THE RADIO OVERHEARD in a taxi on the way to Miami airport gave the first warning of an unusually early tropical storm heading towards Belize.
As a celebration trip for my daughter, Camilla, who had just passed some major exams, we had planned a two-centre trip to Belize, first to Dangriga for the whale sharks, the second to Ambergris Caye to dive the famous Blue Hole.
We hoped to coincide with the whale-shark aggregations that can occur at Gladden Spit about five days after a full moon in April, May and June. We were to spend five days at Almond Beach Resort and Jaguar Reserve Hotel in Hopkins, near Dangriga, then a week at Ambergris Caye, a small tropical island off the mainland.
Unfortunately the storm grounded us for the first three days. A major football competition was monopolising the few TV stations obtainable, so the wonderful spa at the hotel got our full attention.
The go-ahead to dive was issued on the fourth day. Heading out early, we spent 90 minutes in fairly stormy seas reaching Gladden Spit. There we kitted up on a strongly rocking boat and were glad to jump into the sea.
We descended in the blue to 30m where, with visibility down to 10m, we stuck close to the dive-guide.
Swimming around in very green, soupy seas, with no reference-point except our guide, was disorientating. Our eyes were strained on stalks as we tried to spot a whale shark.
We would chase after the guide, who would suddenly turn and head in the opposite direction. Shadows appearing on the periphery of our vision, which we were sure were whale sharks, turned out to be nothing more than optical illusions.

AFTER AN HOUR’S surface interval, with sea-sickness raging around the boat, we jumped back into the water, and spent another 40 minutes searching the darkness for any sign of a tail or fin. No luck again.
Back in Hopkins, all the divers on the boat agreed about how pleased they were to be back on dry land.
A new day, another try? Sadly, the conditions on our final diving day in Hopkins, had not improved, and the dives were cancelled. The whale sharks would have to wait for a return visit.
So it was onwards to Ambergris Caye, a 40-minute flight from Dangriga to Belize City, then a 30-minute flight in a tiny plane across ocean spotted with small, round tropical islands.
The bustling island life of Ambergris seemed a different world from the rainforest-surrounded tiny village of Hopkins. No more green seas – a beautiful clear turquoise gave us a boost on the diver-contentment scale.
Getting around the small caye was easy using petrol-driven golf-carts, hired at a small cost. These seem to be the island’s main mode of transport, and even the locals drive them.
The town was a five-minute drive from our hotel Victoria House, and with plenty of restaurants and shops it buzzed with life.
We started with a check-dive inside the world’s second-largest barrier reef at Hol Chan. There is a channel through which the water rushes in or out, at high or low tide. Boats anchor in a white-sand patch at around 5m, and divers enter the water and swim towards the reef to 12m.
At slack tide the channel is a beautiful dive-site containing a huge variety of fish – horseye jack, snapper of many kinds, barracuda, nurse sharks, huge rainbow parrotfish and goliath and Nassau grouper.
Because of the tropical storm, the dive was still quite surgey and in a fairly strong current. Visibility was good, however, at 15-20m, but improved with the weather so that by the end of the week it was up to 20-25m.
With bright sunlight and blue skies clearly visible through the surface, Hol Chan was quite a contrast to Dangriga.
At the end of the dive in the shallows near the boat, seagrass fronds swayed gently in the slackening surge.
Baby turtles and nurse sharks shared this playground, seemingly oblivious to each other as they snuffled out prey in the soft sand.
After a lovely surface interval spent snorkelling we completed a second dive in a more protected area of Hol Chan, at Shark Ray Alley. A very lazy rainbow parrotfish was lying on the sand by some soft coral, and it seemed to take a great effort for it even to follow me with its eyes as I photographed it.
At the end of the day, before the dive-boats leave, it is customary to feed the nurse sharks. Each boat-crew hangs a fish-head on a line. The divers get in the water with their masks and snorkels and watch as a maelstrom of nurses, best-known for their sleepy and lazy nature, feed in a frenzy.
Horseye jack dart in and out, trying to steal titbits. Fingers have to be watched, because they’re none too fussy.

DIVES OUTSIDE THE BARRIER reef are generally wall-diving, with beautiful topography, large schools of fish and hunting predators. Pinnacles is one beautiful site, the coral features that provide the name resplendent in colour and teeming with fish-life.
Hol Chan Canyon is another beautiful site with large, sandy-bottomed canyons hiding sting rays and sleeping nurse sharks. Friendly grouper and snapper follow divers around, waiting for the divemasters to catch and kill lionfish, unwelcome visitors to the region in that they kill off endemic species.
Divemasters are encouraged to locate these pests and are rewarded by the authorities for the most killed, all part of the bid to stop them breeding and proliferating in the Caribbean.
We had pre-booked our trip to the Great Blue Hole, one of those sites on many divers’ wish-lists. A perfect circle, this underwater sinkhole 45 miles from the mainland is one of the world’s most famous sites.
We were picked up from the Victoria House jetty at 5.30am for the journey out to Lighthouse Reef. The sun rose over a flat-calm sea – the storm had finally abated, leaving us with cornflower-blue skies, clear blue ocean and a relaxing 150-minute ride to the site.
With the weather so good we were able to spot the Blue Hole from a fair distance away. For the last half-hour of the journey excitement mounted as the azure circle surrounded by clear turquoise grew bigger.
We pulled into the small channel that marks the entrance to the hole, and were astounded by this natural phenomenon.
The Blue Hole is not a dive for the faint-hearted. We would drop over the side onto the top of the wall at 5m, then proceed vertically straight down to 42m and the opening of a large cave. We would be able to weave between the stalagmites and stalactites for eight minutes before making our way to the top of the wall for a long safety stop.
There was excitement and apprehension. As we dropped in, gazed into the chasm and then started our descent, grey, Caribbean reef and blacktip reef sharks came from the depths to greet us.
The lack of fish and the sheer sides of the hole added an eeriness to the dive.
We entered the cavern and wound our way through the massive limestone formations, absorbed in the wonder of nature. Far too early, our deco limit reached, we ascended towards the lip of the sinkhole.
Our safety stop was conveniently placed at the top of the wall, under the boat at 5m, so we could swim around freely and look into nooks and crannies, eyeball grouper and watch the reef sharks watching us until our air ran out.
Our next dive was at Half Moon Caye, a lovely easy dive down to 20m, with a sandy slope and very nice coral bommies teeming with fish. Several green turtles lazily swam over the reef as two eagle rays hovered in the blue.
After a picnic stop on the deserted island Half Moon Caye, our last dive of the day was at Aquarium back on Lighthouse Reef, where rays, turtles and reef sharks joined in on the party.
Sleepy, sated and with huge smiles on our faces as the sun set on the long journey back to Ambergris Caye, we reflected that this had been one of the most memorable and wonderful individual day’s diving we had ever experienced.

FACTFILE GETTING THERE: Lisa travelled to Belize City via Miami with American Airlines, then with Tropic Air from Dangriga to Ambergris Cay and on to Belize City, although there are various flights from major US gateway cities.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Almond Beach Resort and Jaguar Reserve in Hopkins, which offers jungle excursions as well as diving, www.almond beachbelize.com; Victoria House at Ambergris Caye, www.victoria-house.com
WHEN TO GO: Belize has a dry (high) season Dec-April and a rainy (low) season May-Nov, with heaviest rain June-Sept and hurricane season Aug-Oct. Water temperatures 26-28°. Diving is year-round with vis up to 30m but reduced in the rainy season. Whale-shark season at Gladden Spit is March-June, with most encounters April-May.
MONEY: Belize dollar.
PRICES: Return flights from UK around £800. Almond Beach charges £135 per room per night, and £165pp for a two-tank whale-shark dive. Victoria House has a five-night full-board diving package of £2000 per couple.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.travelbelize.org