The Amazing Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley
The Belize Barrier Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the second-largest barrier reef in the world after Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Composed of hundreds of beautiful islands and lovely atolls, the Belize Barrier Reef is a mecca for snorkelers and divers due to the clarity of the water and the incredible eco-diversity of marine life that call the reef home.
One of the top diving and snorkeling sites in Belize is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. A protected national park, the Hol Chan Marine Reserve gets its name from the Mayan term for "little channel." This is because the reserve is located on a natural cut in the reef (known as a quebrada) that allows marine life to transit between the inner and outer portion of the reef.
Measuring just 75 feet (23 meters) across and 30 feet (nine meters) deep, this natural passageway in the reef sees an astonishing diversity of marine animals, including sharks and rays that feed on fish transiting the area. The total area of the reserve is approximately three square miles (8 square kilometers) divided into four zones:
· Zone A – The reef itself.
· Zone B – Beds of seagrass.
· Zone C – Mangrove forests.
· Zone D – Shark Ray Alley.
The different zones are well-marked on the surface using buoys. Because the reserve is off-limits to commercial fishing, marine wildlife thrives in this extremely important area of the reef.
Zone D or Shark Ray Alley is the nickname for a particular passageway in the reef where large schools of nurse sharks and stingrays congregate. But because neither of these animals poses a danger to human beings, Shark Ray Alley is one of the most popular diving and snorkeling sites in Belize.
The Hol Chan Marine Reserve is located approximately four miles (6.4 km) south of Ambergris Caye, the largest island in Belize. Because it is easily reachable from San Pedro (the capital of Ambergris Caye), it makes for a popular day trip. A number of private operators operate out of San Pedro and provide guided dive and snorkel trips to the reserve.