'Oooh, are you planning to dive the Blue Hole?' people ask when you tell them you're going diving in Belize.
'What, that massive hole full of deep, dark water and sharks?' I reply. 'Are you kidding? No thanks. I'm much happier diving on nice shallow reefs.'
And that's that. Except things don't always turn out the way you planned, so yeah, we ended up extending our stay in Caye Caulker just to dive Belize's Great Blue Hole, even though that was the last thing we thought would happen when we arrived in paradise. Ah well, all good plans are made to be broken...
The Lure of Lighthouse Reef
The problem is that Belize is supposed to be one of the most amazing diving destinations in the world, but we were really disappointed by our trip to the reefs off Ambergris Caye. It just felt a bit drab compared to the astonishing colour and sea life off Cozumel in Mexico, so we thought we'd book a trip to one of the more distant reefs off Belize, ideally somewhere like Turneffe Island, which has a good reputation, or even Lighthouse Reef, which surrounds the Blue Hole.
The thing is that everyone comes to Belize to dive the Blue Hole, so that's where the focus is. We put our names down for a trip to Turneffe, but when the time came there weren't enough people to justify a boat; on the other hand, that day's Blue Hole trip was fully booked. 'What else do you have?' we asked, and they said we could go out to the local reefs again if we wanted, which we didn't, but that the Blue Hole trip was the only other one that they knew would have enough customers to guarantee. And so we thought about it over dinner and figured that, hey, the Blue Hole trip consists of three dives, only one of which is the Blue Hole, and as the other two dives – Half Moon Wall and the Aquarium, both in Lighthouse Reef – are supposed to be absolutely world class and literally some of the best reef dives on the planet, then perhaps we should do the trip anyway. After all, we could always skip the Blue Hole dive itself, if we didn't fancy deep, dark, shark-infested waters.
So we booked onto the Blue Hole trip for a couple of days later, and settled back to read more about this intriguing dive. And as we read more, and more, and more, it became apparent that, hell, you've got to try it. It might not always be enjoyable and it might not be something you ever want to repeat, but if I could get over my various phobias to conquer cenote diving and come away with some really amazing memories, then surely conquering the daddy of all deep water dives would be worth doing.
After all, the Blue Hole is pretty unique in the dive world. It's a deep dive to the margins of safe no-decompression diving, and it's important to go into it with the right mindset. This isn't paradise diving through a tropical aquarium, it's a descent into the watery bowels of the earth. The Great Blue Hole is a collapsed cave in the middle of the turquoise waters of Lighthouse Reef, forming a perfect 300m-wide circle of dark blue water that's 124m deep and looks for all the world like a menacing black pupil in the middle of a turquoise iris of reef. Its image is the tourist brochure cover for Belize, and it's a national icon; it's OK to go diving in Belize and skip the Blue Hole, but to go to the Blue Hole and not dive it? That would be a little strange.
It's also on every diver's list of dives you must do before you die, which is ironic because people do indeed die here (another reason why we didn't really fancy doing it). A lot of the Blue Hole's appeal to divers is that it's at the limits of safe recreational diving, and at its full depth it's a dive for experienced divers only, specifically those with the Advanced Open Water qualification; Open Water divers like me and Peta can go down to 30m, while advanced divers can go a bit further to 40m, which is as deep as you're supposed to go without specialist equipment. Because it's at the limits of safe diving, the hole has a bit of a reputation, though people who do have accidents here tend to be cave divers going way deeper than recreational divers, or people having heart attacks or suffering from equipment failure, neither of which are issues with the Blue Hole as such. That said, there's definitely a feeling of trepidation for people heading out to the Blue Hole, and it is a deep dive, so the element of danger attracts people from all over the world who are keen to take on the challenge.
So you have to take it slow, and with respect. You can come a cropper here if your equipment is faulty; when you reach 40m, there's still another 84m of water between you and the bottom of the Blue Hole, so if your buoyancy jacket fails to inflate properly, you can end up plummeting down to the bottom, where you will inevitably die. If you choose a dodgy operator who sends groups to the Blue Hole that are too large, then if two people get into difficulties, the guide can help one, but the other might get into trouble unnoticed. And if your buddy and you aren't communicating, then you might not notice that your buddy has succumbed to nitrogen narcosis, which can affect divers at 40m, and which in extreme cases can send you completely do-lally, to the extent where you might think it's a good idea to remove your regulator and try breathing the sea water. If your buddy is keeping an eye on you, then they can head this off by getting you to concentrate on something, like your gauges, which can help focus your mind through the narcosis.
In other words, you don't muck about in the Great Blue Hole. It's safe if you're a safe diver, and dangerous if you're not.
Geology of the Great Blue Hole
For a lot of people, the dive in the Great Blue Hole is the least interesting of the three dives you do on Lighthouse Reef; in fact, it's often a major disappointment. It's dark, it's blue, there's practically no life, and because you get through your air much more quickly at depth, it's a short dive, at around 20 to 25 minutes. But knowing a bit about how the Blue Hole formed makes it all the more impressive, because it isn't just a hole in the sea, it's a geological monster.
Like the cenotes in Mexico, the Blue Hole is a karst-eroded sinkhole; in other words, it started out life millions of years ago as a huge chamber in an underground cave system that was eroded from the limestone by acidic water seeping into the ground ('karst' being the name given to this kind of geological formation). An earthquake caused the cave ceiling to collapse, and at the same time it tilted the ground through an angle of 12°, so the sides of what is now the Blue Hole don't go straight up and down, they form overhangs. Stalactites continued to form after the earthquake, so some stalactites are at an angle of 12° while others are straight up and down, and some even change halfway, with the top part at an angle and the bottom vertical.
Some time after the cave collapsed, the Great Ice Age ended and sea levels slowly rose, flooding the Blue Hole in stages. As a result the sides of the Blue Hole were eroded at different levels at different times, carving shelves and ledges into the sides of the sinkhole. The deeper dive takes you down the overhanging sides of the cave to the top of a cave entrance that's smothered in huge stalactites and stalagmites, and then it's back up again into the light; the shallower dive, which we did, reaches the stalactites at the top of the cave entrance. In both cases the dive is straight up and down, but if you tell yourself that you're in a gargantuan cavern from a prehistoric cave system that was smashed by a massive earthquake and flooded by meltwater from the ice age... well, the scale of it all is slightly more impressive than your average cenote.
As seems to be a theme with our trip so far, the weather had other ideas. We booked onto the dive for the day after next, giving us a day to rest after our trip to the Ambergris reef, and we turned in early the night before, as the boat leaves Caye Caulker at 6am to get to Lighthouse Reef before the other boats. All fired up for the dive in the morning, we lay there unable to believe our ears as the winds started blowing, and then gusting, and then howling through the phone lines, before a huge tropical storm hit and lashed the island with horizontal rain and screaming winds. The rain stopped sometime in the night but the winds kept on blowing, and it was with a heavy heart that we fell out of bed at 5am, packed up for the dive and plodded down to the dive shop, where we knew they'd simply turn us around and say sorry, no, this is just too dangerous to go out in. And that's exactly what they did, so we went back to bed, helpless in the face of the tail end of this particularly persistent hurricane season.
By this time we'd got ourselves pretty excited about the prospect of diving the Blue Hole, so after a few hours sleep and a leisurely breakfast, we decided it would be worth extending our stay by a day to go on the next Blue Hole trip, which was scheduled for two days later. The winds died down and the sun eventually poked through the clouds, and we spent the day walking to the southern tip of the caye and back, along churned-up paths that went past the hotels in the southern part of the town, before skirting the edge of the airstrip and passing a number of lonely-looking houses that had seen better days. It felt a bit spooky down the southern end of Caye Caulker, I have to say; the theme from Deliverance kept going through my mind as we stumbled across houses that looked abandoned, unloved and, in quite a few cases, unfinished. The paradise dream doesn't always turn out as you planned, and anyone considering building a luxury holiday home on a remote Carribean island would do well to visit southern Caye Caulker on the day after a tropical storm. Paradise, it ain't.
So that night, for the second time, we went down to the dive shop to set up our equipment, and the weather seemed to be cooperating this time. Imagine how we felt, then, as the winds picked up during the night, howling a gale all the way through to the morning, when the alarm went off at 5am and I knew, for a fact, that they were going to cancel again and we weren't going to be able to dive the Blue Hole after all. 'What a let down,' I thought as we bent our way through the winds to discover that... bloody hell, they were planning to go. Really, in this wind?
'It should clear up later,' they said, and a bit dazed after a night of lying there and assuming that we'd simply have another day to kill, we found ourselves bouncing through the surf, on the way to Lighthouse Reef.
Diving the Great Blue Hole
The journey out there was hell. The boat smashed through the swell, soaking those of us who sat at the back in an attempt to stave off seasickness, and by the time we pulled into Lighthouse Reef, some two hours later, I was shivering. Shivering? In the tropics? None of us on the boat could quite believe it, but yes, we were all absolutely freezing as the driving winds chilled us to the bone.
Despite the early hour, it was a blessed relief to get into the water, which was warm and tropical and Caribbean, even though the skies were cloudy and the water wasn't the pretty azure blue you see in the brochures. But the Blue Hole was obviously a lot bluer than its surroundings, and from the boat we could see the perfectly round edge of the reef that surrounds the hole, so we still knew we were somewhere special.
I wasn't expecting it, but when I jumped off the dive boat in the middle of what I thought was the Blue Hole, the water was quite shallow. Inside the 300m-wide circle of coral the sides gently slope towards the middle of the circle, like a huge funnel, and then suddenly, wham! At about 15m down the sandy slope suddenly ends and drops vertically down into a huge blue hole of nothingness. Unfortunately for us the storm had whipped up the surrounding seas and there was a fair amount of silt floating around in the water, so the visibility wasn't as clear as it normally is, but the immensity of the deep blue chasm under our feet was impressive. As I floated off the edge of the lip and out into nothingness, it felt a bit like the first time I bungee jumped, but instead of the world rushing past me in a calamity of falling, I just hovered there, slowly drifting down the outer wall, which I kept in front of me to avoid getting disorientated.
The outer wall is, frankly, a bit spooky. After the coral reef at the top, it's relatively dead, though not completely; I felt I was slowly sinking down into the oesophagus of some immense sea creature, with its ridges and bumps and slightly furry algae growths swaying in the gentle current. After the battering of the boat trip, the dark blue was incredibly quiet and tranquil, eerie even, as we descended to 24m before checking that everyone was OK. We then dropped to 30m and swam around a huge stalactite hanging off the sloping sides of the cave, before gently floating into the deep blue away from the sides.
Unfortunately there weren't any sharks when we did our dive; they tend to go deeper when the weather isn't so pleasant, and with the visibility being fairly mediocre, it was hard to look deeper into the hole to see if they were there. Nobody got any nitrogen narcosis either, which was disappointing for some of the deeper divers, who'd really fancied knowing what all the fuss was about; in the end it was a fairly uneventful dive, but for me, with my ingrained fear of deep, dark water, it was an exercise in slightly wide-eyed wonder at the fact that I was doing it at all. Amazingly I didn't guzzle my air, unlike one of the other divers, who ran so low on air that he had to buddy-breathe the dive master's air on his safety stop; I coped fine, and for me, that was the truly immense thing about the Blue Hole.
Though I have to say that diving into a pitch black cenote with rock above your head, a failing torch and a grumpy Italian dive master... well, that's a hell of a lot scarier than a deep hole in the middle of the sea. I'm just impressed that I can compare the two dives from my own experience; I never thought that I'd be be able to do that.
Diving in Lighthouse Reef
The weather didn't only make the journey to the Blue Hole hell, not to mention scaring away the sharks and silting up the visibility, but it also screwed up the diving at Half Moon Wall and the Aquarium, the other two sites that we were due to dive. The original plan had the second dive straight after the Blue Hole, after which we would tie up at Half Moon Caye Natural Monument for lunch, and then head out for the third dive before returning home. Instead, the team decided to wait a bit for the second dive to see if the visibility would improve, so we dropped anchor at Half Moon Caye after the first dive, and waited to see how things panned out.
Even though the wind was blowing a gale and all the palm trees on this small caye were bent double in the wind, it was a charming stop, not least because the small forest provided shelter and – ahh, that's better! – some respite from the constant gale. Half Moon Caye is also home to a bird sanctuary and a lookout post from where you can see flocks of red-footed boobies nesting in the tops of the ziricote trees; these birds spend most of their lives at sea and only come to land to breed, so this is a rare opportunity to see the birds up close. However, to an ornithological philistine like me, the frigate birds are much more impressive, with their huge, puffy red gular pouches that they inflate to impressive sizes during courtship. Even if you're not a bird lover, the lookout is a great vantage point, though as it can only hold eight people at a time, you can't spend all day there, even if it is wonderfully sheltered up there in the canopy.
But eventually we had to get back to the boat for the second and third dives, which were now going to be at Long Caye Wall and the Lion's Den, on the leeward side of the reef where the atoll had protected the coral from the main swell. The second dive was good, and compared to the rather sad reefs off Ambergris Caye there was plenty of life and lots of coral. It still didn't quite compare to Cozumel, but it isn't really fair to compare them directly, as the sun shone on calm seas in Cozumel, while we had dark skies and ocean swells at Lighthouse Reef. This was followed by lunch on the boat just outside the Half Moon reef, where the winds spun us round in circles as we ate tepid chicken curry and drank sugary pop. I hate eating on pitching boats, and by the third dive I was struggling to see the funny side. I also found that, after a couple of reef dives of 45 minutes and 50 minutes, I was getting a little bored; yes, more coral, and yes, more fish, and yes, look, there's a lobster, and yes, OK, a drummer fish. But I'm getting cold, my eyes are starting to sting from the salt, I'm getting tired, it's pretty dark down here, and we've got a bloody long boat ride back again after this, which is going to suck. I wasn't miserable, but I was having to try hard to stay interested, which says it all, really.
On the way back to Caye Caulker, I just spent every available moment staring at the horizon while the other divers merrily talked about where they'd travelled, where they'd dived, what they were going to do next, and plenty of other smalltalk that I couldn't even focus on. And the journey back, which was longer and bumpier as this time we were heading into the wind, even managed to drain the younger and more vigorous members of the team, who were all looking totally worn out by the time we docked.
So, that was the Great Blue Hole. I wasn't expecting it, because most people don't seem to feel this way, but for me the dive in the Blue Hole was by far and away the highlight of the whole day. It was 25 minutes of floating around in the deep blue of space, not seeing any life, not seeing any sharks, just seeing the odd stalactite and precious little else... but for some reason that's the memory that will stay with me, rather than the freezing winds, the dreadful swell, the mediocre visibility and the slightly underwhelming reef diving. Funny, that.