Paddling, Snorkeling and SUPing the Coral Reefs of Glover’s Atoll with Island Expeditions
Earlier this month, I was given the opportunity to travel to Glover’s Reef Atoll - a protected marine park and UN world heritage site thirty-six miles off the shore of mainland Belize with Island Expeditions. I spent the days paddling, snorkeling and exploring the surrounding reefs and crystal blue seas. It was unlike any adventure I had ever been on.
Off To Sea
The boat ride made me realize just how far out we were going. Over an hour, full speed, straight out to sea. Slowly you could see small patches of land popping up out of the endless sea. As we approached the islands, the water transformed from ink to bright blue. We had arrived at our home of the next few days, Glover’s Reef Atoll. There were blue skies and good vibes were in the air. As soon as we stepped off the boat we were on island time.
Almost immediately we started to get ready for our first adventure. But before we paddled out on our first trip we had to do a little housekeeping. We had an intro to the camp, intro to the kayaks and SUPs, and a quick wet exit and re-entry lesson and practice that immediately followed.
We grabbed our snorkeling gear and hopped in our kayaks and on our SUPs to go to a close patch reef to get in a quick snorkel before dinner. We jumped out of our boats and into the water to get our first glimpse of a Belizean reef. It was amazing, we spent the next hour following one of our guides around a patch reef. We would swim 20 feet, he would spot a fish and point it out. Everyone would pop up above the surface - he would tell us the name of the fish and a quick few fun fact and then we would repeat. We saw rays, held sea slugs and were introduced to hundreds of fish species we never even knew existed. After a full lap around this reef we swam back to our boats, jumped back in them and headed back to camp for a well deserved dinner. Dinner was served and soon after I felt my bed calling. After all, we were on island time, 8pm feels like 11pm.
I woke up to the sea breeze and the sound of waves. The sun was just beginning to rise and the smell of coffee was rolling through the camp. A few of the group were heading out to the end of the dock with their yoga mats to start their day with a peaceful sunrise yoga session. I decided that coffee and a good book were more my speed. Watching the sunrise over a seemingly endless, still ocean brought a sense of calm and peace. After an hour or so of reading, reflection on the previous day and anticipation of the coming day, the conch was blown and breakfast was served: endless homemade banana bread pancakes, bacon and fresh fruit.
After eating more pancakes than anyone really should, we decided what activities we wanted to do for the day. The morning adventure was going to be a paddle over to known snorkel spot and the afternoon adventure would be more exploratory. In the afternoon we were going to take the boat to the west side of the atoll and find some new waters to snorkel and explore. But before we headed out on our morning activity one of our guides had a quick class on the country of Belize. It was like reading a ‘Guide to Belize’ book in 20 minutes! Here’s a quick recap:
- Belize is a commonwealth country.
- Belize‘s official language is English (but I mostly heard Creole while I was on the mainland).
- Belize has the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef running the full length of the country, which is one of the largest reef systems in the world.
- Belize is home to 3 of the 4 Atoll’s in the Western Hemisphere.
- Belize has one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with their reef and Atolls - over 90% of their reefs is still to be researched and it is estimated only 10% of the species have been discovered.
- .. and about 100 more facts, but this is what I remembered.
After our introduction to everything Belize we started to get ready for our morning activity, which basically meant putting on a ton of sunscreen and finding a way to cover ourselves from the sun. We were in for a hot day. My best guess is that it was around 90 and sunny, but when you're out on the water there is no way to escape the sun, so we had to be prepared for everything. This morning activity we split the group in two, one was going to paddle around the Island a few miles and anchor and hit a well known patch reef there and the other group was going to take the boat and visit another popular site. I naturally chose the paddling route.
Snorkeling out of your kayak is really something I never even thought of doing before this trip. I am normally paddling in cold water with really nothing to see underneath the surface other than rocks and seaweed. But, because of this trip, I have a new favorite outdoor activity. There is nothing better than paddling out looking into a beautiful landscape and then dropping an anchor putting on your mask and fins and falling out of your boat to be immersed in a completely different world than the one you were just in. It’s surreal.
Unlike most other snorkeling I have done in my life where I followed a guide on almost a tour of the reef this was so much different. It was completely exploratory. We all stuck together but were separated. You could experience the reef how you wanted to and if you ever had a question about a coral or fish species, you could just pop your head up out of the water and ask the guide. I am confident that the Island Expeditions guides know every type of species in Belize, coral and fish. Not once were they unable to identify what I was looking at.
On this particular snorkel we were lucky enough to see a plethora of sea creatures. We saw sharks, rays and turtles! Once again, it was completely unlike all the other snorkeling I have ever done. These reefs were teeming with life. There were thousands and thousands of fish, with fish of every color shape and size. It’s no wonder Belize is one of the top diving and snorkeling locations in the world. And after an hour or two we were sufficiently exhausted so we swam back over to our kayaks, hopped back in and paddled back to camp.
After an amazing lunch to refill our energy we were given a little time to relax and let the food settle before heading out for another adventure.
This time we took the boat. We raced across the atoll on perfectly flat water, gliding over patch reef after patch reef until we reached the far west wall of the atoll. We anchored the boat and everyone jumped out. I thought the last snorkel had been exploratory but this was even more so. It was amazing. We all were with a partner and were giving absolute free range to explore whatever we wanted.
My partner and I were in the hunt, perpetually looking for lionfish to spear and lobsters to catch. We dove down to leave every nook and cranny of each complex coral structure discovered. It was such a blast. Being 20ft underwater looking for a poisonous invasive species to spear brings out such a primal joy. I felt like I was a hunter. We spent a couple hours in the water and then headed back to camp for the night. Happy hour was appetizers of all we had caught from the day which consisted of conch, lionfish and lobster. It was all so good! Dinner was more of the same; fresh fruit, fresh fish and fresh bread.
At this point it was dark and every star in the galaxy seemed to be shining bright. After a Belikin and a game or two, I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I went back to my cozy cabana and hit the sack.
The next day started much like the day before, the ocean was still, the coffee was hot and my book was exactly what I needed, except this morning I also joined the yogis for a sunrise yoga session at the end of the dock. Following yoga, breakfast was served. And after breakfast, much like the day before, we discussed what we wanted to do for the rest of the day. As a group we decided that we wanted to go fishing and then paddling and snorkeling.
We all headed down to the boat with as much sun cover as we could. We all knew we would be out for a few hours and if yesterday was hot and calm, today was hotter and calmer. It was a gorgeous day and the water was the clearest I’ve ever seen. You could easily see 50-60 ft down as if it were 5ft as we were soaring across the atoll. We soon came to a stop over a patch reef and were handed various objects that had a line wrapped around it with a hook and a weight at the end of it. Mine was a foam block. We baited our hooks and lowered them over the sides.
On our way over to fish, our guides kept on saying “We are going catching, then we are going fishing.” and I was slightly confused but now I know why. Handlining over a patch reef will turn anyone into a fisherman. Almost as soon as your bait made it to the bottom, you could feel fish nibbling and, if you had the right touch, you could hook them almost as fast as you could pull up and lower your line. We caught all different types of fish; yellow, red, silver and orange. It was a riot! We kept fish that were either big enough to eat or good bait for later in the day and threw back the others. We were out “catching” for about an hour or so and most likely caught 100+ fish. We ended up keeping 20 or so.
For the second half of our fishing trip we graduated from “catching” to “fishing”. Our guide took some of the fish we just caught and filleted them to make them look like a little squid. We then threw it on a big hook, started trolling and lowered two lines off the back about 150ft behind the boat. We were still handlining but now we had a thicker line and an industrial coil that held the line. We took turns manning the lines, jigging the bait as we slowly trolled the edges of reefs and the atoll. I happened to be manning the line when we hooked a barracuda. I pulled him in hand over hand and before we knew it, we had our dinner's main course!
We headed back to camp to rehydrate, find some shade and eat lunch, which was more fresh fish and more fresh fruit. I swear I could live off of their food for the rest of my life. It was absolutely amazing.
We let our food digest and sunscreen soak in for an hour or so and then headed out for another adventure. This time we took the kayaks. We paddled for a while and got all the way to the west wall of the atoll and to a place the guides had not yet explored. At this time it was late afternoon, which I found out is the best time to go hunting. We grabbed the spears and jumped underwater.
We were near where the atoll dropped off to the depths so the water was a little deeper but, because of the amazing weather and conditions, the water was crystal clear. Almost immediately we found a 6ft long eel, which was one of the craziest thing I have seen in my life. Then slowly as we explored patches of coral surrounded by perfectly white sand, we kept on finding lionfish. We spent the next couple hours exploring and hunting and ended up getting 10 or so lionfish, which I found out was very, very good day for hunting. Altogether this dive was one of the most fun experiences I have ever had.
The sun was starting to lower so we jumped back into our kayaks and headed back. On our way back we stopped at a neighboring island with a phenomenal view of the sunset and were met with cold beer and a fresh appetizer. We sat on the white sand beach while part of the group did yoga and watched the sun slowly fall under the endless sea in a splash of reds, pinks and purples. The perfect end to a perfect day.
I spoke too soon. After the sunset we still had to paddle back to the camp, and by that time the stars had exploded above us. It should have only taken 10 minutes to paddle back but instead it took over 30 minutes. I kept on just floating and looking up the stars on the back deck of my boat taking it all in; the splendor above me, the slight waves below me and the sounds of the ocean around me. It is something I will never forget.
After arguably one of the most fun days of my life, we all met back up for dinner and ate amazing food, including the fresh barracuda from that morning. And just like the night before, the day ended with beer, some games and reflection on the day we just had. After hours on the water and hours in the water, I was exhausted. I headed to bed excited for what tomorrow had in store.
This morning was a little different than the previous. For the first time since I arrived, the wind had turned up and I could see the potential force of the sea surrounding us. It was our last day on Southwest Caye and unfortunately we were leaving in just a short few hours. We had morning yoga, coffee and breakfast.
The last few days of adventure had tired us all out so we opted for a more chill morning. So a class was held by one of the guides, a Belizean, on everything there is to know about coconuts. We learned the different stages of development, how to tell ripeness, how to open them, how to process them, how to turn them into oil, how to cook them. It was amazing. The coconut has been a staple of the Belizeans for hundreds of years and it was amazing to see how they have been utilized over the years.
Before we knew it we were packing up our gear and saying our goodbyes. The boat was on its way with another group of eager adventures and it was time to say goodbye to this paradise.
More About The Trip
Island Expeditions offers all-inclusive small group guided adventures showcasing the best of Belize. They have been guiding paddling and snorkeling in Belize for over 30 years. They take guests to spectacular locations - including their adventure Basecamps on Glover’s Reef and Lighthouse Reef Atoll. You can view all of their trips HERE.