Snorkeling with nurse sharks at Shark Ray Alley in Belize

Complete Guide to Snorkeling at Shark Ray Alley + Hol Chan in Belize

Last updated Apr 10, 2022 | Belize, Outdoor

If you go to Belize and miss snorkeling at the world’s second largest coral reef system, that is like going to Peru and skipping Machu Picchu. That’s craziness. You CANNOT miss this amazing snorkeling experience. One of the best sections of the reef is Shark Ray Alley in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. I will walk you through our incredible underwater experience to give you an idea of what to expect.

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My Snorkel Rating of Shark Ray Alley

SNORKEL RATING

5 out of 5 snorkel icon

Yes, I wholeheartedly give Shark Ray Alley 5 out of 5 snorkels! It is worth planning a vacation around. 

I created my own snorkel rating system to help differentiate all the snorkeling sites we have checked out from around the world. All of my snorkeling blog posts will have a rating at the top of the post. Please see the key below.

Snorkel rating key

Snorkel Rating Key

Shark Ray Alley Map & How to Get There

First things first. Let’s get you oriented. A visit to Shark Ray Alley requires a 14-minute baby plane ride from Belize City to the island of Ambergris Caye. Then you take a boat ride with a licensed tour operator to the reef. So there is a little effort involved. 

Flying Tropic Air from Belize City to Ambergris Caye

Flying Tropic Air from Belize City to Ambergris Caye

And when I say a baby plane ride, I mean it. The plane was maybe 5-6 rows deep in a 2 x 1 people configuration. If you were sitting in the front, you could have touched the pilot. It reminded me of the seaplane ride we took when in the Maldives. Luckily, our ride was smooth and uneventful. 

Flying in a little plane from Belize City to Ambergris Caye

Flying in a little plane from Belize City to Ambergris Caye

Taking the short flight to Ambergris Caye Belize

Taking the short flight to Ambergris Caye, Belize

Hol Chan Marine Reserve is located off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye and is made up of coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests. Hol Chan means “little channel” in the Mayan language and is used to describe the natural break in the reef. This is where the popular snorkeling spots are located. The reef was established as a marine protected area in 1987 due to environmentalists’ efforts. 

Why am I telling you all of this? 

Because Shark Ray Alley is located within this protected marine reserve. 

Hol Chan Marine Reserve Map

Hol Chan Marine Reserve Map

There are 4 zones in Hol Chan: 

Zone A: inside/outside the reef

Zone B: seagrass beds

Zone C: mangrove habitat  

Zone D: Shark Ray Alley

Which Company to Pick for Your Shark Ray Alley Snorkeling Tour 

I HATE big snorkeling tour groups. The last time we did one was in 2009 when we snorkeled at Stingray City in Grand Cayman. Fins in the face, people bumping you, constant water bubbles blocking your view. Ugh. No more. 

Some snorkeling experiences though will require a licensed tour operator. I now always look for either private or small group tours. This will make the difference between either being miserable or having the best underwater experience of your life! 

After extensive research, we settled on Under Da Sea Adventures. It was only myself, my husband, and our fantastic tour guide, Noel. Noel was born and raised in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. He has a wealth of knowledge and expertly guided us around the reef, pointing out all the cool marine life.

Our awesome snorkeling guide Noel from Under Da Sea Adventures in Belize

Our awesome snorkeling guide, Noel, from Under Da Sea Adventures 

Noel met us right at our hotel’s pier. We stayed at the Banyan Bay Suites, which was taken over by Marriott. It has now been beautifully renovated and is now called Alaia Belize, Autograph Collection. 

Hotel pier in Belize

Meeting point for our tour: Our hotel pier

We left at 8 am to avoid most of the tour boats and stopped at several different snorkeling spots. Most of the sites we had all to ourselves. At Shark Ray Alley, there were a few other boats but plenty of sharks and rays to share without being on top of each other. 

Shark Ray Alley Snorkeling Tour Experience

Alright, now to the good stuff! What did we see? Or what I should say … what did we NOT see? Be prepared for an UNDERWATER ZOO. 

STINGRAY

We saw quite a few stingrays in the seagrass beds. They are beautiful swimmers using their pectoral fins to gracefully maneuver around the water as they munch on things like mollusks. 

Curious stingray at Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize

Curious stingray at Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize

Don’t worry. Fatal stings like the death of Steve Irwin are very rare.  Stingrays usually mind their own business unless you make them mad … like if you step on them. Don’t step on them.

Many stingrays hanging out in the seagrass beds in Hol Chan in Belize

Many stingrays hanging out in the seagrass beds in Hol Chan 

SPOTTED EAGLE RAY

The spotted eagle ray is yet another beautiful cartilaginous fish. We saw a few lone spotted eagle rays in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, but we have seen them swim in groups in Bora Bora. They tend to be shy and move on quickly once spotted. 

With its multiple beautiful white rings, the spotted eagle ray is a sexy-looking fish. Reminds me of a leopard, which was one of my favorite animals we saw when we went on safari in South Africa. We saw two spotted eagle rays while on our snorkeling tour. 

A spotted eagle ray at Hol Chan in Belize

Spotted eagle ray at Hol Chan Marine Reserve 

NURSE SHARK

The nurse shark is truly the star of the show. Known as the puppy dogs of the sea, these slow-moving sharks typically chill out under coral reefs during the day and hunt at night. 

They are usually harmless, but they can leave you with a painful bite if they mistake you for food or if they are provoked. Although you are dying to get that amazing Instagram shot, make sure to give them space or you risk what happened to this model in the Bahamas.

The water is shallow and clear, making it easy to see these amazing creatures up close. 

Lone nurse shark at Hol Chan in Belize

Lone nurse shark at Hol Chan 

We saw a few nurse sharks at Waterlemon Cay while snorkeling in St. John U.S. Virgin Islands, but I have never seen a whole school of nurse sharks at close range like this. This was certainly one of the more unique snorkeling experiences we have done. 

Snorkeling with a school of sharks at Shark Ray Alley in Belize

Snorkeling with a school of nurse sharks at Shark Ray Alley 

Incredible snorkeling with nurse sharks at Shark Ray Alley in Belize

More nurse sharks at Shark Ray Alley 

BACKSTORY: Why do these nurse sharks congregate in Shark Ray Alley? The story is fishermen used to fish right outside the barrier reef. They would come back through the channel and then park their boat to clean their catch and throw the fish heads in the water. Now, the nurse sharks associate the engine sound with food. 

Snorkeling in shallow water with nurse sharks at Shark Ray Alley

Snorkeling in shallow water with nurse sharks at Shark Ray Alley

Can’t get enough of sharks? Then also check out our cage diving experience with great white sharks in South Africa! 

HORSE-EYE JACK 

If these fish could talk, I feel like they would be saying “Hey, want to play? Come on, let’s play.” These large schools of horse-eye jacks were not shy. As soon as we jumped in the water in Shark Ray Alley, they were right up on us begging for attention with their big eyes. 

Horse eye jack at Shark Ray Alley in Belize

Horse-eye jacks at Shark Ray Alley in Belize

FOUR-EYED BUTTERFLYFISH

We also saw these beautiful tropical fish while snorkeling in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. You will usually see four-eyed butterflyfish in pairs since they mate for life. It is thought their second “fake-out” eye located on their back end may confuse predators. 

Four-eyed butterflyfish at Hol Chan Marine Reserve

A pair of four-eyed butterflyfish at Hol Chan Marine Reserve

SERGEANT MAJOR

I feel like we see these fish everywhere we snorkel. In addition to Belize, we also saw quite a few sergeant majors while snorkeling under the Frederiksted Pier in St. Croix U.S. Virgin Islands. Their brightly striped bodies are said to resemble the insignia of a military sergeant major. Hence, the name. 

Sergeant majors at Hol Chan in Belize

Sergeant majors at Hol Chan

BLUE STRIPED GRUNT FISH 

These fish love to hang out over coral. The adults hang out in big schools, which makes them fun to swim through.

Blue striped grunt fish at Hol Chan in Belize

Blue striped grunt fish at Hol Chan

Swimming through a school of blue striped grunt fish at Hol Chan in Belize

Swimming through a school of blue striped grunt fish at Hol Chan in Belize

SPOTLIGHT PARROTFISH

Parrotfish are gorgeous! Their incredibly vibrant colors really stand out in the open water. Their name comes from their beak-like mouth. An interesting fact is they have some of the strongest teeth in the world!  These teeth are used to munch on the coral and remove the algae, which keeps the reef clean. The coral they consume is then pooped out as sand. Supposedly, a large parrotfish can poop out 1,000 (yes, 1,000) pounds of sand a year!

I just found out spotlight parrotfish change color and sex as they mature. Initially, they have brown bodies with red/orange bellies. During the terminal phase, they turn bright green when they become a male. Not all males change color though. It’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s the gist. 

Spotlight parrotfish in Hol Chan

Juvenile spotlight parrotfish in Hol Chan

Adult spotlight parrotfish in Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize

Adult spotlight parrotfish in Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize

BARRACUDA

I used to be terrified of these torpedo-shaped, mean-looking fish. Now that I have snorkeled around several of these fish, I have become much calmer. They really do not bother you. Just don’t wear shiny jewelry or a glittery bathing suit! Trust me, you will be inviting attention you do not want.

Barracuda in the distance at Hol Chan in Belize

Barracuda in the distance at Hol Chan in Belize

BEAUTIFUL CORAL 

We snorkeling around some gorgeous sections of coral, which included sea fans, brain coral, elk horn, and soft coral. 

Beautiful coral at Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Beautiful coral at Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Caye Caulker: Optional Snorkeling Stop 

We did the 1/2 day snorkeling tour to Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley, but Under Da Sea Adventures also offers a full-day tour. This tour includes Hol Chan + Shark Ray Alley + Caye Caulker. The Caye Caulker part includes tarpon feeding and a seahorse sanctuary. 

My husband and I visited Caye Caulker on a separate day. You can actually take an express water taxi to visit this island for the day. 

Belize water taxi to Caye Caulker

Belize water taxi to Caye Caulker

The highlight of visiting Caye Caulker was seeing a seahorse! I had to wiggle and contort my body underneath a pier to see this tiny little creature hanging on a rope. It was incredible to see it in person! 

Seahorse at Caye Culker in Belize

Sorry for the bad quality of the photo … so cool to see this little creature up close 

What Snorkeling Gear to Bring 

Having the right gear can make or break your snorkeling experience. If you love to snorkel, I would strongly advise bringing your own equipment. Get fitted at your local dive shop. Here is a list of all the snorkeling gear I bring on my underwater trips. 

Snorkeling in Belize at Hol Chan

Snorkeling in Belize at Hol Chan

Final Thoughts on Shark Ray Alley

We have had some incredible snorkeling adventures over the years, and snorkeling at Shark Ray Alley was definitely one of our top experiences! It is well worth the effort to get there. Go with a private or a small group tour and get ready to experience a snorkeling trip of a lifetime. 

Belize written on the sandy floor of Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Belize written on the sandy floor of Hol Chan Marine Reserve

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Have you snorkeled Shark Ray Alley? Any other cool snorkeling spots in Belize you would recommend?

Let me know in the comments below!

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