Turneffe Atoll offers spectacular vertical walls, lush coral reefs, dolphins and a perfusion of marine life Standing on the deck of a boat, I gaze out at the low-lying mangrove islands that dot the edge of the horizon. Farther out are the reefs and drop-offs that lure divers with a menagerie of marine life. This biological profusion that climaxes on the outer reefs originates just beneath our boat. Snorkelers investigating the emerald clear waters of the inner lagoons at Turneffe Islands Atoll can find scores of juvenile fish thriving in these shallows. The mangrove islands and massive lagoons serve as a productive marine nursery, which is why Turneffe Islands Atoll is regarded as the marine life capital of Belize. Besides boasting the longest barrier reef this side of Australia, Belize is home to three of the four coral atolls found throughout the Caribbean. These atolls rest upon the outer edges of a series of slowly sinking fault zones that fall away from the mainland like a descending set of steps. Turneffe is the closest atoll to shore and by far the largest of the three, measuring about 20 miles in length and up to 10 miles in width. Though Turneffe is teeming with marine life, the underwater visibility that averages 80 to 100 feet isn't quite as good as that found at Lighthouse Atoll and Glover's Atoll. But most divers don't seem to mind. There is excellent diving on all sides of the Turneffe atoll, and the area is known among divers for unforgettable encounters with schools of pelagics, pods of dolphins and, occasionally, whale sharks, reef sharks, manta rays and even schools of killer whales. A series of spectacular dive sites are found along the northwest side of the atoll, which is only about a 45-minute boat ride from Belize City. These sites include Chasbo's Corner, Mandy's Dandy, Terrace and Tunnels and Barrels. The wall at the Terrace begins in 45 feet of water and stair-steps to shelves at 100 feet, 120 feet, 135 feet and deeper. From 50 to 100 feet are branches and bushes of three different varieties of black coral in whitish, reddish and blackish hues. The overgrown spur-and-groove formation at Tunnels and Barrels features numerous swim-throughs and fields of barrel sponges. This is where I first encountered the lined toadfish, a zebra-striped bottom dweller indigenous to Belize. At the southern end of Turneffe is a spot known as Permit Paradise that includes the combination of an arch, swim-through and huge coral heads looming from a sloping bottom. Schooling permits and horse-eyed jacks are often seen here. The southeast is an area of high-energy dive sites. Myrtle's Turtles has a massive spur-and-groove reef that drops to 120 feet. The diving climax here is found at the Elbow - a mixing bowl of marine life and the top of the food chain at Turneffe. Surrounding the deep reef and continuing out into the seemingly bottomless deep blue are uncountable grouper and snapper, dense schools of jacks and often dozens of marauding reef sharks. The action continues to the east with spots like Lindsey's Back Porch, an awesome wall that begins in 70 feet of water where whale sharks and killer whales have recently been sighted. Further north along the east side is Sheer Delight, which has groves of black coral trees and a resident 9-inch seahorse, and Daniels' Dip, a 50- to 60-foot wall decorated with yellow tube sponges where garden eels, blue parrot fish and southern stingrays frolic. For more information about living on, and diving from, Turneffe Islands Atoll, click on the home page below. For more information about diving Turneffe Islands Atoll from the Belize mainland, click on this home page. For general information about visiting Belize, click on the Tourism page below.
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