The Meso American Barrier Reef

La ChimeneaLa Chimenea

Six kilometres north of the Belize Border, the Mesoamerican barrier reef comes close to the short of the Yucatan peninsula. Little known to divers and tourists this secret location plays host to a series of magnificient dive sites.

Words and pictures by Raf Jah

A long sandy track runs beside the sea, backed by small houses. A row of dirty pangas, local fibreglass skiffs, sit along the beach. A dog wanders sedately past an old but functional shipping beacon. A few children ride by on their tiny cycles and a military truck grumbles down the sand with a barrel of fuel in it. This is the village of Xcalak, the last settlement before the start of what was once British Honduras. Now called the nation of Belize- which lies 6 miles to the south. Fishing has been the life of the community of Xcalak for over a century. In the first half of the 20th century, Xcalak was a prosperous town. A thriving coconut and fishing business created wealth and attracted traders. Shops, a cinema, ice factory and electric generation plant and numerous other facilities caused the town to thrive. But in 1955 Hurricane Janet devastated the town. Many people lost their lives and many of the business owning families who had inhabited the town, moved inland away from the risk.

Xcalak means “twins” in Mayan. This was the name given to the two cuts (passages) that lie in front of the village. These passages gave the villagers access to the sea. The River Bacalar Chico river gives access to the giant Chetumal bay. This bay behind causes Xcalak to be a peninsula, with a swamp to the north, Belize 7 miles away to the south the Caribbean sea on one side and the bay on the other. 250 people live in Xcalak and it is today what it was before the early 20th century boom- a sleepy fishing village with a few local shops, a small concrete jetty, a harbour master and park office. The Mexican Marines have a small base a mile north of the Belize border and a tiny post within the town. A lighthouse stands on the sand to the south of town blinking a warning to passing ships. The Chinchorro bank sits 20 miles off shore, part of the Meso American Barrier Reef – a salutary home to many ships who’s masters failed to read their charts.

The top of the meso american reef

Since my youth I was told about the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Twenty years ago, I was lucky enough to learn to dive on it. Now, a generation later, I find myself on its shorter cousin. The Meso American (Barrier) Reef stretches 600 miles from the coast of Honduras up to Mexico. As our panga, speeds out through the reef cut, I feel a certain affinity with this barrier reef, it reminds me of my first diving experiences. And yet the Meso American Reef is so different. Seconds after Captain Moi opens the throttles full, he backs off the power and we arrive at our dive site. Bobbing around 500 metres from land, we are on the barrier reef. Sea grass waves visibly on one side of the reef, and just beyond, we have stopped over 60 foot clear blue water and finger like reef formations; we are about to dive, and yet I can clearly see mangroves. Compare this to twenty miles in Australia.

A Spanish architect on permanent sabbatical is our guide. Named Jesus, he tolerates my diving habits. I fall back into the water, making a large splash, I grab my camera and fin down to 40feet. The water is warm at 27’c and I have exactly enough weight to keep my aluminium cylinder down. I do not need to add air to my BCD, but I need to kick down. A school of spadefish sits in the slight current and wait. I swim gently up to them and my camera flash fires. I am using an old Patima G11 housing that has seen better days. Thanks to some thieves it now houses a G12, which while not ideal, seems to work. After a bit of fiddling I fire again. The boat comes back overhead and the last diver, Jesus, drops into the water. I look above me and see Cisca and i-Mike Alt descending with a delightful retired American scientist called Cathy.

Scotts Playground

Some spadefish circle me in a mesmerising manner. I wander off to look at them. The 40ft deep water did not cause me any stress. The others took to looking at their own piece of reef and staring at a school of hubbs. Jesus rounds us up like sheet and gives me a direction to head in. An pipefish pops his head out of the sand and I snap his photo. He ducks back inside his hole.

We round the corner of one of the fingers and I stare at the green plants that cover the rock. At first they seem colourless, but upon inspection the plants play home to gobies, lobsters and small yellow snapper. Jesus motions forward excitedly and points. I look through the blue into the white sand between the reef fingers. A large black stingray shuffles sand from under himself. As I approach, he sees me and swims lazily away. My camera flash just captures his movement and he settles nicely in the rock “alley” next door. His sting has gone, “eaten” gestures Jesus using the underwater language of sign. I wonder what would be big enough and immune enough to bite off a sting that size- “only a shark” I mutter through my regulator.

At first glance, the reef is not an eye stopping red coral affair. It is made up of walls, coral heads, cuts and spits that resemble fingers. The water is clear, and the scenery pretty, but the reef seems brown. I wonder if there is any coral at all. But when I get closer, I see the soft whips and hard brain coral, that shine in my torch- red and green, surrounded by sponges and hundreds of soft waving fan like corals. Each has a beautiful red base. And then while admiring these; a large school of porkfish will slide by, circling me for minutes until they decide to move on. Beyond the reef, small turtles scuttle by. A lone barracuda sits in the water staring at me. My flash fires, and he does not move. Slowly, ever so slowly, he turns sideways on to me, only 3 feet away and eyeballs me. Then, without a care in the world he wanders off.

jacks flash by

The Meso American Barrier reef is very different to the Indian Ocean, where I live. There are few nudibranches, there is an infestation of lion fish, and tabula acropora is thin on the ground. And yet we see dugongs, huge schools of snapper and silversides. At the Chimenea we dive a cenote within the barrier reef itself. Entering from the outside of the wall at 91 feet, we swim though a large tunnel. The top of the cenote has fallen through making for an eerie cave with a pile of rubble in the centre. But the hole in the top lights the centre of the hole with a delightful blue haze. The clear water reveals a fat barracuda sitting close to the ceiling and a school of big eyed jacks that approach and swirl around me before choosing to bother the other divers their exit. When we exit, we do so through another thin chimney that is full of silversides. Mike kicks up the dust but still the view is clear. We return to do our safety stop with few minutes before decompression. We climb on board and Jesus gives a command to the Captain. He powers off along the reef itself and then enters a cut or passage in the reef. The Mexicans call this an entrada. We power between the coral heads and then swing to our left and continue inside the reef at a sedate pace. Entering the mangroves, we slow to a crawl. The Captain drops us in a small bay twenty yards wide. A passage within the mangroves leads left and right.

“This is where we see Dugongs” says Jesus. “Oh and this” he points to the southern trees inches from his fingers “is Belize and this “ he points five yards to the north “is Mexico”

“This is the border”

“sure, dive boats from both sides come here for tea and water between dives. “


Properly degassed, we enter the tunnels of Alexandros playground. This is a series of long swim throughs nearby the collapsed Cenote. It is famous for its large schools of tarpon that swirl around minding their own business. Large menacing fish, they come at us in the restricted space of the tunnel- the heart flutters slightly as the 4 foot long fish bare their teeth- and then they are over us. Gone. We swim through a final tunnel and pop out onto the reef wall. Strangely this is the most vibrant section. The outside and the top of the wall contain some of the most intricate gobies, orange and yellow along with the now obligatory barracuda and yellow snapper. I drop down to 70 feet and swim along the lines of soft waving whip like corals. Cisca spots a green moray eel. A massive morray pokes his head out

It is huge- and sits at 50 feet. Fully outside its hole, the serpent like creature looks menacing as a cleaner shrimp takes the muck from its mouth. I keep my distance and let the camera flash fire. The moray looks at me – and I wait a few seconds before firing again. And then my gas is low, and time is short. We ascend as a trio and I twist the bezel on my Momentum dive watch to set the first stop. The chamber is a long drive away- and so I do a long – double depth – safety stop. On the stop I notice the hard coral formations that sit on top of the reef at 15-20 feet. As we surface the Moi is waiting. He manoeuvres the panga expertly and hauls our equipment over the side a current is running but he is not fazed. Soon we are all in the boat and speeding back to base for coffee and a shower.

Batfish swirl around me