Great Fishwatching Locations

Belize – Hol Chan Marine Reserve

From Chapter 25: “My first dive into Belize’s Hol Chan Marine Reserve was a revelation. The reserve straddled a channel through the barrier reef, connecting lagoon with open Caribbean. Thick schools of snappers and grunts swirled below as I descended toward the channel. Three barrel-chested groupers, each over a metre long, split off from the reef to lose themselves in the seagrass carpet of the lagoon. Resting groups of fish packed every ledge, cave and overhang, and drifted back and forth over coral heads with the passing swells. Moray eels two metres long and thicker than my thigh snaked across the sandy channel bottom. It seemed impossible, but as I swam into the channel, the density of fish grew. Before long there were more fish than reef and the cliffs appeared as living flesh, a moving scaled mosaic of every hue. A group of discus-shaped batfish hove into view above my head, silhouetted against the light. Streamlined barracuda hung beneath the ceiling of the surface, almost disappearing into the background as their mirror scales assumed its flickering blue. Thick lipped black grunts jostled for position where the channel opened to the outer reef. In the deepening blue beyond, a patrolling shark passed in silence, its eye fixed upon me.

Image of Grunts

It was 1991 and I was a year into a new research project studying the effects of marine reserves on life in the sea. Marine reserves are places that are protected from all fishing. Finding study sites had been hard, since there were few such reserves in the world at that time and many of them existed only on paper, their protection never enforced. At Hol Chan park wardens had closely guarded the reserve for four years by the time I dived there. Compared with other Caribbean reefs I had seen, this bubbled over with life. The reserve occupied a section of reef sixteen hundred metres square. In the channel, fish densities were six to ten times greater than in areas outside the reserve, and were among the highest documented for any coral reef. Numbers thinned toward the reserve’s edges, but remained fifty percent higher than found on nearby unprotected reefs. It set me thinking that if fishing could so reduce the abundance of fish it was a powerful force indeed. But just as important, this reserve demonstrated that protection could soon breathe life back into a reef.”

The Hol Chan Marine reserve is a short boat ride from hotels and resorts at Ambergris Cay.