A Daring Dip with Sharks & Stingrays
Belize lies alongside the second-longest barrier reef in the world, making it an obvious hot spot for all sorts of scuba diving and snorkeling. But the most spine-tingling area to explore is Shark Ray Alley, which is swarming with—you guessed it—sharks and stingrays!
Off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye, Shark Ray Alley is set within Belize’s oldest marine reserve, Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a narrow channel cutting through a rich and well-maintained shallow coral reef. “Hol chan” literally means “little channel” in Mayan. The entire reserve covers only about 7.8 sq. km (3 sq. miles) and is divided into four zones. But there’s a lot to see in this small space.
The nurse sharks and southern stingrays swimming with you in Shark Ray Alley are actually relatively harmless, but it sure doesn’t feel all that way! Even experienced snorkelers get a major rush in the shallow water here. Nurse sharks can reach about 4m (14 ft.) and weigh almost 150kg (330 lb.). The good news is that their diet doesn’t include humans; it primarily consists of crustaceans, mollusks, sea urchins, octopuses, squid, and marine snails. Their relatively small mouths limit the size of their prey, though they can suck food into their large throat cavities.
Southern stingrays have flat, diamond-shaped bodies, which are often grey or brown with white bellies. Their tails are serrated, but not venomous. Like nurse sharks, they’re suction eaters and can vacuum up a whole lot of grub. But they’re generally tame and used to people floating around them. Along with the sharks and stingrays, you might also encounter barracuda, moray eels, and sea turtles, as well as plenty of fish and coral.
A couple of tips: This action-packed reef is an extremely popular snorkeling destination, and deservedly so. To avoid crowds, go in the afternoon when most cruise passengers have left and the light is ideal. Also, as tempting as it is to reach out and touch the rubbery sharks and stingrays, remember that you’re not actually in a petting zoo. Some guides will allow you to gently stroke a shark or stingray, but always do so with caution and only if given a direct invitation. For more information about nurse sharks and conservation efforts in Belize, visit The Nature Conservancy (www.nature.org).
Belize Tourism Board, 64 Regent St., Belize City ( 501/227-2420; www.travelbelize.org).
When to Go: Nov–May.
Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City.
$$ Matachica Beach Resort, 5 miles north of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye ( 501/220-5010; www.matachica.com).