Snorkeling Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley was one of the top five coolest things I’ve ever done. It put Florida to shame. I did chicken out of “truly” experiencing Shark Ray Alley (more on that later) but snorkeling around Hol Chan was like being in an episode of Planet Earth. It’s an amazing experience and can’t-miss part of visiting Belize.
If you’re going to Belize, you’d be a dang fool not to go snorkeling. It’s as natural as slurping down rum drinks and laying in the sun (wear sunblock). But if you’ve never been snorkeling before, or it’s your first time in Belize, you may need a little help knowing what to expect.
How to get there
San Pedro is the most popular destination for Americans going to Belize. It’s the major city on Ambergris Caye (pronounced Key, not Kay) and is the easiest starting point for a snorkel trip to Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley. You can also get there from Caye Caulker, it’s just a bit longer of a boat ride. There are plenty of dive shops on both islands.
Where to book your tour
Our AirBnb host (a former pro diver) booked us a snorkeling trip with Belize Pro Dive Center. They were incredibly professional and our guides were equally fantastic. Getting checked in was a smooth process, and our captain Jason (I can’t remember our other guides name…I’m a jerk) was very safety-conscious. There were two dedicated snorkel guides (including Jason) and one dedicated scuba guide for our group of about 15 snorkers and four divers.
There are two trips each day. Book the morning one since tropical weather can be unpredictable and you’re much more likely to get nice weather. The tour cost $40 per person in 2018 for the 2.5-hour snorkel tour and gear.
What the tour includes
Even though the tour is only two and a half hours, the dive shop staff had plenty of snacks and water on board, which was a nice touch. The tour includes a long stop at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a 10-minute or so ride to Shark Ray Alley where you have a shorter stop, and then back to the dive shop. Again, Belize Pro Dive Center provided all the gear.
On the topic of gear, I would highly recommend swallowing your pride and opting for a life jacket unless you’re a really good swimmer.
You aren’t doing strenuous swimming, but you are swimming and out of the boat for 30 minutes or more. Billy was fine, but I was extremely grateful I had a life jacket on (around my waist #fashion) because I wouldn’t have felt comfortable without it. The snorkel guides also brought a little floating ring for people to hang on to if they got tired.
What you should bring
SUNSCREEN. And then don’t forget to re-apply it a million times. Your back is facing the sun the entire time, but you don’t feel it get hot because you’re in the water. The Belizean sun doesn’t eff around, so don’t be shy! Ideally, use some sunscreen that won’t hurt the coral reef (they sell it at the dive shop). That boat is covered, so you will get a break from the sun when you’re out of the water.
Also bring a towel and flip flops. We decided to bring one of our phones (and then ended up not really taking many pictures) and a bag with one of our wallets in it, too, since we obviously needed a way to pay.
There are benches on the boat that you can put your stuff under, and you don’t need to worry about stuff getting stolen since it’s just a small group of tourists and guides. Still, we didn’t want to bring anything we didn’t have to – it’s much less stressful!
The actual snorkeling
After getting on the boat, you take a 10-minute ride out to the coral reef, so you are out in the open water. But, it’s very shallow and there isn’t a strong current, so it wasn’t intimidating. The water is insanely clear and pretty warm in February. The water temperature was 80 degrees, which I thought would feel like being in a bathtub, but it was still really refreshing! It was definitely warm enough that I didn’t feel cold while still in the water. Plus, you forget about any water temperature concerns once you see the coral reef exploding with marine life. It’s bananas.
One of the reasons I really loved our guides at Belize Pro Dive Center is that they were super knowledgeable about the coral reef and all the animals that lived in it. They were excited to point out different fish to us and did a great job of keeping the group together while also letting us explore a little bit. I’m a total animal nerd, so I was eating up everything our guide was telling us about different types of coral and fish and animals. It was amazing!
However, just know that you won’t be by yourself. All the other dive shops head out around the same time, so there’s lots of other groups. It seemed like the guides all had a good system to rotate around the reef so we weren’t all on top of each other. It only felt annoyingly crowded a few times, but there’s nothing you can do about that and it’s totally worth putting up with for the overall experience.
When we got to Shark Ray Alley, for some reason, the water was pretty murky and much colder even though in all the photos I’ve seen of it, the water is totally clear and beautiful. Maybe we just got unlucky. This was the one time I felt cold in the water and kind of wanted to get back out, but that’s probably more because I was feeling pretty nervous.
Ok so about the nurse sharks
The reason Shark Ray Alley is named as such is because nurse sharks congregate there. Historically, fisherman dumped the leftovers at the end of the day (yum, blood and guts) so the sharks have a Pavlovian response to even just the whir of boat engines.
A lot of people think this is a cool tourist attraction because you can be surrounded by these totally harmless sharks and it’s a ~crazy~ exhilarating wildlife experience. My fear (let’s be honest, it’s a phobia) of large animals in the water is still something I’m working on, so I don’t have a story of persevering and getting past my fears.
My big victory was even just getting in the water when the sharks were in the general vicinity. I let everyone else go on ahead to swim to the boats actually feeding the sharks (not our guides), but I hung back and tried to control my heart rate. Fortunately, this was pretty easy to do since our boat wasn’t actually feeding them. If that had been the case, I would’ve just stayed in the boat and watched from the deck.
One of my friends told me she just told herself over and over again that she wouldn’t be scared if she was in a swarm of puppies. Because of that, she stayed calmed and enjoyed the experience of being in the mix with the sharks. A swarm of anything (even regular fish) in the water freaks me out, no matter whether they are carnivores or vegetarian.
So whether you pretend that sharks are puppies or just sit back and enjoy them from a distance, snorkeling at Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley will be a highlight of your Belizean vacation. Leave a comment if you have questions and have a blast!