I was thrilled to escape the cold winter temperatures to lead Oceanic Society’s Belize: Snorkeling and Coral Reef Ecology Expedition at Turneffe Atoll in February. We had a wonderful experience snorkeling in this tropical paradise!
The expedition began with a fun, 90-minute boat ride from the mainland to the northern end of Blackbird Caye, an island located on the eastern side of Turneffe Atoll. The boat ride doubles as a sightseeing cruise with beautiful scenery above and below the water, and the possibility to see dolphins, seabirds, Antillean manatees, American crocodiles, and loggerhead turtles. During the ride we passed nearshore cayes (small sandy islands) that were once hideouts for the infamous pirate Blackbeard. We also crossed the Mesoamerican Reef system, the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, and zigzagged through open lagoons and narrow, mangrove-lined channels. We arrived at Turneffe Flats Lodge and were welcomed with drinks, a delicious meal, and a beautiful, starry night sky.
Over the next six days we spent 4-5 hours per day in the water, visiting several sites around Turneffe Atoll. Morning and afternoon snorkel sites varied between shallow water reefs and sand flats, and we saw vibrant, healthy corals and an assortment of colorful reef wildlife. Our evenings were spent relaxing at the resort, with talks and presentations on fish identification and coral reef ecology.
The diversity and beauty of the coral reefs at Turneffe Atoll was incredible! The different species of corals and sponges came in a rainbow of colors, including purple, orange, and yellow. The reefs resembled a bustling metropolis with residents such as yellow-lined arrow crabs, black spiny sea urchins, Caribbean spiny lobsters, sea anemones, and various sea stars. Darting around the corals and sponges were many species of reef fish, including French grunts, fairy basslets, speckled yellow-tailed damselfish, queen parrotfish, and pairs of four-eye butterflyfish, who are mates for life! We were also thrilled to see other reef associated species like large spotted eagle rays, nurse sharks, and green moray eels.
Even from the surface we could hear the hum of the male white-spotted toadfish, who use their swim bladders to “sing” to attract mates. Diving down below the surface brought us face to face with these speckled singers, whose heads could be seen poking out of the coral crevices.
One highlight of the trip was a visit to the Great Blue Hole, which lies inside of Lighthouse Reef. The Great Blue Hole is a giant circular underwater sinkhole, which measures 984 feet across and 410 feet deep! This incredible geologic wonder was once a cave, which flooded and collapsed after melting glaciers caused sea levels to rise tens of thousands of years ago. The hole was made famous in the 1970s by Jacques Cousteau, who explored the dark abyss and documented its deep-water species and impressive stalactites and stalagmites. We snorkeled around the outer rim and saw an abundance of colorful corals, schools of fish, stingrays, and nurse sharks.
Turneffe Atoll and its wildlife were the perfect hosts, and we hope you will join us on our next trip to this Caribbean oasis.
Justin Willig is the coordinator of our conservation travel programs. He has an extensive background in marine ecology and policy, and is passionate about protecting species and reefs around the world. Justin is an avid snorkeler and scuba diver, and holds a B.S. in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences from the University of Washington, and a M.A. in Marine Affairs from the University of Rhode Island.