Snorkeling the Hol Chan Barrier Reef and more with Salt Life Eco Tours – Caye Caulker, Belize
One of the biggest draws for our trip to Belize was the opportunity to use our snorkel gear again. I had no idea Belize was home to the second largest barrier reef in the world – the Hol Chan Marine Reserve!
- The name Hol Chan is Mayan for ‘little channel” referencing a cut in the barrier reef where the marine life thrives.
- The marine life in the reserve is very diverse including over 160 species of fish, 40 species of coral, as well as marine mammals and sea turtles. Here is a life of the current census here.
- The reserve is separated into four parts: the mangroves, the reef, the sea-grass beds and Shark Ray Alley.
Picking a tour company proved to be a bit of a challenge. Since we only had one day to complete this activity, we could not wait until we arrived to book it in the event tours were full on the day we needed. We were not here for several days where we could be flexible. Finding a reputable company that allowed for advanced bookings was the tricky part.
- Caveman Snorkel Tours is extremely popular and well reviewed but did not offer tours on Saturdays, which was the day we needed this tour to occur.
- Carlos Snorkel Tours (who our Airbnb hosts recommended when we arrived) also popular and well reviewed but I could not find a way to book ahead of time.
- And that led me to Salt Life Eco Tours which I was so thankful for. Many of the tour groups feed animals at certain spots and Salt Life Eco Tours does not do that which was very important to me – this made them stand out among the others. Not only that, I was able to find them on Airbnb Experiences which allowed me to secure spots on the boat for that day – win win! Salt Life Eco Tours advertises seven stops on their tour which also caught my eye and was the longest tour I could find with the earliest start time, both things I thought would be in our favor.
We arrived at the Salt Life Eco Tour office well before the 9AM start time or check in. We were assigned group 3 and given flippers since we had our own mask and snorkel. And then the waiting started. The time began to pass by 9AM, then 930AM, and 945AM when we were finally given the ok to board. Apparently people that were assigned to our boat were running late and then never showed up which is a bummer since we waited extra time. That being said, it’s hard to say if the tour ever leaves before then since the island is running on island time and that “go slow” mentality.
Luckily the wait gave us time to get to know the other members of our group 3 boat and they were super cool. We got along great which makes these day tours so much more fun – it felt like we had a private boat for the day. Shout out to group 3 for being so awesome. Our guides Charles and Brian were equally fun and playful to keep the day energized and educational.
The morning was extremely windy and chilly which made me nervous for two reasons – 1) sea being rough and my sea sickness going up 2) the water being too darn cold for me to function. I was more nervous than I expected to be starting this day.
Our first stop was just beyond the Split on Caye Caulker to a sinkhole where manatees enjoy grazing and hanging out. Lucky for us, we were able to spot a mom and a calf who came to the surface multiple times for us to observe. It was just enough to catch a glimpse of their noses as they came up for air but it c
- Manatees inspired the image of mermaids.
- They do not leave the water and come up for air every five minutes – which made me wonder how they sleep? They can hold their breath for up to twenty minutes which is the duration of their sleep cycle – crazy! Or maybe they are just the most effective power nappers.
- The lawnmowers of the sea – these guys are herbivores eating the seagrass on the sea floor.
- The closest relative to the manatee is an elephant.
After our manatee spotting, it was time to kick the boat into hyperspeed and power it to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. And it was absolutely freezing which actually distracted me from any sea sickness I may have felt.
We arrived at the Hol Chan Barrier Reef where many other boats were docked to a buoy and you could see the snorkelers in the distance. While I was mustering up the courage on how to get my body into this water, Kevin turned to me exclaiming how warm it is. I almost did not believe him until I felt it for myself – it was like bath water! I immediately relaxed and got ready to jump into the water.
The reef was stunning – there was life everywhere below the surface of the water. If you focused on one area, the movement began to pop. Charles joined us for the dive pointing out different fish and coral as we moved through the reef.
The marine life was so vibrant among the coral! We immediately spotted sea turtles and sting rays. An occasional nurse shark commuted through the reserve. The number of fish was impossible to keep track of – different sizes, shapes, and colors.
It was a long snorkel and I could feel my body starting to feel the bouncing of the waves against it – ever so slight note of sea sickness just from being a buoy in the water. I was the first out of the water for that reason but oh boy, that wind. Getting out was extremely uncomfortable but at least the water was warm. Charles put the canopy down and we all laid out like iguanas. The warmth of the sun was beginning to settle in and I was loving every bit of it.
Our next stop was a conch garden. I sat this one out in hopes of re-centering myself and keeping the sea sickness at bay, which did work. Kevin said the entire bottom of this sea floor was covered in conch shells. It was actually beginning to look like its own reef attracting marine life. Charles dived down to collect a conch – he sat in the corner of the boat working on something that we all continued to guess what on earth he was doing. Here I was making fresh conch ceviche – we hoped tasting that was in our future!
Lunch time was up next and it was exactly what I needed. Food oddly settles my stomach so well and this food was delightful. Stewed chicken, rice, fried plantains, and coleslaw. I don’t even enjoy coleslaw but on this trip I was digging it. This stewed chicken was actually one of the best we had on the trip. The juices were so flavorful! Charles gave us a cooking lesson and the uses of recado in making this Belizan dish. Rum punch was also provided in generous amounts.
The next stop was known as Shark Alley where a large group of nurse sharks hang out. Back in the day, this was the area fisherman would discard the unused portions of fish so the sharks have grown accustomed to expecting a free meal here. Many tour companies feed the sharks in order to attract them to the boat for the snorkelers which has unfortunately caused them to have a Pavlovian effect. When a boat arrives – regardless if it feeds – the sharks come to the boat. So while Salt Life Eco Tour does not feed them, the response is still the same. We jumped in the water and enjoyed swimming with the nurse sharks, fish, and even sting rays.
We moved to a section that had an extremely rough part since there was no coral protection to prevent the waves. This stop featured a shipwreck that has now become a coral area with sea life. Due to the waves, I did not get out here. Kevin described the shipwreck snorkel area as a marine life playground. The port holes and other entry ways into the ship were all open and exposed so you could see directly through into all the layers of marine life. It was the deepest snorkel area of the day so he said he felt very small next to the structure. This was Kevin’s favorite snorkel spot!
The final stop for snorkeling was the Coral Gardens where the waves returned to calm water. This area was quite shallow and full of life. The fish here ranged in sizes, shapes, and colors making each portion of the coral new and unique. Since we were the only boat – as we were at most of the stops – the gardens were so tranquil to snorkel and enjoy the marine life. This was my favorite snorkel spot.
We returned onto the boat and enjoyed freshly cut fruit as a snack while we turned it into hyperspeed for the return to Caye Caulker.
Another stop we made was at tarpon feeding lagoon. These fish are huge – can grow up to 8 feet in length and over 250 pounds. These are famous here as they lounge out of the water for a bite to eat. Normally, people have sardines to feed but in line with Salt Life Eco Tours operations, there was no feeding of the tarpons. Though everyone enjoyed sticking their hands over the water to see if the tarpon would go for it – any many did. We also stopped by and saw a resident saltwater crocodile.
Our final snack – that freshly made conch ceviche that Charles was working on early. So darn delicious! Honestly, why was the food on this tour so great?!
And with that, our day with Salt Life Eco Tour came to an end. What an amazing and jam packed day! I was proud as I was able to swim and snorkel without a floatie – a big accomplishment for me and I was glad the skills I developed in Hawaii stuck around. I was most pleased to have snorkeled in such delightfully warm water! Salt Life Eco Tour and Charles did such a fantastic job – I was so happy we ended up on this tour.
Here is a video highlighting all of the awesome spots on this trip!
What I enjoyed about Salt Life Eco Tours was after the initial stop at Hol Chan Marine Reserve, we were the only boats at the subsequent sections which was really nice. It was such a pleasure to have our small group of five but I am sure that is not always the case. And it was a double pleasure to be with three very cool individuals to have made the day fun. I know there are other tour groups that come recommended but I would say 100% Salt Life Eco Tours was definitely on our recommendation list.