How to Scuba Dive in Belize’s Blue Hole:
The Blue Hole in Belize is as infamous as scuba diving sites get and was recently named one of the 8 wonders of the world. It is said to be a dizzying 408 ft deep and 1000 ft wide. It’s no wonder that many divers and travellers alike cross the world to see the hole from both above and below.
After getting PADI certified in Zanzibar last year, I wanted to ‘get my feet wet’ so to speak, with more diving in one of my dream destinations: Belize. I had always wanted to dive in Belize because it is conveniently situated on the world’s second largest barrier reef so you can imagine the amazing aquatic life one can see while diving.
The blue hole however is on the other end of the diving spectrum: essentially it’s a collapsed cave that turned into a giant sinkhole. Since it’s not a reef dive, don’t expect to see much marine life. The main drive for divers is its crazy depth at 130 ft, the staggering underwater stalagmites and the possibility of seeing reef sharks (and supposedly a lone hammer head that roams the waters) – and of course, the special feat of accomplishment: you are able to tell your friends you dove the blue hole!
Here is all you need to know before planning your dive.
The blue hole is approximately 2.5 hours from San Pedro by boat (one way) and 2 hours from Caye Caulker by boat (also one way). Since it is quite far, dive shops tend to do the trips in large numbers with a minimum of 10 divers per trip. Thankfully I had a full week when we stayed in San Pedro, because our trip was cancelled multiple times due to high winds. Luckily we were finally able to go out on our very last day in Belize.
What to Expect:
Arriving at the blue hole, you will be able to clearly see the color difference between the ‘hole’ itself and the outside water. Once you descend about 20-25 ft you reach a sandy ledge that literally drops off into nothing. It’s like falling into darkness. The guides recommend you to look at the rock wall while descending, otherwise it can be really disorienting and off-putting to stare out into the deep, dark hole.
Once you reach 100 ish ft. you will start to see the huge stalagmites that have been formed over centuries and are still growing!
At 130ft. you can swim through the stalagmites or simply gaze at them in awe. Keep your eyes peeled for passing reef sharks in the hole! We saw a 7 footer off in the distance.
For me personally, diving 90-100ft I was completely coherent and felt fine. Once I hit 130 feet, I felt a bit odd. Suddenly I realized I could feel the immense pressure on my body and began to panic slightly because I didn’t want to go any deeper. In checking my pressure and O2 gauge to see what depth we were at, I realized I couldn’t differentiate between them. It took me a few moments to realize what was happening – I had nitrogen narcosis!!!! My reaction was even caught on camera (and no I won’t be posting that video).
If this happens to you, remain calm and keep breathing. Some people laugh, some people get scared and others don’t feel the effects at all – regardless recognize what is happening and remember that you will feel back to normal once you begin to ascend. Let your buddy know what is going on and stick with them. In my case, within a minute we had already begun our ascent and after only a few meters up I began to feel back to normal.
The slow ascent involves a loop route (you don’t go back the way you came) to the surface. You will eventually make it back up to the sandy ledge area and be rewarded with sunbeams streaming down through the water. There you will take your safety stop. Next is a short ascent up to the surface.
It is important to be aware of the risks and responsibilities of deep diving before attempting this type of dive. Though PADI recommends a max. depth of 18 metres or 60ft for open water certified divers and 30 metres or 100ft for advanced, many (if not all) of the dive operations down in Belize will still take you to the blue hole’s max depth of 130 ft. regardless of your level of training. This is quite a jump for some people and can also be downright dangerous if you do not know what to expect or how your body will react.
Everyone is different and you know your body best – so being prepared by knowing the dive plan, having a dive buddy, knowing how to act if you experience equipment malfunction, nitrogen narcosis or discomfort under water, is incredibly important.
In my experience in the blue hole, we had a group of 13 but not everyone was paired up. Though I had a buddy off the hop, there were quite a few solo divers and there was no mention of people finding a buddy to dive with. This meant the dive master was more responsible to check in with everyone individually versus a buddy system of two people checking in with each other more frequently. This is pertinent in the response of an out-of-air or injured diver situation. If you need an alternate air source or have a cramp or injury, another diver (aka your buddy) may be in closer proximity to you vs. the dive master to respond. If you are a solo traveler on a dive trip, find someone to be your buddy or address it with the dive crew before entering the water.
Once under the water, our large group felt a little chaotic. The entire bottom time for the blue hole is only 8 minutes from the initial descent. So by the time you actually get down to 130ft, you don’t have a whole lot of time down there. Other than relying on your dive masters, it would be completely impossible to track the bottom time from the initial descent without a computer because it literally goes by so fast.
Towards the maximum depth, it became pretty disorienting; eventually everything becomes a blue/grey hue so it’s more difficult to tell the dive master apart from regular divers. Also, if you stared out into the hole instead of focusing on the rock wall on the side, there was a strange feeling of being ‘lost in the abyss’, so some divers without computers in our group required cueing to not drift off and stay at the appropriate depth. If the dive master was not quick to respond, these people could have gone too deep, or ascended too quickly and may have gotten really sick! Since we had a dive computer and knew the dive plan, we could appropriately compensate for these factors.
I would recommend that you don’t simply rely on your dive master, because the diver-to-master ratio can be high in group dive settings such as in the blue hole. A good option is to rent or purchase a dive computer so you can access personalized depth and time ratios and safety stop calculations. We rented a dive computer for the blue hole, and it made such a big difference in my confidence in doing the dive.
I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and even though I got nitrogen narcosis, I would still do it over again. It was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had and I would highly recommend it – just make sure you do it safely!
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