Written by: Jaii Fredregill
Destination: Placencia, Belize
Visited: January 2020
Placencia is located in the more relaxed, southern end of Belize; where everything gets done, but at a far less stressful pace than areas with higher tourist traffic. Good food and friendly people are easy to find in this colorful village that has long been a haven for scuba divers and ocean lovers.
Oceanic Manta Ray photographed at Laughing Bird Caye
Much of the scuba diving done from Placencia is done at or near the Belize Barrier Reef. This is the second largest barrier reef in the world, and was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1996. The reef runs from Cancun to the Riviera Maya, and is home to hundreds of species of coral, both hard and soft, as well as around 500 species of fish.
Diving in Placencia can accommodate beginner and advanced divers, though most new divers will probably want to dive on the inner side of the barrier reef. Dive site are quite diverse. We dove for three days and saw everything from macro to large pelagics. Nearby, Gladdin Spit is popular for spotting whale sharks from April to June, and more advanced divers often dive sites like Glovers Reef in the outer reef. Trips to the Great Blue Hole are even available, though it is wise to make these arrangements in advance due to the distance that must be traveled to get there.
The tiny island at Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve
Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve is about a one hour boat ride from Placencia. We dove with Splash Dive Center, so we had a comfortable wait at their shop and left directly from the dock, where they’re boats are moored. The sky was gray that morning. There was a slight drizzle, so we were not sure what to expect as we headed out. Our journey was not without a few bumpy moments in the swells, but we arrived safely beneath blue skies and a steady wind that, of course, was the cause of the chop in the water.
From the boat, we walked a short distance through the shallows to a small island in the marine park surrounded by pelicans, here we received a briefing from the ranger on the do’s and don’ts of diving in the reserve. There is a bathroom on the island, so this is also a nice place for a quick break before and between dives.
Pelicans at Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve
Before long, we were back on the boat gearing up for our first dive at the North Wall. This is a lovely dive with a shallow reef with a wall drop off on one side. Our visibility was not perfect that day. However, visibility in Belize can be up to 30 meters, so even when it is not at its best, divers are typically still able to see at least 10 meters.
Green moray eel
We had around 15 meters of visibility throughout the dive and our maximum depth was 26 meters. Protections in this area are clearly having an effect. This was a lovely and relaxing dive through healthy coral gardens filled with lobster, schooling angelfish, snappers, Nassau groupers, great barracuda, stingrays, and nurse sharks.
Nurse sharks are protected throughout Belize, and are quite comfortable around humans. They were a bit like puppies, following us for the duration of our dive, coming close enough to brush against us, and even swimming between our cameras and whatever we were photographing, to get our attention. Please note that we were not chumming the water, the sharks just like to tag along here.
Nurse Shark at Silk Cayes
This was both adorable and, at times, a little frightening. These amazing sharks are clearly curious and smart, but they are also large and powerful. They are also wild animals and one of the sharks most known to bite people on occasion. We really enjoyed the opportunity to swim with them, but made a point not to touch or follow them, because an action we might believe to be friendly may startle the sharks and be perceived as a threat.
Loggerhead Turtle at Silk Cayes
During our interval, the boat was moored in shallow water, so we were able to snorkel with loggerhead sea turtles and more nurse sharks. The sharks were not as curious in the shallows. They were not aggressive, but because nurse sharks have the ability to move water through their gills while still, they like to rest on the ocean floor, which is what most were doing in the shallows.
On board we were treated to a hardy and delicious lunch, prepared by Mary from Splash, whose sense of humor and excellent cooking always made our day and kept spirits high. Mary’s cooking is certainly one of the perks when diving with Splash.
Gray angelfish swimming solo Silk Cayes
The chop was picking up by our second dive, so we returned to the North Wall to spend more time exploring the reef. As we made our way past the stunning soft and hard corals, we were again visited by nurse sharks. Naturally, we were delighted, but the sharks are not the only life on this reef.
During this second dive we also came across spotted morays, large green morays, cleaner shrimp, banded shrimp and a lot of lobsters. Visibility held out at around 15 meters during this dive, and our maximum depth was 16 meters.
Divemaster Martin with two freshly caught lionfish
On day two we woke up to beautiful blue skies, which was encouraging as everyone boarded the boat and we set out for Pompion Caye, a private island and home to a site called Pompion Wall. It turned out that those sunny shores were not a sign of the day to come, and our ride was a bit bumpy as the skipper maneuvered the boat through the waves.
The plan was to go lionfish hunting. This may seem odd to you if you live near the Indo-Pacific, where lionfish are a healthy part of the ecosystem. However, in the Atlantic Ocean, lionfish are an invasive species with very few predators. No one knows for sure how they were introduced to these waters, except that it was by human error, or stupidity.
Arrow crab at Laughing Bird Caye
Lionfish kill are effective hunters and kill off many other species, which wreaks havoc on the ecosystem, so people hunt and eat lionfish in this part of the world. These fish are certainly sustainable, so many see it as an act of conservation. During our dive hunters managed to kill about 12 lionfish, which were later cleaned and cooked. There is some mastery involved in lionfish butchery, due to their highly venomous spines. Just something to keep in mind should you be considering a hunt of your own.
We returned to the island for our surface interval and some of Mary’s delicious barbecued chicken. Unfortunately, the weather quickly grew stormy so we were forced to call off the second dive and return to Placencia for safety.
Another Manta we had the pleasure of diving with at Laughing Bird Caye
Overnight the rain and the winds stormed through Placencia; by morning we wondered if the boat would be able to take us out for our third and final day of diving. As luck would have it, conditions had actually improved a bit on the water, so we were able to go.
Our dives that day were at Laughing Bird Caye National Park, named for the laughing gulls that were once known to breed here. There was still some mild chop at the surface, but the water was rich with plankton, which attracted a few oceanic manta rays who were feeding just off shore from the park’s tiny island.
Pederson Cleaner Shrimp
Things were calmer below and visibility was still around 15 meters at Spotted Drum even with all of the plankton surrounding us. The mantas took no interest in us, but we were greeted by a curious blacktip shark early in the dive, who made regularly appearances throughout our time here. Our max depth was 27 meters but much of the dive was shallower.
This was a great dive for macro. We saw crabs, blue shrimp, and a banded coral shrimp, just to name a few. We had a good group and enjoyed a nice dive before returning to the island for our surface interval and more of Mary’s amazing barbecue chicken.
From the shore we could see that there were still manta rays feeding nearby, so, of course, we were eager to get back in the water to see if they might take an interest in us during our second dive. We decided to start shallow to try our luck at Coral Garden near where the mantas feeding.
It turned out that luck was indeed on our side that day and we soon found ourselves surrounded by three Oceanic manta rays. They passed us gracefully as they fed on the thick layer of plankton in the water. Mantas are often social creatures, so we stopped in our tracks and hovered, as is standard procedure when interacting with mantas and other aquatic wildlife. I’m sure many reading this have had such opportunities. If you have not, let me explain that we stayed still and did not swim after the mantas, because we did not want to frighten or stress them. Had we chased after them, they would have quickly outswam us and fled the scene.
Yellow stingray at Laughing Bird Caye
As I said before, mantas are social, and if they feel safe they will swim close to check you out. I have even had them brush me with a pectoral fin as they passed by. This being said, it is important for us humans to keep our hands to ourselves, as not to stress or harm animals.
This was an amazing end to our first dive adventure in Placencia, and I honestly cannot wait to go back. This was also a good reminder of why its good to keep a positive attitude even when conditions are not sunny and perfect at the surface. Sometime gray skies stir things up and, boom! Oceanic manta rays.
Divemaster Erick Reyes aboard the Splash boat
We really enjoyed Placencia and diving with Splash. This is a friendly shop, with excellent customer service, operating at the highest professional standards. We were absolutely pampered by Splash. Each morning their driver, Oscar, picked up and drove us to the shop, and each afternoon he drove us back to our hotel.
Between dives we received dry towels, water, fruit and lunch. More importantly, the entire staff was competent, and informed. We were always kept up to date and on schedule, with each dive following the briefing to a tee, and the divemasters pointing out local sealife throughout each dive.
Whale shark season from April to June is the busiest time of year in Placencia.
August-October is the wet season, but visibility and conditions are normally not severely impacted, and some divers believe this to be the best time to dive. The rest of the year is considered dry and weather is mostly sunny with blue skies. However, this is a tropical destination, so an occasional tropical storm or downpour is not unheard of.
The weather was less than perfect during part of our visit but we had great diving. It is up to the individual diver, of course, but when your diving somewhere that considers 15-meters to be low visibility, it’s difficult to be disappointed.