Escaping from the winter doldrums in the Midwest to a tropical location is good for the soul; my soul anyway. How about a trip to the Caribbean for some sunshine and warm temperatures on a remote private little island surrounded by azure waters? I’m all in!
We made a return visit to Isla Marisol on Southwest Caye of Glover’s Reef Atoll in Belize in late February 2020. Southwest Caye sits 36 miles offshore from Dangriga located on the coast of the mainland, south of Belize City. The diving is fantastic with wonderful diversity of marine life, being located in a UN World Heritage Site and Protected Marine Park! This is definitely a remote destination off the beaten track. Cruise ships don’t come by here. The waters and nature are unspoiled. This is what makes this place so special and the diving so amazing. Isla Marisol is probably best suited to outdoors enthusiasts, nature lovers and those with a spirit of adventure who aren’t looking for luxury. Diving, fishing, snorkeling, kayaking and paddling at their finest – that’s what you come here to do. And unplug from the rest of the world. The black night skies are bejeweled with unimaginable stars.
Occasionally in some weather conditions, the boat ride out here may be very choppy and rough and you are likely to get wet during the 90 minute trip on those days. People prone to seasickness need to be prepared. But once you reach Isla Marisol, you will be rewarded with what I consider to be some of the finest diving in the Caribbean, which is why this is a return destination for me. That and the atmosphere of family here; the staff is very welcoming and friendly. The resort is rustic, offering accommodations that include either a beach cabana with covered veranda or an oceanfront reef house. Sit and relax, enjoy morning coffee, read, or simply just watch the birds and gaze out over the azure waters. Meals are delicious and authentically Belizean, with lots of fresh fruit and fresh local, delicious fish.
Over our one week of diving here, we made some truly remarkable sightings, and even a first for me after 35 years of diving! All the dive sites, of which there are many, are within an easy a ten minute boatride. The reefs are remarkably healthy and fishy, which many Caribbean dive destinations can no longer say, due to pollution and overuse. Glover’s Reef is a true gem of the Caribbean. We saw countless species of tropical fish including angels, filefish, triggerfish including ocean triggers, indigo hamlets, groupers, cowfish; schools of bar jacks, creole wrasse, blue tangs, chubs, porgys, yellowtail snappers; lots of lobsters; beautiful corals.
I even spotted this adorable burrfish, which are very shy and not very commonly seen. Its eyes are irridescent!
Some of the big guys we saw include green moray eels, spotted morays, midnight parrotfish, lots of nurse sharks and even a 2-3’ baby nurse shark sleeping hidden under a ledge, several large spotted eagle rays, southern stingrays, king mackerals, barracuda, even some tuna. If you’ve dived other parts of the Caribbean lately, you know that many of these kinds of sightings are becoming rarer.
We were EXTREMELY LUCKY during our week of diving to be surprised with some extra special encounters. During one dive, while our small group of divers was being entertained by a free swimming nurse shark staying close to us, suddenly behind us a pod of Bottlenose dolphins cruised by. Wow – you know that doesn’t happen every day! We hovered for awhile, hoping the pod may come back to play with us, as occasionally dolphins do, but there were two young ones in the pod and it was clear that the larger ones were protecting them as they swam by.
One creature that divers always enjoy seeing on the reef is a turtle, so we were delighted to spot quite a few hawksbill turtles cruising through different dive sites over the course of the week.
What we didn’t expect to spot during one dive was this enormous Loggerhead turtle approaching us. Wow! It swam amongst us as we were able to make eye contact with it, and then it traveled onward. This was a first for me – I have never spotted a Loggerhead turtle on a dive. You don’t realize how big they are until here it is in front of you. This one had two remoras on it- one green and one gray.
Loggerheads are substantially larger than hawksbills and can weigh up to 400 lbs! It can take female Loggerhead turtles up to 30 years to reach sexual maturity in these waters – that is a long time! After mating, they return to the beaches on which they were born to nest and lay eggs. Loggerheads could live up to 70-80 years, however, their expected lifespan is much lower in the wild due to threats including bycatch in fishing gear, intentional killing for their meat or skin (despite protection status), and ingestion of marine plastics. Sea turtles have existed on our planet for the last 100 million years; they are a fundamental link in our marine ecosystems and help to maintain the health of sea grass beds and coral reefs. Unfortunately, their populations are decreasing for those reasons in addition to loss of nesting habitat.
And if this wasn’t enough excitement for the week, we were out on another dive touring along the top of a reef wall at about 60 feet deep, and here out of the blue comes a Whale shark cruising along on the outside edge of the wall. Truly unbelievable! Granted Whale sharks are known to congregate in this region in early spring as they typically navigate through to feed on the rich plankton here. But we were about 4+ weeks early AND this was not a common location to spot them. Truly incredible!!
Whale sharks are listed globally as an endangered species. They are the largest fish and shark (not actually a whale) in the sea but are gentle giants; this one was small at about 25’ long. Their beautiful and unique spot patterns are like fingerprints and allow for unique identification of individuals. Unfortunately, demand for their meat, fins and oil by unregulated fisheries in international markets poses a major threat to this species. To happen upon a Whale shark while diving is an EXTREMELY rare occurrence and we were just SO fortunate to experience the thrill of it! After this trip, we will have LOTS of remarkable stories to share with our diving friends for a long time!
You never know what you may encounter when you’re diving, especially in a healthy reef ecosystem. That’s one of the reasons I keep coming back for more. And I will definitely be visiting Isla Marisol again!
I truly doubt that I will ever again encounter a Whale shark, a pod of dolphins AND a Loggerhead turtle while diving over the course of a single week. But who knows what else I will encounter during my next dive trip? No doubt, there will be stories from that trip to share as well.
Where’s your next diving adventure?