The diving off the northern cayes of the Belize is world class, so it didn't take much persuasion for us to book a two-dive trip to the reefs off Ambergris Caye, just to the north of Caye Caulker. Our dive operator chose two of the classic locations off the southeast corner of Ambergris – Esmeralda Canyons and Cypress Canyons – and after waiting for a tropical downpour to clear away, we set off on the 30-minute dash to the reefs off Ambergris.
The local blurb speaks highly of the sites (of course). Esmeralda is 'one of the top dive sites' and 'abounds with tropical fish'; at Cypress, meanwhile, 'schools of yellowtail, gray, black and red snapper swim among these beautiful coral formations'. In the end, though, we were both pretty underwhelmed by the poor state of the coral and the small amount of wildlife. The problem is that we've only just come away from diving in Cozumel, which is in a totally different league to Ambergris; where Cozumel's reefs absolutely teem with life, literally everywhere you look, the reefs in Ambergris look a bit tired and battered, and although there are fish and lobster and the odd ray (which we didn't see, but another group did), they are far fewer in number than in Cozumel, and we couldn't help feeling a little disappointed.
It didn't help that we were sharing the boat with a fairly irritating bunch of divers, who ranged from a total novice on his very first post-qualification dive who seemed to know everything there was to know about diving already, to a bragging Frenchman who proved that diving can be a bit of a twat magnet sometimes (it turned out he lived in Tulum; that made sense). The on-board conversation was an endless one-upmanship of who'd dived the most amazing international dive sites and which one was better than the rest, and Peta and I just exchanged glances and let them get on with it; I'm too grizzled a traveller to get involved in that kind of conversation, so we just looked out to sea while the novice banged on about how amazing the diving was (though he'd never dived anywhere else, so couldn't compare), and the Frenchman puffed up in self-admiration as he talked authoritatively about cenote dives, Polynesia, the Great Barrier Reef, and all the other sites that, yes, I've also dived. The irony is that he'd been in the same group as us on the Ambergris reef, and he'd been the one smashing the reef with his fins in his queue-barging attempts to photograph the coral up close; perhaps that's why the reef round here looks so pre-loved.
There were some good moments, though. On the first dive in Esmeralda, we saw a huge, green moray eel near the start at 21m down, and throughout the rest of the dive we were visited by nurse sharks, who are friendly and harmless but distinctly shark-shaped, so every few minutes I'd glance down and think 'Shark!' before realising that, actually, the world wasn't about to end after all. Peta particularly enjoyed swimming with sharks, as the sights that the guide was pointing out weren't that inspiring; as she said after the dive, if she wanted to see a lobster she could go to any aquarium, but swimming with sharks? That's not something you do every day.
In the second dive in Cypress Canyons, we got to swim single file through an 8m-long and fairly claustrophobic tunnel through the reef which would have freaked me out if I hadn't already quashed that phobia back in the cenotes. But the overall feeling was of a dive site that pales in comparison with Cozumel, and a dive boat full of slightly annoying people who were a little too keen to tell the world about themselves, without first checking whether they had anything interesting to say.
But this isn't the only dive we're planning to do in Belize, so hopefully things will get better...