Shark Ray AlleyHol Chan Marine Reserve
Shark Ray Alley &
Hol Chan Marine Reserve
I was so excited as I knew these are of the best snorkeling spots, not only of Belize but in the world! And what a day it was! I arrived to San Pedro the night before and directly arranged with a dive center to go snorkeling Mexico Rocks and Tres Cocos in the morning and snorkeling with Sharks in Shark Ray Alley (which lies in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve) in the afternoon.
The only hostel in San Pedro, where I slept was a 3 minutes walk away along the beach to the dock from where the boat would depart to Hol Chan Marine Reserve. It was 5 of us on a small boat including the boat driver and dive instructor.
How to get to Hol Chan Marine Reserve
The boat trip from the dock of San Pedro to Hol Chan Marine Reserve was just 10 minutes as it is 4 miles south of San Pedro (and about 8 miles north of Caye Caulker). Trips from San Pedro last about half day (while trips from Caye Caulker last a full day often including a visit to San Pedro).
But before we arrive…first a bit about Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley are the most popular diving/snorkeling sites in all of Belize and one of the best places to go snorkeling and to interact with wildlife in the world. The entire reserve focuses on a cut through the reef which is little more than 25 yards (23 m) wide and 30 feet (9 m) deep about 4 miles southeast of San Pedro. Hol Chan Cut (Mayan for “little channel”) is the name of this small cut on the reef and it has a huge diversity of marine life (fish & corals).
Hol Chan Marine Reserve contains other zones with seagrasses, mangroves and also a zone with very shallow area called Shark Ray Alley where sharks and manta rays gather in large amounts. The water is very transparent here so it’s totally inviting to go for a swim with the sharks and rays or otherwise to take a picture of them.
Don’t worry, the sharks are nurse sharks and real cuties and don’t bite, so it’s all safe. It was still very impressive as many sharks were bigger than me and there were loads!
How much does snorkeling cost in Hol Chan Marine Reserve?
The boat trip and snorkeling in Hol Chan Marine Reserve cost me 50 USD (including 10 USD the entrance fee to the Marine Reserve). Below I am swimming with the sharks.
Where is Hol Chan Marine Reserve?
Hol Chan Marine Reserve is a marine reserve approximately 2 km from Ambergris Caye and 10 km from Caye Caulker, off the coast of Belize. It covers around 18 km² (4,448 acres) of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove forest.
The 4 Zones of Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Hol Chan Marine Reserve is composed of 4 zones that are now protected which are:
Hol Chan Marine Reserve map – Look at the 4 zones
HOL CHAN CUT – Zone A
Hol Chan Cut, is basically an area surrounding a small cut in the reef with lots of corals and fish including large schools of jacks, groupers, snappers and barracuda. You will also see spotted eagle rays swim above the reef and lobsters and eels fill the holes in rocky areas. Most people just stay in this area as you just need a mask and snorkel, it’s safer, the water is more light blue and more fishes.
There is also the option to go outside the barrier reef via Hol Chan Cut with with scuba gear and dive from the bottom of the ocean of the cut in the reef to the slopes down into the Caribbean. Dives can take place at depths from 30 to over 100 foot.
Currents can be too strong to swim against depending on the tide. Whenever snorkeling in Belize and also at Hol Chan, it is essential that you have a good pair of fins and mask.
SEAGRASS BEDS – Zone B
While much less visited, the seagrass beds and mangrove roots of Zones B and C are well worth the visit. I saw stingrays feeding on the bottom, schools of parrot fish and also a manatee feeding in the grass beds. I freedived to it but keeping my 3 meters distance but the dive instructor told me to move away from it. It looked so relaxed. The manatee was huge and he or she was alone.
MANGROVES – Zone C
Within the seagrass zone lies the Boca Ciega cave. The cave is considered dangerous,even by some experienced cave divers, and visibility in the area is generally poor so I did not go. I might do crazy stuff but always with a view!
Finally, while in the seagrass and mangrove zones, keep a keen eye and ear out for passing boats.
SHARK RAY ALLEY – Zone D
Shark-Ray Alley is a shallow sandy-bottomed area with perfect blue water, inside the reef where you can see many nurse sharks and rays. If you want you can just jump off the boat and swim with them. It is really face to face with huge animals. And it has been nominated as one of the seven best “animal dives”.
Why are there so Many Sharks and Rays?
For years, local fishermen cleaned their catch exactly on the spot where Shark Ray Alley is now: just inside the reef, to the south of Hol Chan Cut and Ambergris Caye. The fishermen noticed that their morsels were attracting groups of bottom feeding nurse sharks and rays. The animals recognized that they could come back to the spot for a reliable meal and returned with friends. When the dive operators of San Pedro found out, “Shark-Ray Alley” quickly became a very popular dive site.
By now the sharks and rays hear the dive boats approaching and begin to school in anticipation of bait being thrown into the water like pavlov dogs. When you arrive, you will see the surface boiling with huge rolling sharks and stingray wings as they vie for the scraps that the local dive masters throw at them and that keeps them coming back.
Nurse sharks are known for being a type of shark that is particularly gentle and docile towards humans but remember that these are wild creatures. Even though they know how to be nice to win your charmes to see if you give them some fish, they can also have unpredictable behavior. The best is to leave the touching and feeding to your dive masters and follow their instructions (I touched the shark encouraged/ supervised by the dive instructor) on everything. Enjoy the view from the boat of these amazing animals or swim with them, such an amazing and uncomparable feeling.
What wildlife can you see in Hol Chan Marine Reserve?
Shark Ray Alley has many nurse sharks, rays and other fish, but Hol Chan Marine Reserve is more than Shark Ray Alley. Over 160 species of fish live here along three species of sea turtles and three marine mammals: two types of dolphin and the west Indian manatee. Spotted eagle rays and southern stingrays are common in the bottom while lobsters, moray eels and sea anemones live often among the rocky parts. Jacks, groupers, snappers and barracuda are also very common.
You can also find five species of sponge, two sea grassesand forty types of coral which include brain coral, elkhorn coral and finger coral. The mangrove forests act as nurseries for many fish species such as grunts, snappers, angelfish and seahorses. The seagrass beds have parrotfish, hogfish and turtles and manatees occasionally.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve tour
There are many dive centres offering their services to go to Hol Chan Marine Reserve, both from San Pedro and Caye Caulker. Most of them are very eco-friendly with the small exception that I saw the cleaning the mask with washing liquid, which was not biodegradable.
Check below the Things to Do in Belize, in WATER (swim, snorkel, sail) on LAND (hike, see ruins, caves, nature parks) or in URBAN areas.
Caves Nohoch Che’en
Blue Hole Park
Toledo District (Tiger Cave)
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve
Mayflower Bocawina National Park
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- Maya Ruins
Images – Hol Chan Cut
Hol Chan Cut is a cut in the reef. The shallow area that you see here is inside the reef. It is also possible to snorkel or dive outside the reef where a slope gets deeper into the ocean. Currents are stonger here so more precaution is required when exploring this area.