Yesterday, I made one of my life-long dreams come true. I dove the Great Blue Hole, a submarine cave about 45 miles off the coast of Belize. They say after diving it, divers are usually either utterly disappointed or absolutely blown away. I found it absolutely amazing.
The Great Blue Hole is circular, over 1,000 feet (330 meters) across and 400 feet (120 meters) deep. It was formed as a limestone cave system during the last ice age. As the ocean began to rise again, the caves flooded, and the roof collapsed.
To get to the Blue Hole, we booked a diving with the operator Aqua Dives Belize. They offer a $199 per person special now, which was the cheapest deal going, from what I could see. It includes the boat trip out there, breakfast, lunch (on a tiny caye on the same atoll) plus yummy rum punch (after diving), purified drinking water, 3 tanks and weight belts.
(We’d tried Ambergris Divers earlier, and found their staff friendly and competent, but we preferred Aqua Dives and their newer equipment.)
You start out at 5:30am, and make a 3-hour boat ride from Ambergris Caye to Lighthouse Reef. After a total of three dives, they get you back at 5:30pm.
The trip to the Lighthouse Reef, which the Blue Hole is a part of, goes through some rough waters. People were getting sick on the boat, which is always the “fun” part about diving. Isn’t that funny that there is always that one girl who throws up on the way to the reef. (That girl is typically me, but it wasn’t yesterday. I took half a Dramamine, which is not a great idea before diving since it makes you drowsy, but I survived!)
[Here is a question for you. Why is it always girls who get seasick? You never see guys throwing up from fishing boats.]
We parked the boat right in the middle of the Blue Hole. Eight divers with two instructors (one in the front, one in the back) descended with us to the depths of 140 ft (45 meters). As you descend, you see great stalactites which cover the cave. You don’t see a lot of fish. In fact, we only had couple of solitary bull sharks swimming with us, which was way cool.
The sheer drama of swimming among the stalactites makes it almost a religious experience. I caught myself forgetting I was under water. Some people might see the “lack of fish” as boring, but I found it incredible. Never saw anything like that in my life.
This was the deepest dive I have ever done. I, naturally, found the breathing much harder than breathing at, say, 80 feet. The air is denser and you feel like you have to breathe harder.
Since it is a pretty deep dive, I’d heard some people experience nitrogen narcosis, which–using the dive master’s term–means they get a “little crazy.” They have had people taking their masks off at that depths, taking their regulator out of their mouths, wanting to go deeper and deeper, and cut themselves from hugging the stalactites. Obviously, going to the full depth of 400 ft is not possible, but that apparently doesn’t prevent some people from trying. Several people have died diving the Blue Hole (I knew of one of them).
You’re only in the water for about 25 minutes, and down at 130-140 feet for about 8 minutes (due to the depth), but every second was worth it. A sandy ledge slopes down from near the surface, down to about 50 ft. Then, it’s straight down a vertical wall to about 110 ft. Then, you’re in the cave. You swim in and around stalactites that are easily 3 ft or more in diameter, and underneath the old cave’s “ceiling.”
Below you, at about 170 ft, you can see another sandy ledge. It looks so close that you could reach out with your leg and touch it. It’s like you’re swimming in a cathedral, with the stalactites forming statues hanging from the arched ceiling.
It’s magic how you can watch the bubbles ascend the walls, and see the light and wall above you. You can see tiny creatures living on the walls and stalactites. A diving light is not necessary due to the clarity and complete lack of current.
I thought the dive masters did a great job preparing everyone for the dive, repeating all the underwater hand gestures, safety instructions, etc. I was surprised that me and my buddy were the most experienced divers on board, having been certified for only 6 years. The rest of the divers all had less than two years of diving experience. Those are some gutsy people. I don’t think I would have gone down 140 ft with that little experience.
I actually would not recommend the dive to beginners. Not because it’s that difficult (although the depth makes it more technical), but because I don’t think as a beginner, you quite appreciate how special the Blue Hole is. As a beginner, all you want to see is big and colorful stuff – fish and corals. Plus, you should be very relaxed in order to really get the most of it. As an experienced diver, you have seen all those things that beginners want to see– sharks, turtles, eel, lobsters — and seeing something as stark as the Blue Hole is actually quite powerful.