While in Caye Caulker, we took a full day trip out to Lighthouse reef which is the furthest component of the Belize Barrier Reef from the mainland. On the way, we went through Turneffe Atoll, one of the very few atolls in the Western hemisphere. The northern bit of Turneffe consists of a scattering of low lying islands like this one. A few are inhabited, and there are some campgrounds as well.
The primary attraction at Lighthouse Reef is the Blue Hole. It is remarkable from the air, even at relatively high altitudes but it really became famous when Jacques Costeau explored it in detail. It's worth a google search for aerial images of it. From sea level, it looks like this. The curving wall of coral can be seen stretching away in this picture. Costeau discovered that the blue hole was formerly a huge underwater cave. The ceiling collapsed and left the almost perfectly round wall.
The blue hole doesn't have particularly clear water by Belize standards. The outer rim can be snorkeled from a distance. Most dive expeditions only cover the upper parts of the round wall descending into the main cave system.
The drop-off from the gently sloping rim to a pit that has no apparent bottom is impressive.
There are some huge schools of large fish in the blue hole, and that means there are also sharks. Above or below, it's an eerie experience seeing shark shadows drifting by at the edge of vision.
The bulk of Lighthouse Reef is a shallow bay of brilliant turquoise water. Waves break along the reef walls at the outer edges, and there are dozens of shipwrecks like this one.
Half Moon Caye is probably the real highlight of Lighthouse Reef. The waters here have incredible clarity. Snorkeling is spectacular just about anywhere off the island and there's a huge diversity of sea-life.
The waters are clear enough that if you take enough pictures, some of them will (eventually) turn out pretty good. This is a Queen Triggerfish.
We've seen cuttlefish while snorkeling before in a variety of Caribbean locations, but this is probably the best picture we've managed so far. They're practically transparent and we almost always find them in pairs, swimming in parallel a few feet apart.
There's no scale in this photo but this spiny lobster was about 2 feet (60 cm) long.
Half Moon Caye is swarming with parrotfish, including the impressive looking midnight parrotfish. This one is a stoplight parrotfish with a bluehead wrasse nearby. If you're wondering how we know all this, it's because we spent some time almost every evening in Caye Caulker flipping through the Audubon guide to tropical fishes to figure out what we'd seen that day.
That book doesn't cover varieties of coral so we're not going to bother trying to identify all the types in this frame. It's a nice colorful underwater scene though.
On land, Halfmoon is a truly idyllic place. Soft white sand beaches surround the island. There is a campground located on the island which seems like it would be a fantastic place to spend a few days. The island is visited regularly by day-tripping dive boats. Our boat stopped here for lunch, as did at least one other.
One the west end of the island is a red-footed booby rookery. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of the birds. A trail leads through the trees towards them. You'll hear them long before you see them. There is a metal viewing platform that can be climbed for a good view of the birds. We stress the 'metal' part, because if you're wandering around the island (or the whole country) barefoot, a metal platform that's been out in the sun all day is no place to stand for very long. This is possibly the only reason in coastal Belize to bring footwear.
Boobies were named by sailors for being too stupid to have any fear of humans. These boobies are protected, but they definitely have no fear of people. They are rather curious, and it's an unusual experience to have birds clustering closer around you to watch rather than flying away. The young birds (like this one) don't have the namesake red feet yet, but they're still on the inquisitive side.
Our final stop in Lighthouse Reef was Long Caye which isn't quite as scenic as Half Moon, but isn't a bad place to spend some time. The waters off of Long Caye are much deeper as well. That's not necessarily a bad thing though as there are bigger schools of fish around. We saw several stingrays here, a hammerhead shark and a whole lot of fish.