Best Shark Ray Alley + Hol Chan Snorkeling Tour: Full Review!
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 at Shark Ray Alley in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. We have snorkeled all over the world, and this is one of the best! 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
RATING: 🤿 🤿 🤿 🤿 🤿
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.
OVERALL SNORKEL RATING KEY
🤿 🤿 🤿 🤿 🤿 = World-class snorkeling and worth traveling just for the snorkeling alone!
🤿 🤿 🤿 🤿 = Incredible snorkeling and should be on your list of top things to do!
🤿 🤿 🤿 = Decent snorkeling and worth the effort!
🤿 🤿 = Worth consideration if you are running out of things to do!
🤿 = Not worth it!
How to Get to Shark Ray Alley
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
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
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
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
Best 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.
If you are staying in Cay Caulker, consider this highly-rated tour with Salt Life Eco Tours.
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.
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 Trip Report
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.
Curious stingray at Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize
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.
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
SPOTTED EAGLE RAY
Spotted eagle ray at Hol Chan Marine Reserve
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.
Lone nurse shark at Hol Chan
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.
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 nurse sharks at Shark Ray Alley
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.
Horse-eye jacks at Shark Ray Alley in Belize
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.
A pair of four-eyed butterflyfish at Hol Chan Marine Reserve
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.
Sergeant majors at Hol Chan
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.
BLUE STRIPED GRUNT FISH
Blue striped grunt fish at Hol Chan
These fish love to hang out over coral. The adults hang out in big schools, which makes them fun to swim through.
Swimming through a school of blue striped grunt fish at Hol Chan in Belize
Juvenile spotlight parrotfish in Hol Chan
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.
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.
Adult spotlight parrotfish in Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize
Barracuda in the distance at Hol Chan in Belize
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.
Beautiful coral at Hol Chan Marine Reserve
We snorkeled around some gorgeous sections of coral, which included sea fans, brain coral, elk horn, and soft coral.
Caye Caulker: Optional Snorkeling Stop
We did the 1/2 day snorkeling tour to Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley.
If you are staying in Caye Caulker, Salt Life Eco Tours offers a fantastic snorkeling tour to Hol Chan + Shark Ray Alley + Caye Caulker (swim with manatees too!) + local Belizean lunch.
My husband and I visited Caye Caulker on a separate day. You can take an express water taxi to visit this island for the day. There are several fun things to do on a day trip (like seeing a seahorse!)
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
Final Thoughts on Shark Ray Alley
We have had some incredible snorkeling adventures over the years including the Maldives and St. John USVI, 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.
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Questions about our snorkeling experience at Shark Ray Alley? Any other cool snorkeling spots in Belize you would recommend?
Let me know in the comments below!