochinos (Hog Islands) are surrounded by a fringing reef and a further barrier reef, offering additional protection to the lush islands. Perfect for wall diving, the inner lagoon has a wide sandy area with sand chutes and coral canyons, all of which converge on the reef crest only 3m (10ft) from the surface. The wall drops near vertically to 36m (120ft) before it starts to slope steeply into the depths where Manta Rays and hammerhead sharks have been seen. As you travel along the wall to the southwest there is a narrow pinnacle that rises from the depths. The channel between the pinnacle and the reef is a mass of deep-water gorgonias, Creole Wrasse and feeding parrotfish.

Off the wall, a Manta Ray may be interested enough to hang around for over 30 minutes, spiralling round the divers, feeding on the rising plankton. The Gorgonian Sea Fans are all of good quality and some of the rope sponges and barrel sponges reach enormous proportions. Flamingo Tongue shells, clingfish and various nudibranchs all make their home on these sea fans and are always a delight to find.



Golden Crinoids (Davidaster rubiginosa) are fairly abundant. Hiding from direct sunlight, they only come out to feed at night.


Colourful sponges are synonymous with the reefs of the western Caribbean and most are host to many different types of marine life, such as these delicate Bulb Tunicates.

The shallower sandy patch and associated reef is perfect for night dives, because the shallowness allows for extended periods of exploration without time penalties. There are giant Channel Clinging Crabs (Mithrax spinosissimus), scorpionfish, spiny lobsters and shrimps of numerous varieties. The edge of the sand patch is also home to toadfish. They use the undersides of coral boulders as sounding boards and their distinctive croaking can be heard over long distances underwater.


The Caribbean coast of Cuba. The beach and deep water jetty at Playa Ancon has facilities for all water sports.


The Atlantic coast of Cuba. One of the earliest areas developed for beach tourism, Varadero’s 20km (12½ miles) of fine white sand is one of the cleanest beaches in the world.